Why Do People Lose Their Faith?
By Andy Patton
Conversion and deconversion are anything but simple; belief and unbelief are as complicated and various as the transition between them can be. However, that isn’t to say that there aren’t common themes in deconversion today.
If you think of the Christian path as a highway, there are a variety of common exits people are finding desirable, plausible, and perhaps even inescapable today. Why do people take these exits? In reading accounts of deconversion and speaking with students who come to L’Abri, five themes have emerged:
#1—People feel they have outgrown Christianity.
#2—Many leave Christianity to search for a more authentic form of faith.
#3—Others have had bad experiences with Christians that render Christianity implausible.
#4—Some find what seems to them to be a more beautiful way to life and abandon Christianity in favor of the new way.
#5—Many encounter a defeater, a belief which, if true, shows Christianity to be false.
The goal of this essay is to provide a “deconversion survival kit”, but let’s first take a brief look at these five themes.
Why Do People Lose Their Faith?
A friend once declared, “I am not a Christian because I don’t need a crutch.” Another writer said, “It is a tough life and if you can delude yourself into thinking there is some warm, fuzzy meaning to it all, it is enormously comforting. But it is just a story we tell ourselves.”
One of the dominant narratives in our secular age is that with the rise of modernity, the human race has come of age. At last, we have outgrown the primitive ways of our ancestors, including their need for religious explanations of reality. In this sense, when a person converts to a religion, they are moving backwards. It is comforting to imagine you are not alone in the universe, that God is watching out for you, that things will magically be OK in the end, but those who are prepared to face the harsh realities of the universe don’t need such fantasies. As philosopher Charles Taylor writes in his landmark account of modern secularization, A Secular Age, “The unbeliever has the courage to take an adult stance and face reality. He knows human beings are on their own. But this doesn’t cause him to cave in, rather he determines to work for the human good without false illusion or consolation.”
It seems plausible to many today that the transition to modernity writ large in society should be mirrored in our individual lives. We too must come of age by undergoing the same disenchantment as society at large. In the midst of a personal deconversion there is a ready resource available in the larger societal narrative that comes alongside the deconvert with encouragement that putting one’s childish beliefs aside is the same as growing up. Deconversion is portrayed as progress, as moving into adulthood.
In this narrative, the comfort provided by Christianity is proof positive of its unreality. Christianity is a vestigial limb which helped buffer us from the harsh realities of life, but which we have now outgrown.
It is just a crutch – and now that the body is healed, the crutch can be set aside.
#2—THE SEARCH FOR A MORE AUTHENTIC FAITH
Today it is often felt that it is no longer enough to simply acquire one’s beliefs from one’s parents or community. Rather, to be warranted in holding any belief each individual needs to have deconstructed it, examined it, held it against the light of their own values and personality, and seen for themselves where it is lacking. Only then can one discern what is to be discarded and what is to be kept. Or as Taylor writes, “no one simply inherits packages of belief anymore. We choose to believe (and even construct) the packages for ourselves, often as part of our self-actualization project.”
Some philosophers have dubbed this trend in the culture “expressive individualism.” Tim Keller defines expressive individualism as the belief that “identity comes through self-expression, through discovering one’s most authentic desires and being free to be one’s authentic self.” Expressive individualism is a nearly universal background belief in modern Western society and is a common theme in many stories of deconversion from traditional religions.
Beliefs are no longer a “package deal”, but can be unboxed and separated into their constituent pieces. Package deals tend to ossify and become irrelevant. Today, however, what is lacking in one belief system can be grafted in from another or created wholesale. In this sense, the modern self is a patchwork of beliefs all held together under the organizing principle of “our self-actualization project.”
In the words of S. A. Joyce, “I pieced together, bit by bit, a humanistic set of values which turned out to be far more self-consistent and pertinent to the modern world than some petrified Decalogue of biblical taboo.”
For many today, the demands of expressive individualism (and the deconstruction of traditional forms it requires) renders the faith they grew up with tattered and implausible. Some re-form a more fitting faith from the pieces. Others abandon Christianity altogether.
#3—BAD EXPERIENCES WITH CHRISTIANS
Many people who take a stand against Christianity do so from a place of profound personal disappointment with the church or with Christians. In a sense, this is the most natural of all the reasons to leave Christianity.
Tim Keller puts it succinctly in The Reason for God:
“If you have known many wise, kind, intelligent Christians over the years and have seen churches that are devout in belief yet civic-minded and generous, you will find the intellectual case for Christianity more plausible. If, on the other hand, most of your experience has been with nominal Christians or with self-righteous fanatics, then the arguments for Christianity will have to be extremely strong for you to concede they have any cogency at all.”
