Why do Christians Become Atheists? A Case Study
All of the data for this study were drawn from deconversion accounts found in books, articles, and interviews.
Consequently, the results are true of the kinds of deconverts who publicly tell their story. It may be the case that there is a silent majority of deconverts who do not broadcast their story. About those individuals I cannot say anything because I don't have access to their narratives.
Various religious organizations were rocked in 2019 when reports showed a rapid decline in religion in America. This follows on a trend that was reported four years earlier in 2015.
The issue of a shrinking church is very prescient in America today, and it might be time to look at the subject of deconversion.
Deconversion and Disaffiliation
Before looking at this topic, it's important to make one distinction.
The shrinking of the American church does not mean that people are dropping out of churches and declaring themselves atheists in droves. Most of the loss of church attendance is due to disaffiliation.
Disaffiliation is a situation wherein the individual stops attending church, but doesn't take a strong position on things like the existence of God or how we ground morality or anything so heady. Instead, they stop associating with religion and find other concerns to focus on. These are the kinds of people who, when polled by Pew Reports, will list themselves as "nones," meaning that they take no position on religion. It is neither interesting nor important to them.
These are people who "drift away" from church without any official declaration or ceremony. They might begin to disagree with the politics or practices of Christians, but not theology.
Deconverts on the other hand are just what they sound like. They do take a stand on religion. More specifically, they take a stand against religion.
Deconverts were often the most committed Christians in their church. And now they are equally committed against the church. Whereas those who disaffiliate were never very committed while they were there.
The number of atheists in America and in the world are growing as religions are shrinking, but most of those who leave lose interest in the subject of religion entirely.
A Five Stage Model of Deconversion.
So how does deconversion happen? I propose a five stage model of what a person goes through when they deconvert. The five stages are these:
- Setting Conditions - What is the religious experience or background of a deconvert? What sorts of religious experiences do they have in common?
- Stressors - People don't change their lives for no reason. And most people don't change their mind for one reason overnight. Deconversion is a process, and there are a lot of events that happen between being Religious and being Atheist.
- Trigger - There comes a point where a person has to tip over the edge from holding certain beliefs and discarding those beliefs. Getting rid of the beliefs can be gradual, but something happens that makes a person want to look at their beliefs critically.
- Processing - Once a person makes the decision to take a long hard look at what they believe, it's not easy, and the ideas they've built their lives upon don't die easily.
- Deconversion - There comes a time when a person is ready to make the stand and let their friends, family, and themselves know that they are now an Atheist.
Let's look at these stages.
1.) Setting Conditions
It is firstly worth noting that all of the deconversion accounts that I followed came from individuals who "grew up in the church." They were converted as children, or never underwent a significant conversion experience. This is significant because there was virtually no point in these individual's lives that they knew anything but Christianity.
This lack of encountering other worldviews outside the church is a crucial setting condition for deconversion, as we will soon see.
It is well recognized that deconverts seem to come almost exclusively from Fundamentalist backgrounds, but the term "Fundamentalist" is problematic.
It is problematic because it doesn't have a specific or universal definition. Fundamentalism is where you see it, and it may have a different definition from a theological perspective than from a social or political perspective.
Instead, I was able to pull out five specific features common to the backgrounds of most individuals who deconvert.
Not a single person I profiled didn't have at least one of these conditions. They are:
In church circles, this is sometimes called Legalism. It essentially is a situation wherein the community expects you to act a certain way, and will call you out if you don't live up to those expectations. As a member of that community, you would also hold the other members accountable for their actions. There is a heavy pressure to perform and there is a consequence of shame or guilt if you fail.
In legal speak, textualism is a term that says you stick to the letter of the law without trying to read in meaning that isn't there. I use the term to describe a situation where a religious community reads and interprets their scripture as literally and rigidly as possible. Less consideration is given to nuance or cultural features of the text, and it is assumed that the words were written directly by God, directly to them.
By far the most common feature of these church backgrounds, Isolationism refers to a situation where the individual does not stray far outside his or her church community, and does not entertain any sort of news or entertainment media which do not subscribe to the culture of the church. It refers to a sort of hyper-tribalism, wherein the Church is the most primary community, and everyone outside that community is an "other" or an "out group."
Some churches are practical in their approach to teaching and living - bringing the message in a down-to-earth way that relates to life, grounded history, and meaning.
Other churches prefer to lean toward the spiritual side. These churches focus on things like the workings of angels, demons, and spirits in the world. They sometimes engage in rituals which invoke miracles or ecstatic spiritual experiences. They tend to focus on features in the scripture that deal with prophecy and future events.
When these abstract spiritual events are given excessive importance to the teachings of this church, it falls under this category of spiritualism.
There are very few things in a person's life of which they are typically certain. There is always some room for doubt. But in this church setting a person isn't just encouraged to be certain of their salvation, the truth of the Bible, the fidelity of the minister, and other things. They are expected to be certain. Any type of uncertainty is seen as evidence of backsliding, disbelief, or misbehavior.
These are the setting conditions from which one tends to see deconverts emerge. Now let's look at the second stage in the deconversion process.
Everyone has troubles in life. Work is stressful, family can be difficult to deal with, and sometimes one loses one's job or faces divorce or the death of a loved one.
It would be difficult to identify any person who doesn't face some kind of stress.
However, there are some kinds of life events which strain at one's religious convictions.
