This post looks at the many different reasons why christians stop believing, and is based my discussions with atheists on forums and blogs over the past six years, and on accounts people give of their own ‘deconversion’ on mainly atheist websites. (These are not too hard to find.)
Some just drift …..
We are familiar with Jesus’ story of the different types of seed, representing different hears of the good news. Jesus said that many people stop believing because life just overwhelms them. Whether it is too much success and fun or too many worries, some people just drift away without necessarily deciding not to believe. You don’t find too many of these stories on the internet because they are not really committed to unbelief, they just sort of ended up there. But this would be one of the most common stories of loss of faith, especially for people who have just left school or just started full time work.
You can imagine that some of these people may not have taken this course if the christianity they experienced was more relevant to their daily lives, or if they had a strong set of relationships with christians who continued to care for them and keep in contact.
…. but others have reasons
The internet deconversion stories are probably not representative (because the people who volunteer their stories are probably much more committed unbelievers than most), but they give a taste why some people stop believing. Here are some of the most common reasons:
- Many were brought up in christian, or church-going, homes, but never really believed it or understood it. I imagine this would be a common occurrence in a country like the US, where a form of christianity is part of the culture, or among teens who have attended youth groups with their friends.
- Perhaps the major reason for disbelief is the Bible. Many were brought up to believe the Bible contained no errors, but as they discovered problems and apparent errors, they could no longer believe what they had been taught and they could see no middle ground, so they felt compelled to renounce belief. Some came to this conclusion via reading the work of critical scholars who pointed out differences in the Gospel accounts and difficulties in believing some accounts are totally accurate.
- One particular aspect of the Bible that has caused many people to doubt are the killings, some would say genocide, apparently commanded by God in the Old Testament. Surely no-one today could believe such things?
- Other issues have been the apparent conflict between Genesis and evolution, difficulty in believing in Bible miracles, especially the virgin birth and the resurrection, the doctrine of hell and judgment, and some ethical commands in the Old Testament which seem quaint and irrelevant, sometimes quite repugnant, today.
- For others, the obvious evil and suffering in the world seemed to indicate that a good God could not exist, or he wouldn’t allow this. Christians doing some of these evil things was a particular problem for some.
- Some people felt that religion just didn’t do anything for them. They never felt God was there, never felt they were in relationship with him, they didn’t feel the world was any different. Some experienced a form of christianity (often described as fundamentalist or Pentecostal) that they found very strange, to odd to really identify with.
- For some it was just unresolved questions, nothing all that major, but just little things that didn’t add up.
- Finally, some looked at world religions, and religion in general, and felt that this diversity indicated there couldn’t be a God.
I have observed ….
- Some might say that these people were not believers in the first place, and undoubtedly this is true of some. But many were pastors, preachers, evangelists, Bible college teachers; many prayed, read their Bibles, shared the faith with others and apparently believed quite fervently.
- Some people left the faith after some crisis, some moral lapse on their part, or after getting involved in behaviour patterns frowned upon by christians, but many left after a long period of slowly increasing doubt.
- For many, probably most, finally ‘coming out’ as a non-believer was a relief and gave them a sense of freedom. But there are others I have met for whom this deconversion was a very difficult step emotionally. Some feared hell even after they stopped believing in christianity, others felt disloyal and bereft. Some prayed fervently for a long time, asking God to give them faith and answer their doubts.
- Virtually all the stories I have read and heard speak much of the problems with believing christianity is true but nothing of the reasons why christian belief is true. I have found it almost universal among atheists that they focus on the negative and almost never recognise both sides of the question.
As one who has also faced many of these doubts, I have a lot of sympathy with some of the people whose stories I have read or know. I do not doubt that many of them gave up belief because they genuinely could see no alternative. I have continued to believe because I think the evidence is much greater, and many of the negative arguments are mistaken, but I can understand someone coming to a different conclusion, especially if their reading is one-sided.
I’m sorry ….
I’m sorry if all this sounds terribly negative. But I think we can’t ignore this issue. Love compels us to assist young christians and ex-christians where we can, and the first step is to recognise the facts and understand.
I can’t help wondering
I can’t help wondering how different all this could have been if churches and youth groups engaged more honestly with these issues, not giving glib and poorly based answers that give christians a sense of security that will easily evaporate when challenged, but rather training young christians to face doubt and difficulties and to have the knowledge to develop truthful responses. This might include christian teachers and leaders considering whether the doctrines and behaviours that alienate are indeed right, or can be presented in a more sympathetic and realistic manner.
In coming posts I will address many of these issues – what I believe are reasonable answers, but also how we need to re-think how we make disciples. If we care for people who find themselves unable to believe any more, we will want to find ways to help them before it comes to that. Watch this space!
And please share your experience or observations.
Read the whole series
This post is part of a series on Training disciples to stand. Check out all the topics here.