Not everyone who leaves fundamentalism becomes an atheist

Walking away

Last post I blogged about atheists at US universities, many of whom grew up in ‘fundamentalist’ churches. This post, we look at conservative christians who went through a period of examining their faith, but chose to continue to believe in Jesus, albeit their beliefs about God changed somewhat.

Fundamentalists and the 21st century

I have come across many people who once were christians with a fairly ‘fundamentalist’ or conservative faith, i.e. they believed there could be no errors in the Bible, that Genesis 1-3 should be understood as literal history and hence evolution couldn’t be true, etc, but who had stopped believing in Jesus as they learnt more about the Bible and science. Some of these are now bloggers (see my post Atheists who once were christians), some are now academics (e.g. Bart Ehrman, Robert Price), some I have just met around the internet.

No doubt many go to college and return home with their previous beliefs intact. But it is probably getting harder for that to happen, because evolutionary science is getting a stronger base all the time and is more and more accepted by christians, and Biblical studies is these days increasingly open to alternative interpretations which arise from academic study of history, archaeology and ancient culture.

Ex-conservative christians

It seems that more and more are grappling with the issues that modern learning presents to serious christian faith, and coming to new understandings.

From fear to faith

Earlier this year, Joel Watts and Travis Milam published From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls. I haven’t read it yet – only a couple of stories which can be read from the Amazon page plus a positive reaction to it and several reviews – but I have it on order.

A dangerous ignorance

It seems that many churches, perhaps most churches, keep their members in the dark about many aspects of modern science and modern Biblical studies, for example:

  • the DNA and other evidence for biological evolution and the number of christians who are scientists who accept evolution;
  • the difficulties of reconciling Old Testament history with the archaeological and literary evidence;
  • the challenges to the view that the Old Testament has many accurate prophecies of future events, especially the coming of Jesus;
  • the understanding of modern New Testament scholars about the life of Jesus.

Christians don’t have to endorse all of sceptical scholars’ conclusions, but if they are not considered and addressed, it is likely that they will hit the unsuspecting conservative christian in the guts some day. Fearing the worst if they let their congregations know about the current state of academic thinking, pastors may simply set some of them up for a bigger fall.

“What you leave behind you don’t miss anyway”

From what I have read, it seems facing up to these and other issues was indeed a trial of faith for most of the contributors to this book, but they came through with a stronger, better based and more thoughtful faith. Many rejected things they once took for granted but which stand on shaky intellectual ground, while holding onto the basics, which are well supported by evidence. Some left their former churches to find a fellowship they could belong to without compromising their new understandings.

Peter Enns tells one such story.

What should churches do about this?

What do you think?

I can’t help feeling that churches and pastors cannot give what they don’t have. If they think they can teach and disciple their congregations without preparing them intellectually, then I wonder if they have a correct view of the modern world. If they think one person, or a small staff, can span across all the different issues and aspects of discipleship without involving thoughtful “lay people”, I wonder if they understand either the modern world or the New Testament.

I think we need a radically new, but old as the New Testament, approach to discipleship. Here are a few hints:

“Christianity is changing

This slow shift in the beliefs of younger christians is yet another sign that christianity is changing.

Photo: Photo Credit: torbakhopper via Compfight cc

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  1. I am in the crowd of those who have left fundamentalism but not Jesus. People who visit my site often tell me that I am going to give up Christianity and become an atheist. I don’t think I ever will. It’s not necessarily a belief progression.
    Great article.

  2. unkleE, as per your 4 points under “A Dangerous Ignorance”:
    1. Why focus on biological evolution and not the other three? How does DNA provide evidence for biological evolution? What type of biological evolution are you referring to? Atheistic? Theistic/ID? Panspermian? Deistic?
    2. Archaeology is difficult to reconcile to anyone’s historical record.
    3. What challenges to the view of bible prophecy?
    4. What understanding of the life of Jesus?

  3. I’d be interested to hear more about the book if you’ve read it. If you don’t mind, I would mention two (hopefully not too pedantic) points:
    1. Many theologians took Gen 1 – 3 as literal history, but didn’t reject the bulk of evolution. This is possible by either day-age creationism or the gap theory:
    2. Bart Ehrman became a liberal Protestant when he left Fundamentalism. It was the argument from evil that made him an agnostic/atheist later.
    But that aside, I strongly agree that a church should try to inform its members of these issues of science and Bible scholarship. Otherwise Christianity is made needlessly burdensome on people, with potentially traumatising results.
    It might be that these churches are afraid of disenchanting members by raising such issues, that are controversial among some conservative Christian groups. But this does not work either.

  4. I am one of those once fundamental now progressive Christian bloggers. I guess I’m still undergoing a faith crisis, but I will not go as far as saying nothing exist but this physical world. Of all the belief system, atheism is the one I identify with the least.

  5. sacredstruggler,
    People say all sorts of things they don’t really know. Why should changing belief on some matters lead to total disbelief? On the same principle, a person who changes their mind on a political question is on the road to becoming an anarchist??? Thanks for your comment.
    I read your blog with appreciation, and I wouldn’t have thought you were “undergoing a faith crisis”, but I am not always very discerning! ๐Ÿ™‚ Yes, if I wasn’t a christian, I don’t think I would ever be an atheist – I think it explains very little about the real world – so I guess I would be a deist or an agnostic.
    Thanks for both your comments.

  6. Hi Chaz,
    I’ll have a go at answering your questions, but let’s not get into a knock down argument that goes nowhere and only aggravates. I’ll try to do my best.
    1. I wasn’t focusing, just describing and commenting on what people think. You may disagree with what people are thinking, but i think there is little doubt that people are thinking about this.
    2. Yep. But most christians don’t care about the historical record of the Sumerians or the Canaanites, but they do care about the Jewish historical records.
    3. Whether they should be interpreted literally, and if so, how accurate they are. See for example The fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy.
    4. The things that the majority of NT scholars say about Jesus that don’t quite match modern western evangelical teachings. If you read some of NT Wright you’ll know what I mean.

