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.
- “The Great Opportunity Report”, 9. Available at https://www.greatopportunity.org/
- 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
- Clark, “The All or Nothing Lie.”