The New York Times recently published a story about a well-known pastor’s son who had deconverted and was using social media to criticize the faith he once — and his father still — confessed.
I read the story with conflicting emotions: sorrow that the son had lost faith, embarrassment that a family’s deep religious divisions had gone public, frustration that media seem to think deconversion from Christianity is more noteworthy than conversion to it, and worry that if deconversion could happen in a famous pastor’s household, it could happen in mine, too.
As a Christian parent, I take seriously the apostle Paul’s admonition: “Do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Furthermore, as a minister, I want my work to “impart … some spiritual gift to make you strong,” as Paul put it (Romans 1:11). In other words, I hope my words and deeds increase people’s faith, whether in my house or the household of God.
I know that my hope, not to mention that of other Christian parents and pastors, doesn’t guarantee desired spiritual outcomes for people in my sphere of influence, however. None of us controls another’s faith. At best, we cultivate the ground in which authentic belief can take root.
In The Anatomy of Deconversion, John Marriott aids Christian readers in their cultivation efforts by examining why and how people leave the faith. Marriott is director of Global Learning at Biola University’s Cook School of Intercultural Studies. His doctoral dissertation focused on Christians who deconverted to atheism.
For Marriott, deconversion involves three elements: “the rejection of Christian beliefs, disengagement from a Christian community, and having no religious affiliation.” The third element seems too narrowly tailored to atheists. People may leave Christianity for no religion or for some other religion, after all. Although Marriott’s analysis focuses on atheists, what he says about deconversion applies in broad outline to both no-religion and other-religion deconverts from Christianity.
So, why do people leave the Christian faith? Marriott identifies two types of reasons offered by deconverts: emotional and cognitive. “Emotional reasons tend to be related to the perception of hurt by other Christians or by God himself,” he writes. “Cognitive reasons have to do with the truth claims of Christianity.” Specifically, deconverts to atheism cite “perceived problems with the Bible, Darwinian evolution, and the influence of atheists themselves” as key factors in their loss of faith.
Why a person deconverts is unique, but how they do so generally follows a seven-stage process. Here’s Marriott’s description of those seven stages:
Context. The religious environment in which deconverts once practiced Christianity plays an ironic role in deconversion. Specifically, Marriott writes, “deconversion stories exhibit aspects of fundamentalism.” He defines fundamentalism as “an approach to religious faith that emphasizes the avoidance of taboos, an embrace of anti-intellectualism, a demand for keeping unspotted from ‘the world,’ a narrow-minded and religious exclusivism, and a negative posture to those outside the faith.”
Crisis. Deconversion typically begins with a “significant event … that caused the believer to question his or her faith.” Such events include “bad experiences with other Christians, exposure to virtuous non-Christians, and confronting intellectual challenges to the faith.”
Seeking the truth. Crises generate cognitive dissonance, which “believers began to seek ways to resolve” at this stage by choosing “to seek the truth,” whatever that might be.
Trying to retain faith. According to Marriott, a “majority [of deconverts] skipped this step altogether, capitulating quickly when challenged either emotionally or intellectually.” A minority looked for “a way to hold on to the core of [their] faith and accept the new ideas [they] were learning,” albeit unsuccessfully.
Going from believer to agnostic. For many deconverts, agnosticism was a comfortable halfway house on the road to full atheism. Agnosticism — literally, I-don’t-know-ism — is a statement about “an individual’s subjective, inner mental state,” writes Marriott. Atheism, on the other hand, “makes a claim about reality.”
Going from agnostic to atheist. About half the deconverts Marriott studied skipped agnosticism and went straight to atheism
Coming out as an unbeliever. At this stage a person goes public with their unbelief, a decision that is costly. “For many deconverts, leaving the Christian faith is much more than rejecting a set of beliefs,” Marriott explains. “Because of the role belief structures play in constructing the world and situating us within it, they provide us with a sense of identity and security. But despite how hard it can be to lose one’s belief system, deconverts testify that it’s the loss of relationship that is the greatest loss.”
Once Christians understand the why and how of deconversion, they are better prepared to help Christians in the throes of a crisis of faith. In negative terms, this help can be described as “avoiding” or “averting” crisis. In positive terms, it can be described as “cultivating” faith.
However described, the help must be offered in the right context. Marriott calls the churches that deconverts often leave “fundamentalist.” He himself is an evangelical Christian, affirms orthodox theology, and wants people to follow Jesus Christ. In some deconverts’ minds, Marriott is a fundamentalist, even though that’s not his self-designation.
Regardless of what term is used, one crucial issue is the religious environment in which a person’s faith is being formed (or deformed). Context may not be everything, but it matters. People can come to faith in bad environments and leave it in good ones, but generally, bad environments increase deconversions and good environments increase conversions.
Marriott asks a question church leaders especially need to answer: “What does it say about the kind of Christianity that [deconverts] were socialized into when, despite losing some of the most important relationships in their lives, deconverts said it was worth it for the freedom they found?”
Context matters, but so does content. As mentioned above, deconverts raised questions about the Bible, evolution, and virtuous nonbelievers. If Christians want to cultivate lifelong faith in others, they need to know how to answer such questions.
Again, Marriott asks a tough question in this regard: “Why was it that deconverts found their Christian environments morally and cognitively inferior to what they discovered in their life after faith?”
Marriott’s two questions take us back to the why of deconversion, those emotional and cognitive reasons people leave the faith. Churches that want to avoid deconversion and cultivate faith need to be emotionally healthy and cognitively reasonable. Such a religious environment is the good soil in which the seed of the gospel can take deep and lasting root.
John Marriott, The Anatomy of Deconversion: Keys to a Lifelong Faith in a Culture Abandoning Christianity (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2021).
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P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com by permission.