I'm not a religion blogger anymore (though maybe I should be, as I can't seem to avoid it), but because of my former blog I still end up talking with a lot of people about religion and religious trends an awful lot, and I guess I still more or less have opinions about these matters and think about them a fair amount.
Some years ago when I wrote the überfromm posts over at the old Ochlophobist blog I discussed the often not talked about phenomenon of Evangelicals converting to Orthodoxy and then either losing their faith altogether or reverting back to Evangelicalism. This prompted a fair amount of discussion in that thread.
I remember reading Mark Noll around that time in some article he wrote about the brain drain of better Evangelical students to Roman Catholicism. I think we may have discussed that in that thread. There is no doubt that Evangelical converts to Catholicism and Orthodoxy tended to be among the more intellectually inclined in Evangelical circles. The all too common vacuity and banality of Evangelical worship, typical pastoral practice (from your usual youth ministry cringeworthy campishness to pastors wearing hawaiian shirts to preach in), and normative intellectual life surely is a contributing factor. Noll listed these sorts of obvious things, and worried about the long term effects for Evangelical and Protestant communities.
Though I have no hard data, I wonder if there is not something of a swing back going on, or about to go on. There had been a fair amount of energy and even a feeling of trendiness to the Evangelical conversions to Orthodoxy and Catholicism in the 90s and into the 00s. My sense now is that that energy has subsided. Conversion levels have at very least peaked and stabilized, and there is no indication that there will be notable upswings in the future. If I were to somewhat arbitrarily pick a moment of time when things started to swing back, or perhaps gave a hint of a coming swing back, it might be with the conversion of Evangelical philosopher Francis Beckwith in 2007. That riled up the First Things crowd, but I remember thinking then that it didn't carry the sort of intra-conservative-religious intellectualdom momentous weight that Robert Wilken's conversion had had, and Beckwith being one of Evangelicalism's top thinkers certainly meant more in terms of potential influence (though it seems to me Wilken actually influenced a lot more intellectuals to follow him than Beckwith has). From Jaroslav Pelikan's 1996 conversion to Orthodoxy to Gabriel Bunge's 2010 conversion to Orthodoxy (grant it he came from RCism, which is different than the phenomenon being discussed here, but still) there seems to be the creeping mass intuition that these are much more matters of personal narrative than some general narrative of conversion trends among intellectuals, despite the occasional media story one finds in some Pittsburgh or Chicago paper that mentions startling conversion numbers and is obviously written by a journalist who doesn't have a damn clue concerning the subject of her writing. I suppose if a Mark Noll or a Tom Oden in intellectual circles, or, on popular fronts, a Michael W. Smith or a Rick Warren converted to Catholicism there would be a flash of brief frenzy generated by such an event, but I don't know that it would mean as much in terms of "movement" as it would have in the late 90s or early 00s.
Even though most actual conversions are a mix of "personal" and intellectual factors, when considering public conversions you can somewhat neatly lump public converts into the purely intellectual set and the more personal sort. A Beckwith or a Wilken might have very personal reasons for converting but they are largely seen as intellectual converts. Conversely, even though he is a professor and writes all sort of purportedly academic things, Scott Hahn's will always be a more personal sort of public convert because of Rome Sweet Home. Gillquist is very much in the personal camp as well. Among Orthodox you can take a blogger like Perry Robinson and categorize him as an intellectual convert, and take a blogger like John at Notes from a Commonplace Book and put him into the more personal camp - this has everything to do with how they write and how they present their conversions publicly. Both are intelligent, keen writers, but their focus is very different. The actual reasons for converting were mixed in the case of both.
I note this because I hereby predict that there will be two subcategories of a genre of literature which will develop in the next few years - in the new media as well as in traditional media venues. Both personal and intellectual reflections on why a given person converted to Catholicism or Orthodoxy, and then reverted back to their original faith or gave up on faith altogether. I think the personal will be the more common sort of text, but the intellectual sort will be present as well.
I'm willing to concede that the drive to write such texts is not as strong as the drive to write typical convert literature. When one is in the honeymoon phase with a new religion (a phase which can last years, sometimes even a decade or longer it seems), the excitement and newness and sense of gratitude and awe and all that jazz can provide all sorts of motivation to go and tell the world about the truly true so-much-truer-than-anything-else trueiness that you have found. When you end up back where you started, or you give up on faith altogether, there just isn't anything like the sort of buzz and drive as you had when you converted to Orthodoxy or Catholicism.
