The Bielefeld-Based Cross-Cultural Study on Deconversion
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Streib, H. (2002). Biographical and Religious Development in Christian-Fundamentalist Converts and Deconverts: A Narrative Approach. [pdf]

Streib, H. (2000). Biographies in Christian Fundamentalist Milieus and Organizations. Report to the Enquete Commission of the 13th German Parliament on "So-called Sects and Psychogroups", translated by Ella Brehm Beiträge zur biographischen Religionsforschung (Contributions to Biographical Research in Religion), No.1, Bielefeld: University of Bielefeld, Evangelische Theologie. [pdf]

Streib, H. (1999). Off-Road Religion? A Narrative Approach to Fundamentalist and Occult Orientations of Adolescents. Journal of Adolescence, 22, 255-267, [pdf]

Streib, H. (1999). Sub-project on 'Biographies in Christian Fundamentalist Milieus and Organizations' (The research project on "Drop-outs, Converts and Believers: Contrasting Biographical Analyses of Why Individuals Join, Have a Career and Stay in, or Leave Religious/Ideological Contexts or Groups," Part III). In Deutscher Bundestag.Referat Öffentlichkeitsarbeit (Ed.), Final Report of the Enquête Commission on 'So-called Sects and Psychogroups'. New Religious and Ideological Communities and Psychogroups in the Federal Republic of Germany (pp. 402-414). Bonn: Deutscher Bundestag. [pdf]


Research Project (completed in winter 1997/1998)

Biographical Analysis of Drop-outs, Converts and Believers in Christian-Fundamentalist Milieus and Organizations

Prof. Heinz Streib, Ph. D./ Emory University

With the project on Christian-fundamentalist biographies, the empirical study of contemporary, fundamentalist and new religion has begun to develop as a field of research at the University of Bielefeld. The 1997 project had been initiated and funded by the Enquete Commission "So-called Sects and Psychogroups" established by the 13th German Federal Parliament (13. Deutscher Bundestag) under the heading "Drop-outs, Converts and Believers: Contrastive Analyses on Why Individuals Join Have a Career and Stay in, or Leave ‘New Religious’ and Ideological Contexts or Groups," and has been implemented as research project (Drittmittelprojekt) at the University of Bielefeld. Streib’s (Professor of Religious Education and Ecumenical Theology at the University of Bielefeld, project director) interdisciplinary research team included doctoral students and post-docs in sociology, psychology and theology: among others, Sabine Grenz, Köln; Dr. Matthias Hof, Witten; Katrin Keller, Bielefeld; Dr. Michael Utsch, Hanover/Berlin; Andrea Wyschka, Gelsenkirchen. The expertise was submitted and presented to the Enquete Commission in February 1998. The results have been worked into the text of the Commission’s Final Report and a brief summary of our research results are published in the Annex of the Final Report which is available in German and English. The complete text of the expertise has been included together with other expertises in a volume. An English translation of our expertise is also available. Further publications referring to this project are pubished in 1999, 2000, and 2001.


The aim of this study was to compare and contrast biographies and careers of members and ex-members of Christian-fundamentalist milieus and organizations. Using the method of biographical-reconstructive research, the project was strictly qualitative in character; its data are narrative interviews with an average length of approximately two hours. The sample included members and ex-members from the Neuapostolische Kirche (New Apostolic Church), Zeugen Jehovas (Jehovah’s Witnesses), and a series of not globally organized, rather local fundamentalist and charismatic groups. From 22 interviews conducted 12 were contrastively selected for analysis.

Also the interview analysis followed reconstructive-hermeneutic methods and combined U. Oevermann’s and F. Schütze’s methodological approaches. Therefore, the first step of the analysis was sequence analysis of passages from the transcribed interviews resulting in a case structure hypothesis; these interpretation sessions in small groups were tape recorded and thus integrated carefully into the evaluation process. In a second step, narrative analysis was used to interpret the narrative segments and to account for the narrative dynamic of the interview as a whole.

