It seems that not a month goes by without a well-known Christian announcing on social media that they have left the faith. More troubling, but less sensational is that for each celebrity deconversion there are hundreds of unknown believers who deconvert that don’t get the headlines. Deconversion from Christianity is a growing and troubling trend. And one that the church and Christian academe cannot ignore.

In 2015, The Pew Research Center reported that for every individual who becomes a Christian four leave.1 Think about that for a minute. All other surveys say similar things. But perhaps the most concerning statistic comes from the Pinetops Foundation who, in 2018, claimed that over the next thirty years Christian affiliation in the U.S. will decline by one million per year. Which means that between 30 and 42 million young people raised in Christian families and who call themselves Christians will say they are not by 2050. They summarize the situation with the following ominous words. “While it is hard to find clear data, as far as we can tell, this is the single largest generational loss of souls in history who were nominally raised in the church and no longer call themselves followers of Jesus.”2

For the last seven years I have been researching deconversion by conducting interviews with former Christians and analyzing deconversion narratives online and in print. In doing so I have discovered something about deconversion that I believe is important, even if discouraging. And that is, despite the significant negative personal, social, and existential impact leaving Christianity had on their lives, deconverts overwhelmingly testify that leaving the faith was well worth it because of the freedom and happiness it produced.

How, you might wonder, could the religion of the One who said that His burden was easy and that His yoke was light, become a millstone around the neck, rather than a rest for the soul? Read enough deconversion stories and the answer to that question will become apparent. Many former Christians describe a burdensome religious system they identified with something they call “biblical” Christianity that required them to affirm a host of nonnegotiable teachings in order to be a genuine Christian.

There are any number of doctrines that can be elevated to the status of an essential belief in the all-or-nothing approach to faith. For churches that subscribe to such an approach, the set of doctrines that make up the sum total of beliefs one needs to affirm in order to be a Christian is different. But what they all have in common is an all-or-nothing package of beliefs that need to be affirmed in total in order to be a Christian.

Fred Clark, former managing editor at Prism magazine says that although the outside all-or-nothing faith doesn’t seem to make much sense. That’s because the separate components of the package do seem separable. He says that “From the outside, it just seems kind of silly to insist that, for example, belief in the Golden Rule requires and is somehow dependent on belief that the universe is only 6,000 years old.”3 He goes on to say that from the inside however things look a lot different:

Belief in Jesus, in forgiveness, or in faith, hope and love, really does come to seem contingent and dependent upon all those other beliefs in inerrancy, literalism, creationism, and whichever weird American variant of eschatology your particular sub-group of fundies subscribes to. And that means, for those shaped by fundamentalism, that belief in Jesus, faith, hope and love are all constantly imperiled by even fleeting glimpses of reality. Some such glimpse will eventually penetrate the protective fundie shell — the recognition that maybe all sedimentary rocks didn’t come from Noah’s flood, the realization that the Synoptic Gospels can’t be easily “harmonized,” the attempt to evangelize some Hell bound Episcopalian that results in them getting the better of the conversation. And when that happens, the whole edifice threatens to topple like some late-in-the-game Jenga tower.4

The problem does not end with requiring an all-or-nothing system of faith where every belief depends on every other belief. That would be bad enough. It gets compounded when the package that must be accepted is identified as something called “biblical” Christianity. Such adjectives give the impression that there is one correct way to be a Christian, the biblical way, and that all others are substandard. And of course, that one way is identical to the all-or-nothing package of a particular church. In reality, however, what is assumed to be “biblical” Christianity is an admixture of core theological truths and the micro-traditions and particular interpretations of one particular church or denomination. What this all-or-nothing misidentification results in is the demand that to be a Christian one must affirm and adopt an entire set of beliefs and practices without exception, but which contains many traditions and convictions that in reality are not necessary to be a Christian at all. 

Identifying “biblical” Christianity with one’s own church or denomination this way is highly problematic. First, it ignores the indisputable fact that throughout history there have been an enormous number of Christian traditions that stand well within orthodoxy, but which look very different from each other in secondary and tertiary beliefs as well as practices. Admittedly, it is true that all of them could be in error in how they interpreted and applied the Bible and that one tradition – the tradition of the pre-deconvert – is the only tradition throughout the history of the church that is the truly biblical version. However, this line of thinking strains credulity to the point of breaking. And yet that is exactly what the all-or-nothing package version of the faith implies if not entails. Burdening individuals with a requirement that in order to be a Christian they must believe all of the various doctrines of one particular church is to place on them a weight too heavy to bear and one that will in all likelihood set them up for a crisis of faith. 