But, there is, it seems to me, a great deal of drive on the part of readers to read such texts. And not to sound like a free marketer, but I think this consumer demand will eventually result in products being taken to new and traditional media markets. The demand isn't just coming from other folks who are former converts. Often times the demand is coming from people who have converted to Catholicism or Orthodoxy (or are cradles) and have no intention of leaving their faith but are quite interested (at first I found this surprising - the intensity I often noted in this interest anyway) in the reasons other people have for leaving it. Some people are people who are past the honeymoon stage in their conversion (or are cradles who have grown past 20something or 30something religious romanticisms), and now carry gripes toward their faith, perhaps minor gripes, perhaps more substantial ones, and don't plan on leaving Orthodoxy or Catholicism but gain what appears to be some sort of catharsis by reading the words of people who, after following a trajectory of conversion like their own, have left it and are willing to put forth their reasons why, whether more personal or more intellectual. And then there are the seemingly fair number of reading people out there who like to read loss of faith memoir type writings for reasons similar to slowing down to watch an accident scene.
In the past I've noted an old friend of mine, a Baptist pastor, who wrote his MTh dissertation on Baptist hymnography in a manner that attempted to incorporate the methodology of Gregory Dix. I noted that Schmemann's application of Dix's model (generally speaking) to Orthodox liturgy could be used by just about anyone to present their own liturgical traditions in a manner that had more apparent gravitas than other methods provided. I think this sort of thing can happen with far more methodologies. And there is motivation for this out there whether people know it or not. I think that the personal and intellectual reasons people usually have for converting have a lot more to do with the sociological and methodological trappings involved in their conversion subculture of faith than the faith itself had to do with the conversion (this isn't always the case, sure, but I think it usually is). What I am suggesting is that often the very thematic and ideal-oriented elements which brought you to a faith can take you back to a prior one (or to some other one altogether, or even to none at all).
For instance, I've long thought that given a year of time to write I could write a book which takes the (supposedly) James Joycian "here comes everybody" socio-iconography of Catholicism, and argue that today the most "here comes everybody" worship style and functional missiology is that of Evangelical/charismatic praise & worship (which is now found in Mainline Prot, Evangelical Prot, some Catholic, and even until somewhat recently a couple of Orthodox churches) and in the newer Evangelical missiological models (yes, having gone to a missions school years ago, I still follow Evangelical missiology - it ain't that time consuming). One could write a reflection that insists that there are all sorts of abuses and perversions within Evangelical praise & worship but that it still constitutes the most catholic expression of communal faith in Christ operative in the world today (indeed, one could note that plenty of Catholic convert writers & happy cradle writers also contrast the presumed perversions of actually existing Catholic worship with a nonetheless functioning "here comes everybody" missiological ecclesiology). I could quote any number of Catholic writers to make my point that Evangelical/charismatic praise and worship is (when "properly" done, or in potentia, or despite flaws, whatever) the fully developed or most fully developed Christian expression of a Catholic "here comes everybody" missiology. It's not like such a rhetorical move is even original - since Miroslav Volf used positive and affirming interpretations of Ratzinger and Zizioulis texts to argue for an anabaptist ecclesiology. The door is open and waiting for ex-Catholic converts to take advantage of it.
In the manner that converts often argue that Catholicism or Orthodoxy is the fulfillment of their former faith tradition, the revert could note ways in which her foray into Catholicism or Orthodoxy caused her to more fully appreciate and assimilate her faith upon returning to her old faith tradition. She could argue that she has a greater awareness of the importance of ecclesiology, or of eucharist, and/or so forth, and she could write about how this awareness heightens her experience having returned to her old faith.
This model works in the negative as well. The writer could summarize things in Evangelicalism that he came to believe were wrong (perhaps he still does). He could go on to write about how he found the same sorts of problems in different trappings within the converted-to-faith. For instance, he could describe the emotional roller coaster and the emotional exhaustion he experienced when trying to get worked up into a spiritual high during praise & worship (and/or during daily devotions) as an Evangelical, and talk about how he embraced the rhetoric of leaving all that behind him when he came to Orthodoxy, but then he could note that he found that getting through fasting cycles and that his experience in confession involved many equivalent sorts of attempts at forced spiritual accomplishment or a forced sense of heightened spiritual experience. He could note, say, that the intense seeking of dispassion in liturgy during his more fervent convert years corresponded rather neatly to his former intense seeking of passion during praise & worship. And from this he could go in any number of directions - perhaps going a more nominalist route and stating that certain spiritual insecurities and affects are more or less present in any spiritual tradition and there is perhaps no substantial use finding one as a better at dealing with them than another. Perhaps he could argue that in Evangelicalism the psychological dangers are more overt and thus less dangerous, and he could point to the already large and swiftly growing self-critique within Evangelicalism of the emotional and psychological dangers of the overuse of catharsis in Evangelical worship. Perhaps he could reflect on how spending years in Orthodoxy allows him to return to Evangelicalism and take part in the worship without any need for anxiousness about the cathartic elements, and thus feels more free and "honest" when engaged in that praise & worship now than he ever did before, etc., etc.
