"So why did I deconvert…? That’s a fair question. And a hard one. But I think I’ve narrowed it down to three major components.”
So begins Dani Kelly’s story of how she lost her faith. Dani, like many who deconvert, often come from very conservative / fundamentalist church backgrounds. In her case Dani identified with the Plymouth Brethren Assemblies a small, nondenomination that seeks to implement what they believe are New Testament principles of church practice. Some Brethren distinctives are: weekly communion, head coverings for females, the lack of a pastor or pastoral staff and a strong belief in the practical application of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. While the Brethren movement has historically been quite conservative and schismatic not all Assemblies are inclined to a rigid fundamentalism. Dani’s was. There is little doubt that there is a strong correlation between fundamentalist church experience and deconversion. In other words, there is something about fundamentalist churches that seem to set young people up for rejecting their faith.
A dominant theme appearing in the stories of many deconverts is that their Christian experience was either tainted or dominated by aspects of fundamentalism. While fundamentalism is difficult to define, there are certain attitudes and behaviors that typically characterize it. Fundamentalism is often associated with narrow-minded, strict adherence to certain tenets of the faith, religious exclusivism, and extreme literalism. Other attributes that are identified with fundamentalism, such as legalism, anti-intellectualism, denigrating those outside the faith, and an overly strict commitment to a particular church, are often indicators of a fundamentalist mentality. It is not surprising that many deconverts report being reared in environments that they perceived as being strict, legalistic, or fundamentalist. The focus on what not to do and who not to associate with left a bad taste in their mouths and acted as precursors for their deconversions. Few deconverts speak fondly of their religious upbringings. A hallmark of fundamentalism is an emphasis on taboos: prohibited actions, items, and beliefs. Often, as deconverts break away from the influence of parents and church leaders, they become skeptical toward the taboos they once accepted. Deconverts also speak of being reared in environments that discouraged the asking of questions and critical thinking. Perhaps it was due to the inability of parents and church leaders to answer questions, so they discouraged the asking of them? Maybe it was out of fear that the questions could not be answered and that too much thinking would lead to doubt and unbelief? Regardless, whatever the reasoning behind the suppression of critical inquiry, it became an important factor in the deconversion process.
Dani’s experience is ultimately unique to her. But despite the fact that each person’s story is different many deconverts share similar church experiences in common. They are often characterized by aspects of fundamentalism which set them up for a future deconversion. So how should those of us who seek to cultivate deep abiding faith in our children, students and congregations respond? I have three thoughts.
First, I think it is important to evaluate our beliefs. What “teachings” do with think are essential aspects of Christianity that cannot be compromised? If that set can’t be written on a single page it may contain too many beliefs. A good guide as to what should be included are those beliefs that have generally been held by the Church throughout it’s history. Whether men should have long hair has never been one of those beliefs. I’m not saying you can’t have a belief about that but the level of importance a belief about hair should have in one’s set of beliefs should not equal what one believes about God. Which brings me to suggestion number two.
Second, I think it would be helpful if we categorize our beliefs into different levels, each corresponding to degrees of commitment. For example, “I am convinced Jesus is God”, “I am persuaded that there will be a millennial kingdom in the future” and “I am of the opinion that the Lake of Fire is not a literal lake of flames.” By doing this it will help us to avoid placing undue emphasis on beliefs that do not deserve it. Not all beliefs should be held with the same degree of dogmatism. Not being able to distinguish the truly essential from the nonessential is a hallmark of fundamentalism.
Third, I have become convinced that in holding my beliefs I need to do so with great humility. I encounter other believers who hold different views than me all the time. The likelihood that I am always correct and they are always in error is vanishingly small. This leads me to the conclusion that some of my beliefs are most certainly false. The problem is I don’t know which ones they are. If I did I would change them. Since I hold to the great truths of the Gospel as outlined in the historic church confessions I have every right to conclude that I am correct on the big things. But what about the not so big things? On those I must assume I have some wrong beliefs. If so, I dare not pass those on to my children, or congregants with the same degree of conviction and importance as I would the essentials. And there’s the rub. For fundamentalists every position, belief or conviction is a big one. There is little difference between what is essential and what is optional; what is conviction and what is opinion. There is little doubt that not being able to make that distinction contributes to deconversion.
May God give us the discernment to know the difference as we raise up our children and those we disciple. If you would like to read more of Dani’s story you can find her at