The second problem with requiring believers to adopt a large, inflexible, and fragile set of beliefs and practices is that it makes the Christian life tedious, joyless, and tends to make people negative and critical. Deconversion narratives reveal that former believers look back on their time in the church with regret and in some cases shame at how they viewed others. Because their Christian system gave them the impression that they were “biblical” believers because they adhered to the correct form of Christianity, they became self-righteous and critical. At the same time, they buckled under the weight of having to continually find ways to justify beliefs that had become harder and harder to believe given information about the world they began to believe. On top of that they could no longer maintain the standards of conduct that were expected of them by their Christian community. For many the level of commitment expected by their churches was so high that it strained relationships with family, friends, employment and even their finances. Like the Pharisees who Jesus accused of binding heavy burdens on the shoulders of men but who themselves would not lift a finger to help, such churches place equally heavy burdens on Christians and set them up to develop a resentment towards Christianity. Who would want to be part of a group that demanded so much and in return produced beat down, critical people?

To avoid setting up believers for a crisis of faith Christians of all stripes must reflect on the kind of faith they are passing on to those they are ministering to. Is it a fragile and bloated house of cards comprised of core tenets of the faith and our own micro-traditions elevated to the level of orthodoxy which must be believed to be saved? If so, we might want to rethink that approach. An overly strict home or church life that imposes burdensome beliefs and practices upon believers in order to make them biblical Christians acts only to push individuals toward apostasy, rather than keep them from it. Ironically the very means some have used to keep their people within the fold (the all-or-nothing approach) contributed to their deconversions. This ought not surprise us though because there is clearly something wrong with an interpretation of Christianity that places heavy burdens on believers when Jesus says that his burden is light, and his truth is freeing. This raises the question of just what deconverts are rejecting. While it may call itself “biblical” Christianity, it certainly is not the religion of Jesus of Nazareth.

Portions of this post were taken from the book The Anatomy of Deconversion, by John Marriott, Published by Abilene Christian University Press, 2021. 

Footnotes

  1. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/13/a-closer-look-at-americas-rapidly-growing-religious-nones/
  2. “The Great Opportunity Report”, 9. Available at https://www.greatopportunity.org/
  3. Fred Clark “The All of Nothing Lie of Fundamentalist Christianity,” at The Slacktivist (blog), December 3, 2012, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2012/12/03/the-all-or-nothing-lie-of-fundamentalist-christianity-part-1/#bJXi5E5PebHwRtHM.99
  4. Clark, “The All or Nothing Lie.”

John Marriott

Dr. John Marriott is the coordinator of the Biola University Center for Christian Thought.

20 Comments

  • Brian Scoles says:

    John, your post is both enlightening and discouraging. As a former of Director of Christian Outreach for 8 years in the LCMS tradition, and now after having served as a pastor in the Missouri Synod for the past 15 years, your article has given me much food for thought. I appreciate the time and effort that you’ve put into researching and writing about deconversion. You are right, it is one thing to read about Christian “celebrities” leaving the faith, but it is even more painful when it happens closer to home with our co-workers, friends, and family members. Your post has me continuing to think about the Rule of Faith that guided the early Church. It also has me continuing to ponder the question: what is saving faith? Perhaps you address these topics in depth in your book?

    • Brian,

      Thanks for your comment. Like you, thinking about saving faith has resulted from thinking about deconversion. I really like what Matthew Bates and Scot McKnight advocate for. They say that the best understanding of “belief” is “allegiance”. That we intellectually affirm the truths of the gospel, and we entrust ourselves to Jesus by way of allegiance to him as King/Lord. I summarize that in the book The Anatomy of Deconversion.

  • David Ward says:

    Thank you for this post John! Very helpful. Every semester I confront the issue you mention below:

    “Many former Christians describe a burdensome religious system they identified with something they call “biblical” Christianity that required them to affirm a host of nonnegotiable teachings in order to be a genuine Christian.”