Around the time I started thinking about these matters I found myself reading Bethany (formerly Torode, now) Patchin's blog a year or so ago and reading about some of the mess involved in her return to Protestantism from Orthodoxy (grant it now she is a liberal Mainliner and not a conservative Evangelical, which as I recall was what she came out of originally). Around the same time Daniel Nichol's Caelum et Terra blog ran this post on problems with NFP, (which just restarted a couple of weeks ago and has since died down again) and the stories shared there in the thread were quite provocative. I've discussed that blog post with probably 25-30 people in the last 13 months, and it has generated far more stories in email threads than the already remarkable number in the thread of the post. People who converted to Catholicism and then left, or remain but no longer consider themselves the same sort of Catholics that they used to think of themselves as - that sort of thing. And conversations with Orthodox about the thread - some who want to convert to Catholicism but plan on ignoring the contraception teaching, some who were told by their Orthodox priests that artificial contraception was bad and tried NFP during their more pious years only to give up on it later, and some who of course used that thread as an apologetic proof that Catholicism is the singular great evil in the world.
Perhaps the most interesting conversation I had about that thread was with my wife. You have to understand - my wife and I rarely, as in maybe twice or three times a year, discuss anything related to theology. She doesn't care much for theology, or perhaps more precisely, for theological conversations or for theology nerds. My wife noted that in the exchanges between the people sharing their NFP stories and their struggles with faith and making a life that worked for their family and the defenders of NFP with their rote truebelieverisms, she saw classic manifestations of mental illness on both sides, though the side that disturbed her the most was the true believer side - flat affect, hyper-rationalization (much of mental illness isn't an overt rejection of rational thought, but a misuse of it - everything is rationalized in a manner that allows no nuance or unresolved tensions, and so forth), asperbers like fixation on simple rhetorical patterns and structures and an inability to find humour, even dark humour, in the exchange because a dogmatic narrative is being questioned (and the questioning was for the most part quite restrained, even on tip toes when compared to how NFP is usually trashed by those who find it wanting), and a hyper sola scriptura style literalistic hold on authoritative texts - with little room for interpretive breathing. I realize that second to using the term 'Protestant' to dismiss your interlocutor on a Catholic or Orthodox blog thread is the ease with which we pull out the mental illness card, but this is probably more on my wife's radar because she works at a mental health clinic and has to deal with crazy people all day. As well, truth be told, my wife looks upon those who suffer from authoritarian hyper-literalist religious structures with some empathy - she views herself as having misspent a lot of late teen and 20something and less so into her early 30s years of her life being too concerned with religious scruples - in a manner that she would describe as essentially toxic (she also sees some good in those years and in those efforts as well, and would correct me if I painted too disparaging a picture). So yes, the caveats about pulling the psych card. But I also think it safe to say that religion attracts a disproportionate number of mentally unsound persons to it (for obvious reasons, they need help, and religion purports to offer help, sometimes at a price far less than what therapy usually costs, and without all of the stigma associated with therapy, and the rubber stamp of divinity ain't bad either). I think probably one of the most sane religious decision making methods one can use is this one - which group of people would I rather have watching my kids? That's exactly how my wife finally parsed the NFP thread on Daniel's blog. If she had to pick one side or the other to watch her kids - it would be the no-longer-using NFP side, at least among the writers on that particular thread.
This last point gets to another aspect that I think reversion and give-up-on-faith texts bring to the reader. When a convert converts there is often a great deal of analysis as to the why. And this sometimes involves psychological factors. But the emphasis is usually on intellectual reasons, or aesthetic reasons, or complaints about the old faith, or narrative trajectories, or even existential hungers that were reported to have not been fed. But with the revert or the no-longer-a-believer, you often get a fair amount of psychological introspection. You get a lot of questioning about the interior reasons that come to be articulated after spending a lot of time asking the questions "why did I do that?" and "what happened?" The focus shifts from a "what is truth?" orientation to a "what do I really believe, and why?" orientation. That may be a lot less noble, but it is also more circumspect, and it is a lot easier for the reader to appropriate in a visceral or empathetic manner.
For these reasons I think we can expect to see a notable rise in the sorts of reversion/aversion texts I describe.
There are other factors I could touch on here. For instance, I have noted among the more intellectually inclined converts that those coming into Catholicism and Orthodoxy tend to be more politically conservative than those reverting out. I wonder if the increasingly politically conservative convert subcultures in Orthodoxy and the increasingly politically conservative white American Catholic cultures are too stifling for converts who simply aren't going there in terms of political orientation. That may be a factor, but I don't think it is a decisive one in the overall phenomenon under discussion here, as I have known and heard of plenty of conservatives leaving as well.
I don't know how much I intend to get back into publicly blogging on religious trends, but this particular topic is of interest to me, and I plan on revisiting it from time to time.