Universität Bielefeld

© Simon A. Eugster

The Bielefeld-Based Cross-Cultural Study on Deconversion

Central question

The Bielefeld-Based Cross-Cultural Study on Deconversion has focused on deconversions from a variety of religious affiliations in the U.S.A. and Germany: from all kinds of religious traditions and organizations, including mainstream religious organizations and churches, as well as, new religious and fundamentalist groups. The team of researchers had an international and interdisciplinary profile and included psychologists, sociologists, and theologians. In the years from 2002 to 2005, a total of 1,196 research participants have been interviewed. The core of the study are about one hundred deconversion narratives (50% from U.S.A. and 50% Germany).

The aim of the research was the analysis of the variety of deconversion trajectories from a diverse spectrum of religious organizations in the U.S.A. and Germany - with special focus of personality traits, motivations, attitudes, psychological well-being and growth, biographical outcomes and transformation in terms of faith development. Thus, our questions included the following: What does deconversion mean in terms of biographical change? Is the outcome psychological growth, well-being and religious development? The question about the losses and the gains of deconversion in terms of religious development is of special interest. Does deconversion imply crisis? Is professional support needed?


The research design has included narrative interviews, faith development interviews and a questionnaire, thus a triangulation of qualitative and quantitative approaches. Methodologically, the heart of the study was the qualitative method in form of reconstructive-biographical analysis of narrative interviews and the analysis of faith development interviews with focus persons who have been selected according to the procedure of theoretic sampling.

The deconverts (focus persons) have been selected according to the principle of maximal contrast (theoretic sampling). In order to profile the deconverts over against the background of the milieus which they have left, it was our aim to interview a ten times higher number of intradition members. Thus, our questionnaire has been administered to 129 deconverts (99 with a narrative interview) and to 1,067 intradition members. The questionnaire included, besides demographics, questions for religious socialization and spiritual/religious self-identification, the following instruments: the Big Five personality scale (NEO-FFI), the Ryff Scale of Psychological Well-Being and Growth, the Religious Fundamentalism Scale and the Right-Wing Authoritarianism Scale. We conducted a narrative interview with all deconverts, with the opening question: ““You have recently left the [religious organization]. I would like to know what happened invyour life before and after this change. You choose what you talk about and what you are willing to disclose. It is up to you where you let your story begin. I will mainly be listening and will only interrupt when I need an explanation.” We have conducted a faith development interview with 100 deconverts, and also with 177 intradition members, thus with a total of 277 persons.


From qualitative analysis of the narrative interviews, four types of biographical trajectories have emerged. Even though the psychodynamics and biographical dynamics of deconversion can be seen only in the cases studies, we mention the labels that we have assigned to the four types: a. Pursuit of Autonomy; b. Barred from Paradise; c. A Finding a New Frame of Reference; d. Life-Long Quests – Late Revisions.

  • In type A., Pursuit of Autonomy, we typically find adolescents or young adults who have been raised in a religious tradition which however was perceived as constriction and which has to be left behind for the sake of religious self-determination or secular autonomy.
  • In type B., Barred from Paradise, we find deconverts, typically adults, who previously have converted in adolescence or early adulthood into a high-tension religious group – which they later, sometimes after decades of membership, leave with feelings of disappointment, deception or even hate or feelings of delusion and disrespect.
  • Type C., Finding a New Frame of Reference, assembles deconverts, typically from mainline religions which were not able to provide a framework of moral and ritual structures that were coherent, plausible and strong enough to meet the deconvert’s needs and expectations; thus, these deconverts typically affiliate with higher-tension or fundamentalist groups.
  • Type D., Life-Long Quests – Late Revisions, deconverts are typically persons in middle or late adulthood who, in their search for religious truth, for living ritual or for spiritual depth have tried out one – or more than one – religious traditions – and have decided to look further for a new religious environment which typically has lower tension and a more liberal atmosphere.

Taken together, we have in our U.S. sample 66%, in our German sample 59% deconverts who have left the field of organized religion and did not establish new memberships. In this group of deconverts who did not affiliate with a new religious organization, we have 36% in the U.S. sample and 59% in the German sample who want to live without religion (secular exit), but more than a third (BRD: 38%, U.S.A. 40%) continue to practice their religiosity, however in private only (privatizing exit), and another part (24% in the U.S. sample and 3% in the German sample) of the deconverts feel attracted to one or more new religious orientations, without any new membership (heretical exit). Deconversion thus does in many cases not mean "falling from the faith" or loosing religion, but migration into the un-organized segment of the religious field.

A surprisingly high number of members of religious organizations (37% in the U.S. sample and 18.3% in the German sample), self-identify as being „more spiritual than religious“. This became the focus of our project on spirituality. But the most unexpected and surprising finding was this: In the group of deconverts, the „more spiritual than religious“ self-identifications double (to 63.6% in the U.S. sample and 36.5% BRD sample).

As characteristics and predictors of deconversion we have identified for both cultures: openness to experience (Big Five), autonomy and personal growth (Ryff Scale), low scores on the religious fundamentalism scale, and higher stages of faith development.

As „downside“ of deconversion, but only for the deconverts in the German sample, we have signs of a (mild) crisis in regard to the relation to self (emotional stability, self-acceptance), others (positive relations with others, extraversion) and environmental mastery. Notwithstanding exceptions, we did however not deduce from this an extraordinary need for intervention for deconverts.

Streib, H., Hood, R. W., Keller, B., Csöff, R.-M., & Silver, C. (2009). Deconversion. Qualitative and Quantitative Results from Cross-Cultural Research in Germany and the United States of America. Research in Contemporary Religion; 5, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Streib, H., Hood, R. W., & Keller, B. (2016). Deconversion and "Spirituality:" - Migrations in the Religious Field. In H. Streib & R. W. Hood (Eds.), Semantics and Psychology of "Spirituality". A Cross-cultural Analysis (pp. 19-26). Cham, Heidelberg, New York, Dordrecht, London: Springer International Publishing Switzerland.

Streib, H. (2014). Deconversion. In L. R. Rambo & C. E. Farhadian (Eds.), Oxford Handbook on Religious Conversion (pp. 271-296). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Keller, B., Klein, C., Hood, R. W., & Streib, H. (2013). Deconversion and Religious or Spiritual Transformation. In H. Westerink (Ed.), Constructs of Meaning and Religious Transformation. Current Issues in the Psychology of Religion (pp. 119-139). Göttingen: Vienna University Press; V&R unipress.

Paloutzian, R. F., Murken, S., Streib, H., & Namini, S. (2013). Conversion, Deconversion, and Transformation: A Multilevel Interdisciplinary View. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2nd ed. (pp. 399-421). New York: The Guilford Press.