One common stressor is doubts one entertains about religion. Questions about the nature of one's belief are common, no matter what that belief is. However, each of these doubts contributes to an accumulation of "stressors," and as they pile up and remain unaddressed or repressed, the more they strain.
Another common stressor is an unstable relationship with one's religious community.
However, one of the most common stressors involves encounters with new ideas and new communities outside of one's immediate religious environment. Recall earlier we made note of the fact that deconverts virtually all "grew up in the church." These are individuals who have no experience to prepare them for dealing with perspectives which are not part of their religious upbringing.
It is a common trope that when a teenager goes off to college, they end up deconverting. If that teen has been raised in the church all of his or her life and has never engaged with a community outside the church, this movement to college forces the individual to cope with new perspectives he or she has never entertained. At this point, the individual is forced to tinker. That is, he or she begins to adjust his or her ideas and beliefs in order to accommodate things he or she has never considered.
There are other sorts of life stressors that contribute to this process, but a stressor of some sort always exists.
3.) Trigger Event
As stressors build in one's life without being satisfactorily addressed, the person approaches a point where he or she is primed for the deconversion process. Then something happens, and the person begins to entertain and engage his or her doubts directly.
The thing that pushes him or her over the edge is the "trigger event."
Sometimes the trigger event is a life event - a divorce or a church split.
Often it is a question. How could a loving God send people to hell, or evidence suggests evolution is true, so the Bible must be wrong.
As deconversion stories become more frequent in the news, often the "trigger event" is given the most attention. The person's deconversion story frequently rotates around this event and it is taken as the sole reason for his or her deconversion.
However, the trigger event is not the reason for the deconversion. If the "stressors" are the building pressure leading toward deconversion, the "trigger event" is the needle that pops that balloon, or it is the proverbial "straw that broke the camel's back."
The trigger event gives the person intellectual permission to explore the questions that had previously gone unexplored.
"Deconstruction" is the pop term which has come to describe deconversion in the larger community of deconverts, but used in the technical sense, it is one stage in the larger process.
After the trigger event, the individual is finally giving consideration to his or her religious doubts or problems. These problems likely didn't just begin to exist at the beginning of deconstruction, but now these problems are actually being examined and entertained.
Deconstruction tends to take one of two routes:
A rescue attempt is tried when the person really doesn't want to lose his or her faith. This person wants to overcome the doubts, usually out of fear for what might happen if the doubts were confirmed.
People who make a rescue attempt might go one of two routes. They might try to rescue content or they might try to rescue belief. Those who try to rescue content are not interested in compromising on particular notions. A Creationist, for example, would not consider adopting evolution. He or she would look for arguments to support Creationism. This is usually a person who believes that every particular idea he or she currently has would have to be true in order for his or her religion to be true.
A person who tries to rescue belief is willing to compromise. This is a person who will give up Creationism and adopt a Christian form of evolutionism. This person might also compromise on social issues. If his or her current church does not allow for women in the ministry, and this individual has begun to think that this approach is incorrect, he or she may be willing to change stances on this issue, and simply migrate to a church which allows for this practice.
This occurs when the individual actively breaks down the walls of his or her belief. This individual will find reasons why particular beliefs they held were unsupportable. As this person discards belief after belief, this individual moves further and further away from religion and closer toward unbelief.
A Matter of Commitment
It's much easier to exit a relationship when you're just dating rather than when you are married, it's much easier to exit a business when you're in the mail room rather than when you're on the board of executives, and it's much easier to exit your religion when you're a face on the pew rather than when you're a deacon, music leader, or, indeed, the pastor.
Radical deconversion rarely comes to those with a low level of commitment to the religion. It is easy enough for them to slip out the door without ceremony. But when a person has invested a great deal of their personal identity and worldview into their faith, they have a much stronger likelihood of undergoing the kind of shift that drastically alters their worldview and relationships.
Very very few deconverts are struck in a moment of inspiration and realize in that moment that God does not exist. Most if not all have a dawning sense that they have to gradually accept that they no longer believe in God and are no longer Christian.
What happens next is typically unpleasant. Most go through a deconversion crisis.
The person has to reconstruct his or her identity as a non-believer. Christianity was a core part of his or her identity. Now it has no part in his or her identity. In fact, their identity is marked by disbelief and even opposition to Christianity.
Worse, this person faces a loss of community. They are faced with a choice of awkwardly remaining in the community and dealing with the discomfort of having to be around things they cannot accept and even actively reject; or, to inform the community that they no longer believe.
Once the community becomes aware of this, that community must also go through the crisis of reshaping their notion of the person from "one of us" to "one of them."
This deconversion crisis is a difficult process to say the least, and can leave lasting affects in the person's life thereafter.
Deconversion is a misunderstood process in society at large. Frequently when one says they no longer believed, everyone around them assumes that it was an overnight process, and an entirely free decision made by that person.
Deconversion is a process, and it is as much a part of environment and life circumstances as it is a conscious decision on the part of the deconvert.
Religious people tend to villianize deconverts, marking them as having been insincere or somehow sinful in their denial. Those who stand outside of the religion tend to blame the religion, and praise the individual.
These ideas are more reflective of the preconceptions of the people having the ideas.
As one hears a deconvert telling his or her tale, one also has to allow that this person is now seeing their life story from the perspective of an atheist. His or her notion of the religion he or she left may not be entirely objective, just as his or her notion of that religion was probably not objective while they were inside of it.
Objectivity in these cases is difficult to maintain, but the process can be seen for what it is: a process.
© 2020 Joel Furches