Reflections from the Field: Deconversion, Irreligion and Practical Nonreligion The Case of Leaving Ultra Orthodox Judaism

In this post, Louis Frankenthaler draws on his research with Ultra Orthodox Jewish communities to explore narratives of leaving religion, which he describes as rich in moral and social dilemmas. He also discusses the extent to which deconversion may be understood as an expression of ‘irreligion’.Louis_NSRN


This blog post is a reflection of part of my ongoing research on deconversion, or the loss of faith (Barbour 1994), in the Ultra Orthodox (Haredi) Jewish community. I point to parallels between examples of deconversion explored in my work and Colin Campbell’s (1971/2013) concept of ‘irreligion’. That is to say, Haredi deconversion is an expression of irreligion, the active rejection of an available religion or ‘beliefs and actions which are expressive of attitudes of hostility or indifference toward the prevailing religion, together with… the rejection of its demands’ (Campbell 2013/1971). Furthermore, religious rejection is an element of the deconversion typology which certainly reflects the way people position themselves in opposition (or difference) to their abandoned religion:

Deconversion involves doubt or denial of the truth of a system of beliefs. Second, deconversion is characterized by moral criticism of not only particular actions or practices but an entire way of life. Third, the loss of faith brings emotional upheaval, especially such feelings of grief, guilt, loneliness and despair. Finally a person’s deconversion is usually marked by the rejection of the community to which he or she belonged.  Deconversion encompasses, then, intellectual doubt, moral criticism, emotional suffering and disaffiliation from a community. (Barbour 1994, 2).


[The]‘loss of specific religious experiences…[such as] the experience of God […]’  (Streib and Keller 2004).

Irreligion is a formative idea in nonreligion studies and scholars have moved beyond and expanded upon it, pointing out some of its negative associations (Lee 2012). Likewise, Barbour (1994) was concerned with terminology and thought apostasy (see Zuckerman 2011), heresy and infidelity could be too judgmental. In addition, while deconversion and apostasy both represent the loss of faith, the former is not meant to be a pejorative for religion. Lois Lee’s insights have laid a foundation for nonreligion, defining it as: ‘’anything which is primarily defined by a relationship of difference to religion’’ (2012, 131). Nonreligion might also be understood as a space or a status to which people, who consciously resist, denounce and reject religion, can retreat. This retreat is vocalized in narratives, which map the opposition to, and rejection of, religious tenets and demonstrate that nonreligion is attained through an active and agentic process of deconversion.

There is a clear interest, both academic and popular, in leaving religion. While the religions from which people depart are different, the literature continues to illustrate the similarities in the way that people engage in the process of leaving. While there is no consensus among scholars for describing the phenomena (see Cragun and Hammer 2011; Fazzino 2014; Topel 2012; Zuckerman 2011) the deconversion typology provides clarity. Perhaps unified terminologies are unnecessary but deconversion and irreligion provide thick, unique, descriptive and contextual understandings of the experience of leaving religious communities, especially those, like Haredi Judaism, which are reclusive and demanding. These concepts provide a way to avoid seeing becoming nonreligious as ‘‘conversion’’ which, while useful and even similar, is ultimately different from deconversion. Both often involve a ‘spiritual transformation’ of some sort (Paloutzian et al 2013), the ‘negation of some former identity’, a subsequent ‘radical reorganization of identity meaning and life’ and transferred allegiances to different authorities (Travisano 1970). Converts, however, are well received and commit to a religion, its beliefs, its community, its authorities and its practices. Deconverts, on the other hand, reject these commitments and community while losing a support system (Frankenthaler 2004; Paloutzian et al 2013; Shaffir 1991).

Specifically, the literature on leaving Haredi Judaism has largely used defection and disaffiliation to describe it. In Hebrew it is called Yetziah L’Shealah (or exiting through questioning), which should point to the relevance of the deconversion typology (Frankenthaler 2004). In his pioneering work, William Shaffir (1991) used conversion analysis when he compared joining and leaving Haredi Judaism. Roni Berger (2014), writing about leaving the Haredi path in the United States, mentions conversion however, following Janet Jacobs (1984, 1987), limits deconversion to adults who convert to and then leave insular religious communities. Similarly, Davidman and Greil (2007), follow Jacobs’ understanding of deconversion. In other words, from this perspective, for deconversion to take place there must have been a previous conversion. However, the research demonstrates how deconversion is a conceptually rich way to understand departure from religion, including from a religion in which the person was born or raised.

Deconversion narratives reveal the moral challenges and difficulties associated with developing aberrant ideas, criticisms, doubt, questions and disagreements about religious authorities and in deciding what to do with these new beliefs and experiences. This is no less an issue for post-Haredi Jews. Some narratives describe  open confrontation  with ultra-Orthodoxy, while others describe more subtle approaches, but ultimately Haredi Judaism, both culturally and doctrinally, is challenged and rejected while religion and God as  sources for meaning shrink and even disappear. Such irreligious experiences, Campbell surmises, are likely common in society ‘but more prevalent under regimes of authoritarian orthodoxy’ (127) or orthopraxy (Campbell 2013[1971], 127; see also Bullivant 2008).

