We have asked a few folks to respond to our recent book, Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy. Today “RJS” responds to the chapter that is about apostasy and its reasons, and this chp comes from someone who knows the pain of the issues we sketch in this chp. [Some don’t even like the word “apostasy” — We use it in this chp more sociologically than theologically.]
Scot has asked me to respond to the first chapter of Finding Faith, Losing Faith exploring the conversion away from orthodox Christianity to deism, agnosticism, or atheism. This is a conversion trumpeted by so many as almost inevitable in our increasingly educated and secular society. The evangelical church is hemorrhaging on our University campuses and the years beyond. It is hard to pin down numbers and even harder to judge how many are walking away from a well reasoned and personal faith rather than simply failing to “convert” to the faith of their childhood. Yet it is clear that it can be difficult for many to grow or retain a deep and rational faith. I am interacting with this chapter not as one who has walked away, but as one who has wandered through many of the crises described and emerged with a somewhat chastened and tempered evangelicalism as the result. The patterns identified in this chapter are similar to those identified in many other sources and to those I would have suggested from personal experience.
The personal stories of loss of faith presented in this chapter make a key point crystal clear – a common feature of deconversion for many is the overarching role played by a search for intellectual coherence. Reason alone brings few if any into the faith – but reason alone drives many away despite significant social and personal cost. Those who walk away find not faith and fellowship but freedom and intellectual coherence. I cannot overemphasize this point. The intellectual questions and struggles are painfully real. In many of the cases – especially for those with clearly developed commitment to the faith before being swamped by doubt – the issue is not sin, rebellion and self. Occasionally a desire for moral, particularly sexual, freedom plays a significant role – but this is not a major driving factor in most cases. Changes in behavior often result from, rather than precipitate, a loss of faith.
The shame is that the church – rather than dealing with the problem at its core, rather than providing a forum for Christians to question and grow – has often responded in a reactionary and destructive fashion. It is easy (incredibly easy in fact) to find an advocate to lead one to reject the church and join the freedom of the secular world; it is hard, often well nigh impossible, to find an advocate to help one explore the hard questions of the faith.
McKnight and Ondrey identify five principal and several secondary factors contributing to the loss of faith for many former conservative evangelicals. But these factors can easily be organized into three major categories: Scripture, Theology, and Christians.
Scripture – an unsophisticated, unnuanced, and inflexible view of sola scriptura, inerrancy, and inspiration can lead to significant conflict. For many actually reading the bible, the Word of God, as a whole rather than in morsels and tidbits connected to devotionals or sermons precipitates a crisis and necessitates a choice ? either faith requires the renunciation of intelligence or intellectual integrity requires the renunciation of faith. We must develop and articulate a realistic view of scripture and inspiration.
The difficulties found in scripture span a wide range, but nowhere is the conflict more intense than in relation to science, the age of the earth and the development of life. Once one begins to examine the scientific evidence honestly it is absolutely clear that the age of the universe, the age of the earth, the evolutionary development of life, and with the new genomic evidence, even the common descent of man are inferences based on incredibly strong foundations. The evidence is overwhelming. The scientific arguments defending a literal historical reading of the Biblical account are pitiful. Those few scientists who hold to a young earth or the reality of a global flood do so only from a conviction that the Bible requires it – not because the evidence for age or evolution is unconvincing.
Concordist approaches to scripture which “demonstrate” that the Bible, when interpreted properly, is consistent with some science, describing creation over ages, are often only slightly more reasonable. For many who are wracked with doubt the conflict is irresolvable ? one must choose either intellectual integrity or faith. And it is the church drawing an unnecessary line in the sand with a doctrine of scripture unsupported by either internal evidence (coherence within scripture itself) or external evidence (coherence with archaeological and scientific discovery).
Theology – Hell and the Character of God. Put bluntly – to some the choice is clear: what kind of a God condemns infants or those unlucky enough to live in the wrong place and time to eternal torture and commands the annihilation of towns – men, women, and children at the hands of his chosen people? Not a God worth allegiance. If nuance is impossible the only acceptable answer may be apostasy. We must allow discussion and grappling with these questions. Theology is not simple or self-evident when these questions arise. What is the nature of God and is it reflected in our actions and our understanding of scripture?
Christians – the behavior of Christians, today and throughout history, can be appalling (think sexual abuse and fraud; war and persecution). If the Spirit changes the one who confesses to Jesus as Lord why does the evidence seem so sparse? A tough question…and for many the crisis precipitated is severe. This factor is fundamentally different from those above. It must be dealt with, but perhaps the most productive response is a renewed dedication to follow God and live as his community on earth with generous orthodoxy holding denominational distinctive with an open hand; with a commitment to the great commandment ? to love God and to love others as ourselves; to if at all possible be at peace with all men. We are God’s community and God’s witness upon this earth.
But I think that there is a fourth factor that contributes to the crisis of faith experienced by many that is not clearly identified in the stories included in this chapter – perhaps because it is harder to grasp and articulate. We live in a culture where superstition and supernatural is routinely ridiculed and rationalized. Belief in a spiritual realm, belief in God, does not come naturally. Scientific naturalism is in fundamental conflict with a Christian world view, and we are immersed – whether we admit it or not – in an educated culture that lives and breathes naturalism. What spirituality western culture allows – a kind or moralistic therapeutic deism – is incompatible with the Christian view of God. Religion is debunked. It can be hard to buck the trend and stand in the tradition of orthodox Christianity. For many this cultural conflict, combined with the specific intellectual questions and concerns, leads to an almost inevitable slide toward apostasy. Faith can be hard.
To return to the science faith conflict (as I am, after all, a scientist), this is where the Intelligent Design controversy comes into the picture in the conflict between reason and faith. Intelligent Design does not solve the scripture problem ? it attempts to solve the culture problem, the existence of God problem. Perhaps some grab onto this concept because it provides a rock, a fact, which allows an anchor for faith within our age of secular naturalism. We can know objectively that God exists after all. But … Intelligent Design as generally formulated is somewhat dangerous; it relies on gaps, many of which will close in relatively short order. Most serious scientists who hold to some variant of intelligent design or progressive creationism are willing to follow the evidence where it leads. Intelligent design or progressive creation is a theory not a dogma. And even here most of these scientists will admit to much of evolutionary theory, and many to common descent. To hang one’s hat on Intelligent Design to resolve the God problem is inherently flawed.
Well, I have struggled to keep this post short and to the point – and failed miserably. But perhaps this can spark something of a discussion ? what are the factors that provide the greatest challenge to faith in our day and age?