We do not only form our beliefs only by looking within, to our thoughts and emotions; we absorb the beliefs of those around us. We understand ourselves and our reality in relationship to others and the way they understand themselves and reality. We are always being changed by our environment through a steady and often invisible process of osmosis. Sometimes that influence works in a positive direction—we are drawn to become more like those whom we are surrounded by. Other times, however, we are drawn to oppose the beliefs of our social environment.
When we experience mistreatment from Christians, it is disillusioning. The disillusionment can apply not only to the person, but to everything they stand for. The painful experiences can harden into a callous that makes the question of Christianity’s plausibility moot. If someone has hurt you, the things they stand for (including their faith) can become abhorrent. Mistreatment at the hands of Christians also creates a sense of inconsistency, a gap between what Christians say they believe and how they act toward others. Inconsistency is toxic to belief.
Many who have experienced pain at the hands of Christians find that the experiences close the door to Christianity for them, leaving them with no plausible choice but to turn their back on it.
#4—FINDING ANOTHER BEAUTIFUL WAY TO LIVE
In pre-modern times, it was less likely that you would meet someone with a radically different view of life and God. Most people lived and died in the same village and never traveled far from it. This led to a narrower breadth of possible beliefs and those beliefs tended to be more static because they were faced with less opposition. As Taylor writes, “When everybody believes, questions don’t easily arise.” Unbelief was less viable because it was not embodied.
But today we live in pluralized, globalized societies. It is much more likely now that you will meet someone with radically different views than your own. You will go to school with them, work with them, and fall in love with them. When “the Other” is a distant reality, their otherness becomes more malleable to the imagination; you can make of them and their ideas whatever you want. But when the Other is near, easy distortions about who they are and what they believe become less plausible.
This is the position of nearly all Christians today. Like diners at a buffet, we sense that there are many different options for good ways of life than the one in which we happened to have been raised. We can’t help but cast a sidelong glance at the other options from time to time.
In such a pluralized environment, a life sheltered from diversity is exposed to new pressures and tensions. When the Other becomes embodied, incarnate in our lives as people with faces and feelings, smiles, kindness, and brilliant ideas, ideas and modes of life that are opposed to the ideas and modes of life embodied in the Other can become more fragile. When you encounter another beautiful way to live, the experience can be an argument for that mode of life, even if it is drastically different from your current life and beliefs. For example, if you are taught that atheists don’t have brilliant minds or lead beautiful lives, and then you meet a brilliant, beautiful atheist, the stage is set for a plausibility crisis.
#5—ENCOUNTERING A DEFEATER
A defeater is an idea or concept that blocks belief in another idea or concept. If belief A is true, then belief B must be false. Thus B is defeated by A.
Defeaters are aptly named; they can break beliefs if the defeater becomes more plausible than the belief it is arrayed against. Defeaters can be macro-scale and writ as large as a culture as in the case of background secularism of the modern west (“Science has eliminated the need to resort to God to explain things, thus there is no longer a need for religion”), or micro-scale and personal (“My father was a Christian and lived a terrible life. I could never be like him.”)
Each culture, time, and place has its own defeaters—things that seem so self-evident that anything within Christianity that cuts against the grain of the defeater must be false. Here are just a few common defeaters in modern Western culture:
“The idea that there is one true religion is exclusive and false.”
“The Bible is unreliable and full of errors.”
“The Christian God can’t be real because there is so much evil in the world.”
“A good God would never create hell, thus the Christian idea of God must be false and self-contradictory.”
“The church has been responsible for so much injustice and oppression throughout the centuries that its message cannot be true.”
If someone encounters a defeater and does not find satisfactory answers to the questions provoked by it, the questions can create a faultline inside one’s mind, a seam in one’s faith. Defeaters deferred can cause a plausibility crises if enough pressure builds along that faultline and doesn’t find release.
If Christianity actually does describe reality, we should not be afraid break it with our questions. In fact, we ought to riddle it with questions, to wring from it answers that match the way the world really is. Rationality used this way is a tool of faith, not its opposite. Even doubts can be instruments of faith. Every defeater poses itself as a rational, emotional, social, theological deal-breaker, a stopping place. And for many, however, this is exactly what they become.
DECONVERSION SURVIVAL KIT
Perhaps you are reading this because you sense something changing within yourself that you don’t quite understand. You don’t want to lose the things that have been meaningful about Christianity, but you can’t quite see how you can keep them and retain your integrity. Or perhaps someone you love has drifted away from their faith and you worry for them. You have tried to talk to them, but it doesn’t seem to help. You feel unsure of how (or whether) the forces behind their drift away from Christianity can be countered.
Think of this final section as a “deconversion survival kit”. If you have resonated with anything above, here are just a few things to keep in mind as you sort out what is believable and what is unbelievable.
