Focusing on Minors Instead of Majors Makes Many Shipwreck
First, special thanks to J. Warner Wallace for sharing this article that is well worth reading on its own, because it asks a question that believers often don’t ask themselves, namely, “What causes people to lose their faith?”
Now, I’ve addressed this from a certain point of view and I’ve interacted with a “de-conversion” story before, but this article, by Ed Thornton, looks at a, “combination of ingredients, preparation, and environment can lead to a crisis of faith”.
Relating research conducted by the chair of world religions at Biola University, Dr. Jonathan Merritt discusses in his book A Recipe for Disaster: Four ways churches and parents prepare individuals to lose their faith and how they can instill a faith that endures, Dr. Merritt notes that those who break from the faith tend to have certain characteristics.
- above average intelligence
- a tendency to resist authority
- resistance to “right-wing” political values
- high value for self-determination and control
- openness to experience
The article quotes Merritt in regard to these qualities as saying, “All of these kind of combine and set somebody up statistically to be more likely to have a crisis of faith and to eventually leave their faith.”
The article notes,
But it is the way in which these ingredients are prepared which contributes significantly to whether a person will leave the faith — that is, “the way that individuals are socialised into the faith”.
Let me be clear, I’m not saying that possessing these qualities are bad, or that every person that has them is bound to wander off into apostasy or cannot be saved. Rather, that recognizing that these qualities exist should make us who believe think through what it is that we believe and ask, do we “dumb-down” the faith or do we make people reach for the high fruit.
One of the many criticisms that I often find leveled at myself is that, especially when I teach, I don’t “put things on the bottom shelf”. I tend to speak about matters that scholars have noted, how cultural concepts work, and that recognizing recognizing these make the text come to life. I don’t know what it means to have a “simple” faith.
The article quotes Merritt,
“The more . . . stories that you read online of people who once were Christians and no longer are, you start to see themes develop in how they were raised, how they were discipled, what they were told Christianity was, how they were told they needed to live out their Christianity,” he says. “And that plays a huge role in their loss of faith.”
“[When] you combine [these] things: the ingredients of someone who is maybe a little bit more inclined to be analytical and questioning and sceptical; you prepare them improperly in discipleship and socialisation; and then you send them out into a world that is not friendly to perspectives of faith — that is the recipe for disaster.”
Merritt notes that there are 4 things that are often done wrongly:
- painful preparation
He says, “Over-preparation occurs when parents or churches mistakenly equate their unique take on Christianity with the essentials of Christianity itself.(emphasis added)” This has long been a particular criticism of mine that some Christians equate a particular denomination of Christianity with “real” Christianity. While knowing and understanding why particular denominational distinctives exist is important, when they become definitional of the gospel that’s when problems can occur. I don’t insist that when a person becomes a believer that they must become a Baptist. I think Baptists get certain things right but, at the same time, Baptists don’t define the gospel, so I can poke fun and point out errors that I see with my Presbyterian and Methodist brothers and still call them “brothers” with a straight face, as well as others.
Merritt describes under-preparation for believers as when, “…they are not helped adequately to navigate life in a society that is predominantly secular.” This results in what Merritt describes as “spiritual culture shock”. This is often seen as not connecting what is taught on Sunday with the rest of the week. This comes from disconnecting the lordship of Christ over all aspects of life.
Of the ill-prepared, Merritt notes of these believers that , “crucial theological concepts . . . are missing” This can come from not preparing people for the “ugly” parts of the Bible where there may be particular cultural elements at play, failure to make proper distinctions between categories, and even making well-intentioned-but-ultimately-misguided distinctions. This can often be seen in what I call, children’s Bible theology, where serious matters are skipped or glossed over so that, as the article notes, “…when they read it in more detail, they are ‘shocked and disturbed’, encountering ‘parts of it that they never knew existed‘”.
Painful preparation is described by Merritt as essentially spiritual abuse. The article notes that he interviewed those, who “attributed what they perceived as harsh treatment or hypocritical behaviour from their spiritual leaders as playing significant roles in their deconversion”. I recently saw this in a young woman who abandoned the faith by the way that her church at the time, a rather large multi-campus church, reacted to her family when her father became sick and lost his job. Confronting one of the ministers about this, the reply she says that she received broke my heart: “bad things only happen to bad people”.