Since both methodological approaches, that of Oevermann and that of Schütze, aim at an inclusion of latent structures, our methodological steps permit access to dimensions of latent structures in the interview text which may be less visible and sometimes repressed or distorted in the self-reflective dimensions and parts of the text: spontaneous selection of words, the micro-structural ‘logic’ in spontaneous speech, and especially the narrative dynamics of spontaneous biographical story telling yield insights into the latent structures of social reality and into the biographical dynamics and transformations. Thus the focus of our analytic attention and the expected result of our approach has been a rather comprehensive analysis of the complex relation between the religious career and the biography – a relation which can be investigated in two directions: in the biographical retrospective on the motivational conditions, especially for conversion, involvement and deconversion; and in biographical prospect, i.e. in narrative reconstruction of the biographical consequences, whether these may have resulted in compensation, transformation, or decompensation. Attention was paid also to the question of satisfaction with life in the narrated time and in the present, to the need for and the development of coping strategies in respect the crisis of deconvertion, and especially to the question of personality change and identity with regard to eventually deep-reaching processes of conversion, transformation and deconversion related to joining, staying and leaving the respective milieu or group.



In our analysis of life themes, we did not find (what some in the Enquete Commission had expected us to find) the one and only typical sect biography of fundamentalist converts or deconverts. We were not able to identify neither a single typical biographical pattern, nor a typical bundle of motivational factors. Certainly, we did search the biographical narratives for motivational factors, for 'life themes' or 'themata' which our interview partners were dealing with in their fundamentalist orientation; and there we identified especially childhood traumata, childhood anxiety or an unsatisfied hunger for love and acceptance. But in our interview sample, we only found such motivational factors that could be found in non-fundamentalist biographies, as well.

Despite this negative, there were, positive results. In fact, one of the important findings has been the confirmation of the assumption that the force of affinity and attraction toward fundamentalist affiliation comes from life themes which have not been acquired during membership, but derive from earlier experiences and thus belong to a biographically older layer of the person. Interview analyses indicate and confirm that the converts bring these themata with them into the fundamentalist milieus.

Further, the strength of affinity towards the group, and therefore the stability of membership, appears to be the result of a ‘fit’ between the themata which the persons bring along with them and the resonance that these themata find in the mental, ritual and moral setting of the respective group. If such ‘fit’ does not emerge or is fading away because of whatever kind of cause, disaffiliation (and often the search for a new group) has been the most likely result.


Despite the common feature of the ‘fit’ which we were able to identify in almost all cases, there is a variety of religious careers leading into conversion and deconversion. Contrastive comparison of the cases allowed us to locate them in a typology. Three types of fundamentalist biographies or 'careers' could be identified:

  1. a ‘type governed by tradition’
  2. the ‘mono-convert,’ who converts as it were once in life-time into a religious orientation which he or she did not have before, and
  3. the ‘accumulative heretic’ whose biography is a tour through different religious orientations and who could possibly represent a new type of religious socialization.

Biographical Dynamics and Developments

A special focus in our analysis of the interview material has been the biographical dynamics and developments, the biographical consequences. We have analyzed indicators of transformation and decompensation. The case material revealed, despite the subjects' struggling with often traumatic themata and despite some signs of decompensation, also problem reducing effects, or indications of transformation. During his journey through a variety of religious milieus, including charismatic fundamentalists and Scientology, e.g. Thomas (one of the cases) underwent a transformation which finally enabled him to cope better with his unrelieved desire for unconditional love.

Finally, we have found that transformation and decompensation are not distributed equally among the cases, but there are differences between the three types: The tendency could be demonstrated that, at the one end, the ‘types governed by tradition’ suffer more negative consequences and, in some cases, decompensation, while at the other end, the ‘accumulative heretics’ more often and more easily develop transformation.


The result that conversion and deconversion in fundamentalist and new religious groups may have problem reducing effects and may result in transformation contradicts the public opinion, and the anti-cultist proposition likewise, that conversion to new religious movements causes psychic decompensation; but it is in broad agreement with evidence from empirical research.

The explanation of such transformations rests upon and reconfirms a theoretical framework of religious styles (Streib 1997; 2000), derived from structural-developmental theory (Fowler), which, as revised and modified theoretical framework, can be applied to fundamentalism. In this framework, fundamentalist orientation can be explained as a domain-specific, mix or ‘dislocation’ of styles. This dislocation of styles can be discerned as revival and prevalence of the instrumental-reciprocal ('do-ut-des') style or the subjective style – in certain crucial dimensions of religion –, despite and within the already achieved mutual or individuative-systemic styles.

Discerning positive developments and outcomes in biographies therefore means discerning that transformation of religious styles has taken place, and that the dislocation of styles has been moderated or healed, whereas the actual style of either mutual or individuative-systemic orientation has increased and has come to cover more ground.

It is very likely that this is due to the fact that the person has had a chance and found a way to work on and to cope with the themata which lured him or her into the revival of biographical earlier styles.

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