Saturday 12 February 2011


Relatively little thought is given to the notion of deconversion. I first came across the idea, indeed developed the idea in my head, having attended some Sea of Faith conferences and events. The idea has resurfaced after the wide variety of responses to the question of What is the Gospel that has been running from and around some blogs.

How does deconversion happen? It can happen gradually, or in a flash, or it happens in a flash as an endpoint to what has been going on gradually.

It happens in theological colleges. I've seen it. Students go in full of the joys of evangelical spring, only to find that their assumptions get torn apart by the tutors. A Baptist ordinand said to me, in Luther King House, "I thought the enemy was outside but they are in here." He meant the staff.

It happened in my case before the concept in that having come into Christianity via John A. T. Robinson and Paul Tillich I realised that Paul Tillich and all that existential language was a closed system that paralleled the Christian language. It was for people already 'in' who wanted to communicate to the existential and secular world. This was just systematic theology and, I've subsequently learnt, not quite of the position even of John Robinson, who was anti the system of Thomas Aquinas and supposed power - that is in a system - in favour of a closer God of a more open biblical narrative.

Now it could be argued that I was never really 'in', but nevertheless there was a moment when my 'translating the liturgy' to existentialism (Ultimate Goodness, Being, New Being) failed and I realised there was nothing in it equating to my thought-forms. At this time I was in the process of considering becoming a Anglican ordinand. I sort of carried on but then rode both Unitarian and Anglican horses at the same time until making a decision for the Unitarian.

Fifteen plus years on I tried postmodern strategies for diving into Anglican liturgical life, none of which were sustainable. I decided during my decline within the last Anglican encounter that it would be the last encounter, whether or not I continue with the Unitarians.

I have developed sensors which detect all the strategies of preaching that involve levels of doublespeak, of people who use Christian language to appear more orthodox than they are. I can also detect this in written material. I don't wish to be arrogant, but I know the weak points and if you try any such argument on with me I'll be in by the nearest entry point.

This is nothing to do with the 'New Atheism' or any of that; rather, it is to do with people who can engage with sophisticated theology.

A few Facebook friends are going through an ordinand process where they are being sold all kinds of postliberal and postmodern theology, all of which when alone can fall apart. Some of the levels of theological excitement remind me of cartoon characters who have run off the top of a cliff and are running furiously. They stay up for a few moments and then plunge. Many seem to me to be there during the staying up moments.

Not all deconversions are so thoroughgoing, and what saves many an ordinand is their own background. It matters if they went through Sunday School and have always had that Christian upbringing. Their brain is wired up to help. It can also matter if they had a thoroughgoing conversion that created an emotional anchor and dependency. That latter, however, might not be enough.

It also matters, it really does, if you were brought up agnostic and your basic thought patterns are of the sociology of knowledge that most of us assume today. This does not mean sophisticated ideological discourse, but what constitutes those basic assumptions in every day life. The every day involves a basic scientific outlook and the notion that technology solves problems, and that the world is ours to improve or ruin. For example, we don't ask what God is going to do regarding the seasons of the weather, but look at the weather forecaster and the charts.

The problem with Christianity is that it involves the supernatural and is science-like and history-like, and in terms of its figure of salvation, biography-like. Its science-like aspect involves virgin births and dead bodies (or at least one) coming back to life in transformed bodies. Some of it has pure and perpetual virginity for the salvation figure's mum. In being history-like, it frequently forgets that absolutely all of its key texts are secondary in terms of historical material: they are primary only in the sense that they were originally produced by the early Church full of early Church beliefs. To make them historical, as if primary, a fine sifting is needed and those like the Jesus Seminar can produce results that look half-dead and without motivation. I can say with the rest of them that the early Christian community escalated Jesus's titles. So what? They believed in all sorts of things. Thus with the history the biography is also lost: much of the Easter passion narratives simply don't stand up, for example, as the contained internal reasoning for 'what happens next' seems to fail. The actuality is that very little is known about Jesus; for example, he must have had some mission but, say, how long did it last? Was it three years, or more likely about a year? Here is a question: why is a year or so more likely?