The article discusses the “de-conversation” of Olympian Jonathan Edwards, who Merritt qualifies as being over-prepared, so that in a 2007 interview he could say, “I never doubted my belief in God for a single moment until I retired from sport.”
From the article,
The path away from Christianity appears to have started when Edwards, having retired from athletics, presented a television documentary on St Paul. “Some experts raised the possibility that his spectacular conversion on the road to Damascus might have been caused by an epileptic fit,” he said. “It made me realise that I had taken things for granted that were taught to me as a child without subjecting them to any kind of analysis.
“When you think about it rationally, it does seem incredibly improbable that there is a God.”
Continuing, the article notes,
It would be too simplistic to attribute Edwards’s loss of faith solely to intellectual doubts that he could not resolve. Another significant factor was a change in life circumstances, namely his retirement from professional sport. “With one facet of my identity stripped away, I began to question the others and, from there, there was no stopping,” he told The Times. “The foundations of my world were slowly crumbling.”
The problem seemed to be that until he was faced with an existential crisis, where his identity had become attached to one thing, when that thing stopped being definitional of him there was nothing to support his identity. It was ultimately misplaced priorities that undermined Edwards, as well as others mentioned in the article.
So, what were my takeaways from the article?
In many “de-conversion” stories, I tend to notice some of the same things:
- A shallow faith. Their Christianity was a thin veneer built more on social approval and expectations than actual belief. This kind of faith is easily cracked by changing social circumstances. It can also be one based upon false expectations.
- A rigid faith. This kind of faith is built upon a rigid legalism. It weighs a thousand pounds and puts distinctiveness above dedication. It can result in cult-like behavior that results in an “us-versus-them” mentality. I often refer to this as “score-card” Christianity, and those who have it eventually burn out.
- A misunderstood faith. This can be both shallow and rigid in practice because it often insists on particular understanding that has no nuance. This seems to spring up in certain fundamentalist circles, or in circles that have detached Christ from life.
- An unexamined faith. Knowing what you believe and why it’s believed is important. Faith can fail when a particular belief or set of beliefs isn’t carefully examined for coherence. Failure to look into beliefs can often expose oneself to attack, that can reveal the fact that one has the previous 3.
I started this blog to help document what I believe and why, so that someone might find it and be exposed to someone working through their faith. I don’t know everything, and my beliefs have changed over the years. I honestly don’t think that if you believe the exact same thing you believed 2 years ago that you’re necessarily growing. For example, my belief about the doctrines of inspiration and infallibility have changed from what I used to believe about it, and it changed as a result of my studies about the doctrines. And I appreciate both more now than I did back then. So, the question is, is there anything that we can do to prevent this?
Some of y’all just swallowed your gum, so I need to explain. The old adage stands, You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. You can do everything right, you can have a coherent and meaningful response to every question or argument raised against the faith, and that argument will still be rejected. Most people don’t necessarily want actual answers, they want permission. In the end people believe what they want to believe. I mean, let’s take the example of Jonathan Edwards as mentioned in the article: what did he want to believe?
What trashed his faith was a claim made in a documentary about the Apostle Paul, that his conversion was brought about by an epileptic fit, which is something so-called “experts” propose. Well, what’s the problem with that?
If we go to Acts 9 and Acts 22, where the accounts of Paul’s experience with the risen Christ are recorded, we notice a few things: 1) Paul was not alone, and 2) those who were with him both saw and heard something related to Paul’s experience, namely light and sound. Now, I don’t know if you have ever been unfortunate enough to have been around someone who has epilepsy or some similar condition, but I have. There’s two things that don’t happen: the room doesn’t fill with light and there aren’t voices from heaven that others can hear but not understand. It’s almost like those “experts” have to ignore what the text says to draw their conclusions. The objection would be, well that’s just Paul’s claim that there we other people there. The problem with that objection is that it’s merely attempting to dismiss a claim without providing any evidence to the contrary. The evidence for the claim is Paul’s testimony, as recorded by Luke. Of course, someone will try to come back, well we don’t have the testimony of those who were with him. My challenge is, how do you know that we don’t? Luke had already made it clear in his gospel that he had interviewed people related to the events that he’s recording for posterity. The fact that he doesn’t name them as sources doesn’t mean that he didn’t confirm Paul’s claims about them. The objection is one from silence.
Moral of the story here folks, Christians have sufficient evidence to justify their beliefs when we actually understand what it is that we believe and can articulate that belief meaningfully.