    I confront this most often in my general science classes. I do my best to point out reasons as to why there is no science in the Bible, and that a Christian is one who loves, obeys, and does their best to be like Christ. Nonetheless, sometimes I get pushback that the universe simply must be quite young, all evolution must be nonsense, the flood was indeed global, etc. and that these things must be believed, or the entire Bible falls apart. (For every student who pushes back, I suspect there are several quiet ones who would like to also object.)

    Sadly, I don’t see this getting any better because the institutional church as a whole won’t address it. Many pastors aren’t equipped to deal with this, others are simply afraid to try as they may lose their jobs. (Indeed, I confess to not bringing these issues up in my SS class, though I could.) Also, it is easier to address these issues in our academic setting than in a church – that’s part of our job.

    Part of our calling as Christian educators is to show students real examples of Christians (us!) who love Jesus and are amazed at the 14-billion-year-old universe that adds to God’s incredible power and majesty, it doesn’t subtract. Organizations like Biologos try to make such points as these.

    Sorry for my long response! This is a huge issue to me.

    Thanks again and God bless.

  • Thomas Scott Caulley says:

    Thanks for this insightful article. As a New Testament scholar, I’m struck by what it was those first Christians focused on as non-negotiable to their faith. It is Christological– Jesus is the Christ, Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus came in the flesh, Jesus rose from the dead. Eschatology was not central for them, nor geology (neither young earth or old earth), nor ecclesiology, or much else. Non-negotiables were few, and truly basic. And if you want a serious challenge to modern ideas of inerrancy, pay attention to how Paul and the other NT writers approach and apply their scriptures. As I tell my students, if you don’t want your faith to collapse like a house of cards, don’t build it like a house of cards!

  • John,
    Thanks for your insights as troubling as they may be to Christian educators. On a personal note, your research has caused me to not only reassess what I present to my students, but also to my three sons. I pray God will give you a platform not only at Biola, but well beyond our boarders.

  • Lewis Rambo’s book Conversion says that people losing faith is often more social/emotional than intellectual. He calls it “disaffiliation,” feeling that you just don’t belong in a particular church community. He adds that conversion can often be a matter of “affiliation,” finding a community of Christians whom you identify with and want to join. C. S. Lewis’s life illustrates this perfectly. He lost his childhood faith because he identified it with his bombastic father and the legalistic, politicized religion of polarized northern Ireland. After being a skeptic for most of his teens and twenties, he met J. R. R. Tolkien and other Christians at Oxford, became close friends, and was receptive to their arguments for Christian faith. I suppose a large part of our tasks as Christians in today’s world is to be winsome ambassadors for the Kingdom, the fragrance of Christ to those who are perishing, the kind of people whom others will want to be affiliated with, to join in a community of faith.

    • David,

      Thanks for your post. I am in complete agreement. I suspect that most folks who come to know the Lord do so because of the sociological factors that you mention. I am struck by what Peter says when he explains what caused him (at least in part) to believe Jesus was the messiah.

      “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness”.

      “His…goodness”

      1 Peter 1:3

      John

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    “this is the single largest generational loss of souls in history who were nominally raised in the church and no longer call themselves followers of Jesus.”

    My first question here, with respect to the word “nominally” is, were they in fact Christians in the first place? I have always found the term “nominal Christian” troubling because a saving relationship with Jesus Christ cannot be inherited from anyone. It requires personal faith in Christ as one through whom our sins are forgiven, and that requires proper understanding of, sorrow for, and repentance of one’s sins. The Biblical examples of two men illustrate this: a rich young ruler who stated that he had kept the commandments of the law from his youth, and a chief tax collector named Zaccheaus. Despite “keeping the rules” from his youth, the rich young ruler wanted to know what he needed to do to be saved. He had no assurance of going to heaven despite his obedience to the law. Jesus pointed to his need: to repent of his love for his possessions by selling them and giving the proceeds from the sales to the poor. He could not bring himself to do that and walked away. Zaccheaus, who recognized that his greed for money had brought him nothing but trouble and a deserved terrible reputation, repented by promising to reimburse those he’d cheated and give interest as well, and was saved. Surely he had been no keeper of the law from his youth, and yet . . .

    Let’s rid our vocabulary of the term “nominal Christian”; there is no such person.

  • Neale Povey says:

    Your comment viz. salvation will be lost due to….. Tells me that you have a basic disconnect in the reason for meeting in Christian fellowship. Check the guidelines of the episcopal church.

    Thanks for the great research..

    • Neale.