The point is that anyone who has done the work knows all this, but of course their 'faith' decides that some things happened or have a kind of psychology of happening in a mythical-driving sense. Faith, however, makes not one jot of difference as regards what did or didn't happen. Ah, but, and sure, a historian would say it is not about what happens, but about the documents. Indeed so - the secondary communities' documents. But then so much Christianity becomes about the documents and the texts themselves. But when these texts themselves clash with the given texts of contemporary sociology of knowledge, there is the bizarre claim in a conserving postliberalism that the texts are 'performative' and have 'community-identity'. This is a cop-out! It is the equivalent of not having your cake and eating it.

The fact is that current sociology of knowledge involves naturalism and research. You use your textworld and test things, and they return results either quantitative-regular or qualitative-valid. Christianity does not do this; faith cannot - except to tell you what believers think.

Ask why is it that theology is forever raiding history, social science, science and philosophy for its content, and yet these other disciplines hardly ever bother to consult theology?

Now it doesn't matter if you are clerical or if you are lay: deconversion can happen to anyone.

You can still do sermons and still talk convincingly. You can put out theological options with a 'What do you think?' afterwards. The authors of the choices of options thus avoid what they think. You can do a Bible study, all internal and it sounds convincing - but it is of the book and not you. You can do a discussion of comparing options. You can live in some historical period, and dialogue as if from there, until you throw the light switch and the bulb comes on and your talk becomes everyday again. You can try to do a Tillich-like substitution of language, but this usually ends up in closed-off difficulties.

Now Catholics and Anglo-Catholics are slightly better protected in this matter than liberal Protestants. The Catholic can dress up, ritualise and talk about things like Benedictine spirituality and discipline. I like to use the question 'Why?' for such people. 'Why are you doing this?'

The liberal Protestant is much more naked. Affirming Liberalism is more on the edge, and whereas Affirming Catholicism affirms Catholicism in parts, Affirming Liberalism usually affirms some residual doctrines not liberalism.

Using the current sociology of knowledge is not the end of religion. It is secularisation but not necessarily secularism. You can still look at the wonder of science and the awe of the arts and ask if these signals of transcendence add up. Indeed you might remain convinced still that there is still a 'love' at the heart of the natural cosmos that can be called God (I'm not): you can still profess pantheism or panentheism (that God is a little more distinctive in its purposefulness than the sum of deifying the natural world).

You can still speak of the human spirit, of your behaviour and outlook, and what can be changed. You can still draw on figures inspired by religious texts. Gandhi is an excellent example. We can still read the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible and so on, but at a different standpoint - with much to be rejected. There are no unique saviours, no interventionist Gods, and no watertight tradition. There is a way to symbolise, using social anthropology and exchange-gift theory. A lot is possible, but it is not Christianity as a system. People get deconverted from Christianity.


June Butler said...

Adrian, you well know that I can't engage with you on the level of sophisticated theology, because I don't know enough. Still I was interested to read your account of your deconversion.

I experienced what I would call deconversion, not so much to a position of atheism, but rather to believing that if there was a god, that god had not much to do with us humans.

My deconversion was followed by a reconversion, which came through an experience, which was followed by 30 years of the continuing experience of the presence of God.

What I have for you is my story, which you may say is all delusion, and I would not contend with you. Still, as I see it, my life has been the better for my reconversion and what I believe to be the presence and action of God in my life.

Rev R Marszalek said...

A few Facebook friends are going through an ordinand process where they are being sold all kinds of postliberal and postmodern theology, all of which when alone can fall apart. Some of the levels of theological excitement remind me of cartoon characters who have run off the top of a cliff and are running furiously. They stay up for a few moments and then plunge. Many seem to me to be there during the staying up moments.

Emm - I wonder who you think that is.

