Previously I pointed out that when it comes to the loss of faith, there are a number of personality traits that make it statistically more likely that a person will leave the faith than remain in it. There isn't much that can be done about those except to be aware of them as we minister to those in our circles. In this post I want to focus on something we do have control over that is a causal factor in the deconversion process. And that is, how we pass on the faith, be that in our homes or our churches.
One doesn't have to read deconversion stories for long to discover that many former believers speak negatively of their former faith.
And quite honestly, I often can't blame them because what they describe is a burdensome religious system. Deconverts repeatedly describe their former faith as a fragile and inflexible, excessive set of non-negotiable beliefs and practices they believed was what being a Christian required. Furthermore it was an all or nothing deal. There could be no picking and choosing what to believe and how to live. Being a Christian meant submitting to the truth of the Bible and their community mediated the Bible to them. In other words, deconverts often reject a distorted, tyrannical version of Christianity they mistook for Christianity itself.
Take Dave for example. Ask him what his religious socialization was like and he describes it primarily in terms of narrow thinking that was governed by rules and regulations. “I grew up Southern Baptist, so we definitely had rules,” he said. “We couldn’t cuss; smoking, no. We never listened to secular music at home . . . Some music was okay but most was very suspect.” His natural stance toward those outside of his Baptist tradition could be characterized as suspicious, noting that his parents “had a laundry list of the right churches and the suspect churches.” Most notably, “anything Roman Catholic was suspect.” He and his family had to be “at church every time the door opened, which was three times a week.” He came to believe that as a Christian he needed to be baptized according to a certain formula, have daily devotions, actively share his faith, and go on mission trips. In terms of how he would describe the mindset of his Christian experience, and he says that it was “a siege mentality, we felt like we were the only ones who had it right and the whole world was messed up in one way or another.” It bred in him an attitude that he described as “very judgmental” and lamented that it “took a long time to get over the xenophobia” he developed “toward others who were outside his denomination.” When he came into contact with a new idea, he “had to check it first to make sure it didn’t conflict with what [he] already knew” from the Bible. If it didn’t match with his Southern Baptist interpretation, it was rejected. There was, in his words, a “raft of beliefs you have to accept” to be a Christian. But, “trying to make that work” created in him an overwhelming sense of “cognitive dissonance and a lot of compartmentalization growing up. Eventually, it all became too much."
Dave's family communicated to him that Christianity was comprised of a very definite set of beliefs and practices that he had to affirm and practice in order to be a Christian. The problem however is that what they passed on to him was not Christianity but their distorted version of it. Unfortunately that version was, like the religion of the pharisees, a burdensome religion that reflected more of their fundamentalist tradition than the way of Christ.
Deconversion narratives reveal that one of the primary ways we prepare believers for a crisis of faith is when we pass on to them a burdensome religion of excessive beliefs and practices that are presented as a take it all or leave it all ultimatum.
If mistaking our version of Christianity and then forcing others to accept it is a problem, what is the alternative? In the next post I will offer what I believe is a better approach that avoids these problems and sets believers up for a faith that endures.