      Thanks for your comment. Although I find it hard to understand.

      Can you please expand on what you refer to as my “basic disconnect”? It’s not clear to me how identifying a causal factor in faith exit being a rigid, all-or-nothing set of beliefs, reveals what I think about the reason for meeting in Christian fellowship.

      Can you also provide the guidelines you refer to? I’d be happy to check them out.

  • Doug Daugherty says:

    Thanks for a very timely and insightful post. I think many of us are hungry for more conversations on this topic and the easy yoke. I’m reminded of something John Ortberg once said, “We have to find a way to understand Christianity that the Pharisee’s don’t come out on top.” The with-God life is full and freeing. Yes, let’s keep coming back to the yoke with Christ.

  • Joe S. says:

    I have read many deconversion stories. I’ll bet the people in John 6 who left Jesus for good had the same testimonies. “I’m so much happier now” or “His teaching was SO constricting. It is So good to be free”. I read in great wonder. How can one who REALLY KNEW JESUS turn away from Him and say they are “happier now”? Though THEY say they were Christians, and “how dare you say I was never a true believer”, the fact is, these people followed a faith—they did not follow a Person. They did not KNOW Jesus. The people in John 6 followed Jesus for a while to see what THEY could get out of following him. Then they were disappointed. He had fed them and preached to them, but they were not following Him for HIm, They were following what their conception of who He should be was. These people speak about the pain they went through leaving their faith—-but easily forget the pain the PERSON they were following went through on a cross for them. It is truly sad. Dan Barker wrote a book called “Losing faith in faith”. That is exactly it. He lost faith in faith—because he never really had faith in Jesus Himself. He never knew Him.

    • John Marriott says:

      Joe,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I have no doubt that your judgment of some deconverts is accurate. But in my opinion, it’s a hasty generalization. I have met too many former believers who lost their faith through tears, praying “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” One of the most troubling things about researching deconversion is talking with folks who give every impression that they wanted to believe but couldn’t stop it from slipping away. I’m not talking about nominal believers. I’m talking about former pastors, seminary students, and missionaries. The people I have in mind did not follow Jesus for what they could get from him. In fact, they sacrificed much for him. Losing their faith was devastating for them. Unfortunately, they came to the place where they no longer believed Christianity was true and could not make themselves believe otherwise.

  • David Bogosian says:

    The goal of Christianity is not to find some common denominator that both the saved and the damned can adhere to. Our job is to help the elect understand better the God who saved them. The Bible says those who “leave the faith” were never in it to begin with. We don’t change Biblical Christianity to make it more acceptable to our critics.

    • John Marriott says:

      David,

      “The goal of Christianity is not to find some common denominator that both the saved and the damned can adhere to.”

      Agreed, but I’m not sure why you think that was the message of the article. We shouldn’t be looking for a common denominator, rather we should be emphasizing the essential doctrines that define the faith.

      I would humbly suggest that the Bible doesn’t say “those who ‘leave the faith’ were never in it to begin with.” That’s one interpretation of what the Bible says. Good, thoughtful Bible students come to different conclusions on this matter.

      I agree “we don’t change biblical Christianity to make it more acceptable to our critics.” I didn’t, nor would I advocate that.

      But, nor should we elevate a secondary, and tertiary doctrine that Christians disagree about to the level of a non-negotiable doctrine of the faith.

      Peace

  • K. Bubel says:

    Thank you for this thought-provoking piece. I would be grateful to see research that parallels Jonathan Haidt’s to see if there are connections to the rise in social media. Do the upward trends of “deconversion” mirror those appearing in Haidt’s research (the latter re. cultural polarization as well as self-harm/suicide)? If so, then Rene Girard’s insights about mimetic desire and societal dynamics might also be very pertinent. My hypothesis is that “deconversion” is entangled with human nature’s mimetic desire-informed identity, including fear of being exiled/cancelled from the community (scapegoated as a “deplorable” by peers). This might account, in part, for the “happiness and relief” the deconverted feel.

  • Robert Marriott says:

    K.

    Thanks for the comment. I will look into Rene Girard’s work. I suspect there is a significant amount of societal pressure that is involved.

  • Tim W says:

    Thank you for writing this. I can relate to some of this during my evangelical days when the goalposts are in sight, they seem to move. Some of the comments are also showing the bifurcated thinking that contributed to the shrinking numbers of Christian adherents.