  7. Hi ignorantianescia,
    1, I think DNA studies make those options less believable for me, but I admit I haven’t studied it much. As I said to Chaz, I am reporting not necessarily endorsing.
    2. Yes I have read Bart say that, and I didn’t want to infer the reasons why he stopped believing, just mentioning him.
    “Otherwise Christianity is made needlessly burdensome on people, with potentially traumatising results”
    I think an excessive argumentation about origins is detrimental all round. It makes it harder for many christians to keep on believing, and harder for non-believers to take it seriously. Even when I was still agnostic about origins, I still felt it a topic I didn’t want to argue about because I thought it did harm.
    Thanks for your comments.

  8. unkleE, how exactly do the churches keep their members in the dark? Do the pastor even know the current state of scientific and/or theological scholarship? Why do you suspect this ‘keep members in the dark’ thesis to be the case? If persons in the science community generally do not read outside of their specialty, why must only theologians keep up with theology, archaeology and science? Which science? Biology or all four? Should they keep abreast of math, the social sciences and humanities as well? Also, could you list some theologians who can properly discuss theology and at least one science?

  9. “On the same principle, a person who changes their mind on a political question is on the road to becoming an anarchist???”
    We are all anarchists concerning most forms of government that humanity have ever upheld. Some of us just go one form of government further.
    Sorry, I couldn’t resist making that joke!

  10. “unkleE, how exactly do the churches keep their members in the dark?”
    It is simple Chaz. Many churches don’t tell them much relevant information (e.g. what many scientists including christians say about origins, or what many archaeologists says about OT history) and give a slanted view of other info (e.g. misrepresenting the strength of archaeological support for the OT). Even if the scientists and archaeologists are wrong, christians need to understand the options.
    I am not necessarily expect pastors or theologians to understand science and archaeology, I am suggesting (1) they should not speak either way on issues unless they understand them and are willing to present a fair case, and (2) there are christian archaeologists and scientists they can ask to speak on these issues.
    Chaz, do you really want to keep pushing this stuff in such a manner? Do you really think it will be edifying?

  11. Many churches can’t even teach proper theology. Why are you bothering about archaeology and science? Can’t these church members use the Internet if they want information? Can they not buy books? At some point, the responsibility is not that of the church and/or pastor. I am asking for clarification and not too concerned about edification.
    If you claim that “they should not speak either way on issues unless they understand them and are willing to present a fair case,” then this would invalidate your Mungo Man post which is clearly unfamiliar with YEC views (nor did you care to engage with such views). More importantly, you state: “there are christian archaeologists and scientists they can ask to speak on these issues.” Now how is the pastor to implement this practically? Is he to invite a YEC? An ID proponent? An OEC? BioLogos advocate? All of them? Is he to have them debate? Which church practically implements what you propose?

  12. โ€œYield not to temptation, for yielding is sin!โ€ ๐Ÿ™‚
    Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. ๐Ÿ˜‰
    Well, at least it was about “forms of government” and “anarchism”, not “combinations (or worse: permutations;) of clothing” and “naturism”. That would be sin.

  13. Chaz,
    You seem to want to argue about details, and on your own admission you aren’t “too concerned about edification”. So let me ask you: are you more concerned to argue with me about details, or are you more concerned that people may give up their faith for lack of good information?

  14. I would say equally concerned. However, my point is that Christians are responsible for their own learning as well. That you want the church to provide information justifies me asking questions as to the details of how that is to be implemented. For whatever reason, you seem not too concerned about that but would rather speak vaguely. But if I was a pastor wanting to implement your suggestions, I would only have a rough framework from which to start. Thus, what examples (pastors, churches, denominations) are there that (best) exhibit the ideals of your proposal?
    It is also not ‘arguing’ about details, I am requesting information as to what you see as a practical solution. I would strongly agree that churches are inadequately prepared for almost every area of knowledge and thus this would be one reason that people leave. However, I would be quite glad if someone was willing to dissect my posts and ask for said detail.

  15. Of course christians are responsible for their own learning, we are agreed there, but the reality is that many churches persuade them against reading some types of authors – you just have to read the stories of many web atheists to learn that.
    This is just one blog post, and its purpose was not to outline a full church curriculum, but to comment on the observation that when confronted many people develop their faith in new direction rather than give it away. I have indicated the direction I think churches should go (open-ness, giving opportunity for scientists and historians who are members to educate their congregations, avoiding fear responses, etc), but exactly how each one should do that is beyond my knowledge, because each congregation is different, has different gifts among its members, etc. If churches just began to have a more open attitude, I would be pleased. It seems that you actually agree with me in some of this, but that wasn’t at all clear until now.
    Chaz, you are very welcome to comment, and even to “dissect ” my posts. But I am also free to respond as I think most helpful. So far, you have not said much that I can understand about the positions you hold, but you appear to be arguing from a position so opposed to mine that I see little point in arguing. So I just try to answer your questions simply. If you want to have a discussion, you need to offer more of what you think and why, and then I can decide if I wish to comment on that.

  16. I don’t think that someone should have to state their position before they can ask questions. That you would see my posts as “arguing from a position so opposed” to yours tells me quite a bit about your own position.
    Anyhow, does your home church implement the intellectual atmosphere you advocate? If so, in what aspects?

  17. Yep, not everyone who leaves Fundamentalism becomes an atheist. Some of us become snarky Christian bloggers, working to try to free other brothers and sisters from the deceptions thereof ๐Ÿ™‚

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