The Christian reaction to outspoken ex-Christians

Depending on which study you look at, the decline of religious faith in the United States is no small matter. A study by the Pew Research Foundation in 2007 shows some interesting statistics for Americans:
More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion - or no religion at all.
The survey finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.
What this means is that a lot of people – particularly young people – are leaving the faiths in which they were raised. The number of self-proclaimed "atheists" is still quite small – possibly due to the negative connotations still associated with the term – but a growing number of Americans are ambivalent about their faith.

This is clearly correlated with a strong growth and publicity of atheistic and otherwise secular, anti-religious arguments popularized by the usual crew of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al, as well as prolific Youtubers like Thunderf00t, whose channel has more subscriptions than the largest religious channel. With the rise of the internet, people are being exposed to more more arguments and opposing views; and for those who take their faith seriously, those opposing views are increasingly difficult to ignore.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of Americans are not particularly concerned with theology and philosophy. Most "Christians", if they even go to church, likely couldn't even summarize their church's statement of faith – must less contrast it with other churches and rationalize their decision to attend that particular church in theological terms. I spoke with someone recently who changed churches – to a totally different denomination – because they wanted a church with more youth activities. My father, rather nonchalantly, switched from Catholicism to Protestantism after marrying my mother. I suspect that this is the case with most people – that even the vast majority of religious ones don't particularly care about the details of what their church represents and why. For them, church is more of a social and community activity, and something that provides some sense of moral grounding and personal meaning. Those of us ex-believers who are more vocal and passionate about it, in my experience, tend to be people who were wrapped up particularly tightly in the church – ex-evangelicals, ex-pastors, etc.

Which brings me to the reaction of Christians to the rise of defecting non-believers. More often than not, it's a defensive reaction. Their reaction is to try to poke holes in the reasoning of the new atheists, or trot out the latest re-wording of some 14th century apologetic argument to defend their faith. It doesn't work, unless the objection is merely to convince themselves that their faith is impervious to argument.

It doesn't work because most of us ex-Christians have already been through that. No apologetic argument can do justice to the immense layers of doubt that become cumulative over years and years, eventually leading us to reject Christianity. There was no one argument that changed everything – it was a snowball of holes and questions, things that just didn't add up, about the things we had spent years convincing ourselves to be infallible truths. Something like the Cosmological Argument is great if you're already a Christian and are simply looking for philosophical ways to rationalize your assumptions, but you're still begging the question of why you assume the truth of religious claims in the first place. I'm reminded of my favorite apologist punching bag William Lane Craig, who defends the resurrection of Christ by analyzing the words of the Bible. I'm sure that his arguments are very convincing as long as you make the a priori assumption that the Bible is 100% accurate.

For ex-believers such as myself, leaving the church was no small matter. I was lucky to have left when I was still a teenager, and I could just go off to college and make plenty of new friends outside of the church. Others are not so lucky. Some are deeply ingrained in the church community, and to reject their beliefs – no matter how strong the doubt – would be social suicide. A doubting believer is always going to ask themselves questions like, "What will I tell my friends? What will I tell my parents? What will I tell my children? What will I tell my wife?" For defecting pastors, the issue is even worse. How does someone who relied on the church for decades to support their family, someone whose only education was seminary, find a new career? What do they say to their parishioners?

Christians who really wish to understand defectors like myself would do well to simply study. If I were a pastor, I would be extremely curious about pastors who had left the church. Were a believer, I'd be extremely curious about friends and family members who left the church. I'd want to understand what provoked their doubts, and what it was that ultimately led them astray. I'd want to know what it was like emotionally.

But, sadly, for the most part, the reaction will simply be defensive. Because of all the things that instill doubt, seeing a trusted friend or family member leave the church or merely meeting an intelligent ex-believer well-versed in theology and apologetics does not bode well for people desperate to preserve their personal comfort and social network by trying to convince themselves that their doubts are ill-founded.

Comments

  1. I guess I was lucky that I was in deep for only two years. When I went to college and was exposed to the realities of the Bible, I simply walked away. I did feel that I was lied to by preachers and ministers, since I thought they had to know what I knew just from an entry level course on the New Testament.

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  2. Mike,

    Thanks for an excellent post. I was not as lucky as you. I devoted around 20 years of my life to this foolishness. I just turned 50 and I was telling my mother how nice it would be if when you turn 50 you could start your life over with all of the accumulated knowledge and experience. Anyway, most believers and especially those who have a lot of time and prestige invested in it, will not allow themselves to think about the possibility they may have been deceived. Its hard to admit. Its sort of like the people who get scammed and don't want to tell anyone because its embarassing.

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  3. I was definitely lucky. The scary part is that I had considered seminary, to become a youth pastor. I'm sure glad I dodged that bullet.

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