The Exits Can Be Entrances Too
All the exits from the Christian path can be entrances too if something winsome happens instead of something repulsive. Finding faith in Christianity doesn’t work the opposite way as losing it, it works the same way. The factors that make plausibility wax and wane are all the same in both cases; they just move in the opposite direction. Consider a few of the items from our list of “common exits” above.
The modern age looks back at the pre-modern age and tells a certain story about it. The story goes like this: over the centuries, we have dispensed with the former myths of our ancestors and have revealed the world to be thoroughly disenchanted. Despite the superstitious opinions of our ancestors, the universe has been found to be only made of the material. Once you have stripped away unscientific superstition, you are left with modern secularism.
Taylor challenges that belief: “[In the transition to modernity] it isn’t that one moral outlook bowed to brute facts, but that one moral outlook gave way to another… The new model has a lot going for it: images of power, untrammeled agency, and spiritual self possession… on the other side, if one’s childhood faith had perhaps remained childish; it was all too easy to come to see it as essentially so…”
Taylor says that the birth of modernity was not a process of subtraction myths until we got down to the existential bedrock of secular materialism, but was an achieved worldview, a built belief which replaced a prior belief. Humanity had to learn to live in a disenchanted universe. This involved not only setting down old patterns of belief, but creating new ones.
This means that we can introduce some distance between the societal story of deconversion and the personal one. If the disenchantment society has undergone in the last centuries was not an inevitable uncovering of the brute facts of the universe, what if the story of “deconversion as growing up” can be questioned as well?
Faith needs to grow and become mature in order to endure, but the path from a childish Christian faith into a shrewd, worldly, and wise unbelief isn’t a necessary path. You can grow up into Christianity, rather than only out of it. Actually, this is what every Christian must do. Most people begin their Christian journey with a shallow faith because growing up takes time. However, Christianity itself is not insipid. It is not naive or shallow. Rather it is a profound, rich, and nuanced body of ideas and modes of life. It is deep enough to meet the needs and answer the questions of real people in the real world.
Bad Experiences with Christians
When one experiences sadness, pain, or trauma at the hands other Christians or in the context of the church, it can do a lot to damage the plausibility of Christianity. In most cases, such experiences do not need to be “responded to” or explained away; they need to be owned and healed if possible. Reality is broken and that brokenness extends even into God’s chosen world-redeeming force, his Church. The pages of the Bible echo the reality that God’s people, the heroes of the story, are also often its antagonists.
But consider this. You can catch a sickness at the hospital, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a place of healing. In a similar sense, the problem with the church is that it is full of people! If the Christian story of the pervasiveness of sin is true, bad experiences with Christians are exactly what you would expect to see. However, you would also expect to see evidence of substantially healed relationships and persons in whom God’s fullness is (ever so slowly) being revealed.
Goodness, beauty, and truth experienced inside the Christian church can do much to repair our experience of their opposites, even if those experiences also came in a Christian context or at the hands of Christians. The church can wound, but it has also been a place of healing for millennia.
Defeaters are usually understood as things that cut against Christianity, but in reality they cut both ways.
Doubts have defeaters too—ideas or experiences that speak in favor of the Christian view of reality that can stabilize and protect one’s faith. For instance, if you have experienced kindness, wisdom, and patience in a relationship with a Christian, the idea that all Christians are narrow-minded, simplistic fundamentalists will have to defeat the previous positive experiences in order to seem plausible. Or, to take another example, if you have experienced the rational coherence of the Christian worldview and have been helped by the answers found inside of it, the idea that religious faith is somehow at odds with rational thought will have more difficulty gaining a hearing.
Similarly, encountering a defeater can serve to strengthen instead of weaken Christian faith if it is dealt with properly. A former doubt can become a foundation for greater faith if a plausible way of reconciling the defeater with the Christian faith is found. If one encounters the idea that the Bible is unreliable and full of errors and then finds coherent answers to many of the seeming contradictions, the exchange can deepen one’s faith in the reliability of the Bible.
Behind Every Doubt, There is An Alternate Belief
To add another key idea to our “deconversion survival kit,” consider this: there is a problem with the title of this essay. To get at the problem, ask yourself this question: What is the opposite of belief?
“Doubt” and “unbelief” come quickly to mind. However, juxtaposing belief and unbelief can present a false picture of what it means to disbelieve in something. Dividing belief into a binary pair paints the picture that you can step forward into the positive position of having a belief, or you can step backward into the neutral position of unbelief.
However, in a deeper sense, belief has no opposite. There are no neutral positions when it comes to reality.
To say “I don’t believe that” is really to say “I do believe something which excludes that.” I don't believe you were at the grocery store because I saw your car at home. I don’t believe it is 3:00 because my watch tells me it is quarter to four. I don’t believe in the Christian God because a good God would never make a world like this.
