We can read the statistics which show that, in most western countries, church attendance has fallen in the last century. In some cases it is still falling, though in others it has levelled out. The ‘leavers’ are not necessarily giving up all belief in God – many list themselves as ‘not committed’ – but some are choosing to be atheists.
But this is all statistics. There is also a human face to these changes.
It’s not hard to find deconversion stories. Many of these converts to atheism were enthusiastic christians and are now equally enthusiastic atheists. Others were very troubled christians who feel very relieved to be out of there. Either way, they are often keen to tell their story.
And so it is easy to find websites and blogs devoted to deconversion stories, and common to find committed atheists commenting on blogs or arguing on forums. As a christian, I find some stories quite distressing (for a variety of reasons), but I think it is helpful to understand what is going on.
Things I’ve learnt
- Many christians believe a christian cannot fall away, so these converts must never have been true believers. God knows the truth in any individual case, and we cannot know a person’s heart or their future. But the stories show that, as much as a human can know, many of these people were fervent believers who prayed, witnessed, worshipped, read their Bibles, and some even pastored.
- Some people couldn’t wait to escape the church, but for many of them it was a deeply emotional experience as they really struggled with their loss of faith.
- Some atheist converts are very angry, but I have found many of them to be likeable and pleasant – though generally unyielding on the truth of their newfound worldview.
- Perhaps because of their previous experience as christians, many of them are very evangelistic for atheism. And their websites often provide fellowship, encouragement and support for ongoing unbelief.
- Many of them are very focused on the negative in christianity (unanswered prayer, the problem of evil, the bad behaviour of christians, hell, etc) and seem unwilling to seriously consider the positive. I can’t help thinking that the conclusions a person comes to (christian or unbeliever) will often be determined by what they chose to focus on.
- Many of them had very negative or unhelpful church experiences. They may not have thought so at the time, but looking back, they can see the problems. One lapsed christian reports how he invited a friend to church, only to have her laugh out loud at the behaviour and teachings of his pastor, teachings he was also beginning to question.
- Some (many?) believe they were forced by strong arguments to leave the faith. However I have generally found that lapsed christians often have an understanding and experience of christianity that is very different to mine, and arguably different to most christians, which may help explain their decision to deconvert.
How churches don’t help
Churches are an in-group, with their own particular and often peculiar culture, behaviours and language. It all seems so familiar and right to those inside, but this can hide big problems. Some pastors and leaders behave badly. Many feel the need to feed their own self esteem. Many more are well-meaning, but their teaching and leadership promote beliefs and behaviour which are counter-productive.
- Many don’t have answers to the questions and challenges of unbelief, and few effectively train christians in why it is reasonable to believe and how to face doubts.
- Churches in the US are often extremely conservative, theologically, politically and socially. They often sound old fashioned and out of touch with contemporary culture – and unfortunately they probably often are.
- Being part of a dominant culture of Christendom in the US can breed bad habits – triumphalism, pride, disdain for other viewpoints, and the reinforcement of wrong ideas. Lack of love for unbelievers, who are sometimes seen as enemies, is a particular problem.
- Some pastors and ministers have developed behaviours in services that seem to reinforce the sense of being an in-group, with them as the acknowledged leader and crowd favourite. They build a symbiotic relationship with the congregation that feeds their egos, but sounds corny or worse to outsiders and even many within. (I have struggled to explain this idea clearly, but I hope you can picture what I mean.)
- Many churches hold extremely literal interpretations of the Bible, especially Genesis and the historical books of the Old Testament. This puts them in opposition to established science and history, and sometimes leads to attempts to justify mass killing in the Old Testament. Whatever the merits of these literal interpretations, they make a church look further out of touch. The doctrine of hell, the ethical stance against homosexuality and teachings on the place of women are significant difficulties for outsiders.
- Many approaches to evangelism and witnessing are insensitive and off-putting to the unbelieving victims and to the perspiring christian.
Lessons to consider
The most basic fact about the christian faith is grace – God’s love, freely given. We christians need to learn to become people of grace, freely giving love in every situation, just like the God we follow. This needs to become our commitment, our habit and our second nature. John Burke says that if we try to correct people’s behaviour before they understand grace, we will probably obscure this most important truth, while bludgeoning them with a secondary truth.
The evangelical church desperately needs to prayerfully, and in deep repentance, reconsider its beliefs, behaviour and attitudes. We need to repent of pride, insensitivity and judgmentalism. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to refresh our understanding of scripture and of all the things we are so certain about, in case he has new truths to show us. We need to especially pray about our approach to the Bible, doctrine, science, evolution, public ethics and politics, lest our traditional responses are in error in God’s eyes.
If we decide we must stay with the traditional views on difficult matters like evolution, homosexuality, gay marriage, politics, hell, the inerrancy and contemporary applicability of Old Testament laws and commands and many less important practices and teachings, we must learn how to communicate our conclusions to our own members and to a world that is increasingly bemused and alienated by them, and how to hold these views in a loving way.
We need to see atheists, unbelievers, and lapsed christians as fellow humans on the journey of life, friends and not enemies. It is true that a few see us as their enemies, but that just gives us an opportunity to love our enemies and pray for them. While we profoundly disagree with their choice, we should be able to empathise with the pain many of them have gone through. Where we have opportunity, we should apologise for the objectionable things said to them in the name of Jesus. We may never see them return to faith as we would long to happen, but if we love them, some will, and their faith will be much the stronger for the journey.
This has been a difficult post to write – because the subject is distressing, and because it is difficult to put my finger on the best way to understand what is going on and what God is saying. Please forgive me if I have offended you.
If you are a christian and when you read this you start to feel indignant, and want to tell me how you are not going to let go of the truths you have come to know, let me ask you a question I have sometimes had to ask myself. If I had been a Jew in Jesus’ day, would I have been willing to let go my past and follow him? God is making all things new; Jesus challenged the religious leaders of his day, and the Holy Spirit led Peter to disregard the scriptural understandings of his day to go and meet with Cornelius. Are we willing to change?
Please join me in praying that we will do better to love God with our whole hearts and our neighbours as ourselves, even if they are atheists or lapsed christians.
If you want to read some of the things atheists are saying (and this is not for everybody), I suggest: