...It does feel to me that most people who share on the deconversion blogs have been deeply hurt, and disillusioned by their experience in the church, and they've found this identity and support together in "unbelief." Even if Christianity seemed true to them, they don't really want to be identified with "Christians" or with the church. Life actually seems better to them as unbelievers.
And, yet at the same time, spiritual concerns are very much on their hearts, else they would not bother really discussing these issues in depth at all. In truth, Michael, on Bruce's blog alone, he raises deeper issues for discussion than many people are thinking about God who attend the Episcopal church every Sunday..:)
Do you think I'm right in my sense of this?
There are two related questions here, and I'm going to try to tackle both of them. The first one is, more or less, "Why do unbelievers spend so much time discussing religion?" The second one is, "Why do people deconvert?" or perhaps, "How does deconversion happen?" I'm taking them in this order because I think the second topic is part (but only part) of the answer to the first.
So, why do former believers spend so much time discussing religion? There isn't a really clear-cut answer for this, because everyone has their own reasons. (And, of course, there are plenty of unbelievers who don't spend any significant time discussing religion - but if you run into them, you're unlikely to realize that they're unbelievers.) Having said that, I think most of the answers fall into one of three categories:
1. It's interesting. Let's start by dispensing with a common misconception: the idea that this continued discussion indicates that unbelievers still feel a need for religion, spirituality, or anything of the sort. This is often characterized as unbelievers having a "Jesus-shaped hole" in their hearts (a rather disturbing phrase if your imagination tends to be intensely visual). To be fair, there probably is somebody out there, somewhere, who fits that description... but I've never met them.
The folks who leave Christianity but still feel a need for religious belief do not tend to refer themselves as ex-Christians, former believers, atheists, or the like. Instead they say things like, "I'm spiritual but not religious," or "I love Jesus, but I don't like organized religion." Or, they drift into other denominations, or into other religions entirely.
The thing is, you don't have to believe something actually exists in order to enjoy talking about it. Dungeons and Dragons afficionados have been known to discuss such esoterica as whether a Wild Mage could cast Enlarge on a Bag of Holding, and make it big enough to capture the giant monster known as the Tarrasque. Similarly, there are elaborate and well-reasoned arguments about how the Empire (Star Wars) would fare against the Federation (Star Trek). I'm sure there's some equivalent in Fantasy Football, too. And I suspect, though I have no solid evidence, that the sort of people who enjoy playing with ideas to see where they lead are also the sort of people who tend to wind up all the way outside Christianity when they start questioning their beliefs.
Whether you believe in it or not, Christianity provides a wealth of topics for this sort of intellectual exercise. So one reason why unbelievers continue to discuss religion is the simple enjoyment of exploring an interesting idea. (In this light, you can characterize the Jesuits as the Medieval equivalent of gaming nerds, a comparison which amuses me more than it probably should.)
2. It's training in philosophical self-defense. Christianity is pretty ubiquitous, especially here in the United States, and Christian evangelism ranges from polite inquiry to some behaviors that I'd consider, frankly, bullying. If you're a non-Christian, sooner or later you're going to run into someone who's just sure that they can argue you into belief. That's a lot easier to deal with if you have some idea of what sort of arguments to expect, what the common objections are, and where you stand. "You're never at a loss for words if you know your own mind," to quote Roger Zelazny.
3. It has to do with the process of leaving behind deep-seated belief structures - breaking up is hard to do. This is where we come to our second topic: why do people deconvert, and/or how does it happen? On the one hand, that's a tremendously complicated question, because it's different for everybody. On the other hand, despite the variety of paths that people take through the process (and it is a process), the reason why people leave Christianity can be stated very simply: Christianity quit being a usable worldview for us.
The nature of that process goes a long way towards explaining why so many former Christians continue to discuss Christianity.
...And, wow, I'm going to have to expand on that point in another post. Sorry for the rather discombobulated progress through this topic. Also, I'd like to invite people (once again) to add their own thoughts in the comments; I'm sure there are things that I'm overlooking or neglecting or misstating.