Like Grandmere Mimi, Adrian, they can take the bible away from me, they can take the theology books down from my shelves, give my dog-collar to the next person and hide all the BCPs and CW s and ESVs that they are going to reform and reprint, I am still left in this relationship with a God whom I know and experience. I still live this supernatural life of things that I thought were only possible in fairy-tales. Dreams and healings and an angel language and sometimes this blast of 'I do not know what' from the Holy Spirit for me and the people I know who are also in a relationship with God - just say 'yes' to him - it is such an adventure and just by the very fact that you blog and think about these things, is suggestive to me that he is calling you back to him.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Calm down, calm down (as in Liverpool)! Your own account suggests, Rachel, that you have the emotional anchor that will prevent you being such a deconvert. The fact is, however, that I have been to theological college and seen this with my own eyes, if not in every case (goodness me, if it affected everyone the same the courses would not be as they are - too many casualties).

I'm not just referring to you, Rachel, and I'm very naughty building in assumptions.

As for what you say about me, I'm afraid that language never worked with me and is unlikely to do so now.

I do realise that all this postliberal stuff and similar and other variants works differently with different people, but to someone who becomes sceptical it starts to look like the Emperor's New Clothes.

Mimi I've not completed the whole story yet, so I'd better get cracking. In other words, what happens to deconverts?

June Butler said...

...what happens to deconverts?

I expect they go different ways, and I await the rest of your story, Adrian.

Erika Baker said...

" but to someone who becomes sceptical it starts to look like the Emperor's New Clothes."

That's where the real crunch happens.
That's where those who have believed in the language fall away, whereas those who use language to put into words a deep inner sense of knowing God move on to find different words.

That's where one set says that if the church and religion don't speak the absolute truth, there is nothing, whereas the other set accepts that the church and religion are man-made and that it is completely irrelevant whether they get all of it right or not.

The crunch is between those who thought church and religion were the truth and those who see them as mere pointers to the truth that cannot be damaged by church and religion getting it wrong.

Anonymous said...

From all that I have read of you Pluralist, to me it is far from clear that you had any kind of conversion in the first place. That you have engaged intellectually with religion and theology is apparent but conversion ..



Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I did say that, Iconoclast, that it is debatable whether I have been 'in' at all. But I do involve myself in worship and spirituality with seriousness - I don't do it according to the agenda of standard Christianity.

What I'm talking about here, though, and in the second part, is people who have been fully in and have come out or are in the process of coming out.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Ah well, Erika, the language that the religions put about is pretty much all there is by which to generate this experience. The idea that it can be language-free is not something I'd go along with. I go along with spirituality as a kind of path, a dharma if you look of individual and group outlook. It needs some sort of description.

Erika Baker said...

"Ah well, Erika, the language that the religions put about is pretty much all there is by which to generate this experience."

That's just it, it isn't.

You can say that this is how it seems to you, but you cannot say that your view is absolutely true and keep contradicting people who tell you that, for them, it really isn't like that.

Unless you paint us all as liars or, as Mimi keeps suggesting, as dillusioned, you might do us the courtesy to accept that we describe what is as real to us as your purely rational approach is to you.

This, really is the difference between an intellectual assent to philosophical statements and true faith.

June Butler said...

It needs some sort of description.

Adrian, I've given you my description of my reconversion - in words. And with Erika, I'd have to say that it seems not right for you to simply dismiss what I say, what Erika says, and what Rachel says. Our words may not bring you to faith, which I am not at all attempting to do, but to say that your way is the only right way to view a life of faith seems disrespectful. I hear, "I am the only sensible person in this conversation." But perhaps I misunderstand you.

Anonymous said...


Has there ever been anything in what you believe( even a tiny smidgen) that has ever granted you a sense of the numinous and transcendent?

If so, have you ever questioned the source of such experience?


Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

No I'm not dismissing anything or giving any more than my account of things. If you have an inner conviction then good.

Yes I've listened to music and seen art and enjoyed humour and company that has given a sense of going beyond myself, Iconoclast, but they are all symbolic - that's what symbols do, point from themselves. So yes, peak moments provided by these.