Or, to put it another way and to steal a phrase from Tim Keller, “Every doubt is really a series of alternate beliefs.” In The Reason For God, Keller presents the relationship of doubt and belief in this way:
“Doubters must learn to look at the faith hidden in their reasoning… You cannot doubt belief A except from a position of faith in belief B. For example, if you doubt Christianity because “there cannot be just one true religion,” you must recognize that this statement is itself an act of faith. No one can prove it empirically, and it is not a universal truth that everyone accepts. If you went to the Middle East and said “there cannot be just one true God,” nearly everyone would say, “Why not?”
Keller goes on to say, “The only way to doubt Christianity fairly is to find the alternate belief under each doubt and then to ask yourself what reason you have for believing in it… In fairness, you must doubt your doubts.” If Keller is right, then the problem with the title of this essay is that there is no deconversion; there is only conversion. You can’t lose your faith, but the object of your faith can shift.
Either way, it is all belief.
So in the midst of your plausibility crisis, make a list of your doubts and try to state them as beliefs that are in conflict with other beliefs. Then scrutinize both sides. What beliefs seem strong? Weak? What are the areas where you have to take a leap of faith? Where have you adopted wholesale and uncritically a dominant belief from the group you are in, be it your family, your professors, or the zeitgeist. To have integrity, you must doubt all your beliefs, even the ones you find initially in the form of doubts.
You May Have Been Inoculated Against Real Christianity
One of the answers to the question “Why do people lose their faith in Christianity?” is that they may not have been exposed to Christianity to begin with. Exposure to Christianity can work like exposure to a vaccine. If you come across the faith in its weakened form, you may become immune to the faith in its stronger forms.
But what is a “weakened form” of Christianity? When Christian theology goes wrong, it is usually a problem of size. The faith gets reduced to a few tenets that are most important to the group and the rest of the nuanced, robust breadth of Christianity is neglected.
Think of moral purity. God is holy and his moral beauty is attractive, but Christianity can become ugly in the hands of Christian groups who emphasize moral purity at all costs. The group of people who are actually pure just gets smaller and smaller as the bar gets higher and higher. In the gospels, something like this was happening with the Pharisees, for whom Jesus reserved his sharpest criticism. When your standard of moral purity rules out the Son of God, something has gone wrong with the standard.
Or take the example of evangelism. Some versions of Christianity act as if the mission of the church is solely to recruit more believers, or (as I heard it once put) “handing out tickets to heaven.” Christian community is turned into an evangelism machine. “Sharing the gospel” is the application of every sermon, the goal of every mission trip, and the point of every conversation. Following Christ simply becomes a matter of mastering the technique of disciple-making.
When this happens, the church begins to bleed disillusioned people who have become disillusioned not because of Christianity itself, but because of what it has been reduced to.
I remember sitting around after dinner with some dear friends who were not Christians when the conversation turned to Christianity. One friend started to make jokes at the expense of Christianity and I reminded him, “Hey man, you know we’re Christians, right?” His response was “Yeah, but you aren’t real Christians.” What he meant was “You aren’t like my reduced idea of what a Christian is.” And my answer was “Yes, I am a real Christian.” His categories had been so powerfully shaped by his previous negative exposure to a weaker strain of Christianity that my wife and I were excluded on merit mostly of the fact that he liked us.
If you have been inoculated in this way, the solution might not be less Christianity, but a more real Christianity.
Make Your Life a Plausibility Structure
Plausibility is the believableness of beliefs—how much credibility, worth, or trustworthiness we assign to a belief or view of the world. When our beliefs have a high level of plausibility they are more static, fixed, and stable. Each one holds its place in the web of beliefs that make up our view of reality. But when plausibility ebbs and a belief or cluster of beliefs becomes less believable, the network becomes imbalanced, frangible, and primed to shift.
Your life can be a plausibility structure of its own. When people come near you, they find parts of their own life altering as the beauty of your life draws them into a liminal space. This is a positive plausibility crisis.
If you are worried about someone you love who is leaving Christianity, the best thing you can do for them is to live a beautiful life. Show hospitality and incarnated love to the people in your life. Don’t just invite them to a church service, have them around your house for meals. Let them see behind the facade not over the span of an afternoon, but over the span of decades. Take questions seriously and sweat with people as you struggle together to find adequate answers. Be human. You don’t have to become anything spectacular to become a winsome picture of Christianity, just live a normal life well. Be a shelter for people, but don’t be sheltered. Subject your faith to all the world’s winds. Take on doubts in their strongest forms and see how Christianity fares against them.
If you live your life this way and a friend, a colleague, a parent, or just an unexpected onlooker says, “I don’t agree with your ideas, but I love the way you live,” something has been achieved.