Arguably, the Haredi Yeshiva (an all male, intensive and total Jewish seminary – see Hakak) is just such a ‘regime of authoritarian orthodoxy’   and its nonbelievers tell rich stories about their decision to leave.  Aaron, for example, left Haredi life as a young man and, like his contemporaries (adolescence to late teens), he was a Yeshiva boarding student and described a regime of constant rabbinical supervision which he needed to negotiate. This illustrative excerpt from Aaron’s story is from my MA thesis (Frankenthaler 2004):

Any time I would talk about faith they would argue with me in a way that did not answer questions. They simply laugh at you.  They… create a situation in which you feel stupid about what you said and that you prefer not to have said them.  I suspect that this made a lot of less stubborn people not defect.  That did not happen to me because I insisted and did not agree with every answer that everyone was giving me and I was not ashamed to say what I said. If I thought something I would say it.

In principle, since I was young, I simply had it in me to ask questions about the Haredi community.  Not to agree with everything they say.  In the beginning the questions were not about faith, that is, not questions about religion, rather more questions about why the Haredi public acts the way it does… I got to age 16-17 and started to ask questions and I decided to check if God really gave us the Torah [Pentateuch]… I reached a conclusion that even if God did give us the Torah he did not intend for us to live the way we are living now.  After that I asked some questions about faith and quickly grasped that I would not get any answers… It took me about two years to grasp that I really do not believe in God and that I do not want to live this life anymore. That is basically the reason why I defected…’

The literature on deconversion with which I am familiar, including my thesis, does not refer specifically to irreligion. However, the ‘re-discovery’ of Campbell’s work together with the academic and popular interest in leaving religion, apostasy and atheism (see Zuckerman 2011) demonstrate how deconversion narratives practically illustrate that nonreligion is a destination for many people who leave religion, as well as an academic field.


Additional Resources on Deconversion.

Berger, R. (2014). Leaving an Insular Community: The Case of Ultra Orthodox Jews. Jewish Journal of Sociology, 56(1/2), 75-98.

Bullivant, S. (2008). Introducing irreligious experiences. Implicit Religion, 11(1), 7-24.

Campbell, C.D. (2013 [1971]). Toward a Sociology of Irreligion. Alcuin Academics.

Cragun, R. T., & Hammer, J. H. (2011). ‘One Person’s Apostate is Another Person’s Convert’: What Terminology Tells Us about Pro-Religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion. Humanity & Society, 35(1-2), 149-175.

Fazzino, L. L. (2014). Leaving the Church Behind: Applying a Deconversion Perspective to Evangelical Exit Narratives. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 29(2), 249-266.

Frankenthaler, L. (2004). Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism: Defection as Deconversion (unpublished MA Thesis, Hebrew University, Melton Centre for Jewish Education).

Hakak, Y. (2012). Young Men in Israeli Haredi Yeshiva Education: The Scholars’ Enclave in Unrest. Brill.

Jacobs, J. (1984). The economy of love in religious commitment: The deconversion of women from nontraditional religious movements. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 155-171.

Jacobs, J. (1987). Deconversion from religious movements: An analysis of charismatic bonding and spiritual commitment. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 294-308.

Lee, L. (2012). Research note: Talking about a revolution: Terminology for the new field of non-religion studies. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 27(1), 129-139.

Lee, L. (2014). Secular or nonreligious? Investigating and interpreting generic ‘not religious’ categories and populations. Religion, (ahead-of-print), 1-17.

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: Guilford Press.

Shaffir, W. (1991). Conversion experiences: newcomers to and defectors from orthodox Judaism. Tradition, Innovation, Conflict: Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Israel, 173-202.

Streib, H., & Keller, B. (2004). The Variety of Deconversion Experiences – Contours of a Concept in Respect to Empirical Research. Archive for the Psychology of Religion, 26(1), 181–200.

Topel, M. F. (2012). Jewish Orthodoxy and Its Discontents: Religious Dissidence in Contemporary Israel. University Press of America.

Travisano, R. V. (1970). Alternation and conversion as qualitatively different transformations. In G. P.Stone& H. A. Faberman (Eds.),Social psychology through symbolic interaction(pp. 594–606). Waltham, MA: Xerox College Publishing.

Zuckerman, P. (2011). Faith no more: Why people reject religion. Oxford University Press.


Born and Raised in the United States, Louis Frankenthaler moved to Israel in 1995 and lives in West Jerusalem with his family. He has spent many years working in human rights NGOs as an international outreach director.    He is working on completing his PhD at Ben Gurion University and has an MA in Jewish Education from the Hebrew University and a BA in History from Ithaca College in the United States. He also spent time in a progressive rabbinical seminary but left after one year.   Some of his political essays have appeared in +972 , Souciant , Zeek and in Global Dialogue.   His research interests are described here.



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