This is the third and final installment in my interview/conversation with Dr. John Marriott on the issue of Christians leaving the faith to become atheists. Here are links to the first installment, “The Problem of Christians Becoming Atheists,” and the second installment, “The Solution to Christians Becoming Atheists (Part 1).” Needless to say, I strongly recommend reading the first two installments before this one.
JM: Well, let’s get to the third suggestion. Earlier, I mentioned that a problem for deconverts was trying to maintain belief in the biblical narrative while living in the 21st century. I think it is important to flesh this out a bit. Former believers sometimes explain it as analogous to an adult trying to believe in Santa Claus. It’s easy for kids to believe in Santa because their understanding of the world is so primitive and ignorant that the Santa story can fit within it without much difficulty. But as they get older and their understanding of the world grows it squeezes out any room for Santa. Somewhere between 6 – 10 years of age, the idea of an overweight man sliding down all the chimneys of the world in one night, with a sack of presents begins to feel suspect. Over time that suspicion will grow as they learn more about the nature of reality. During this process a growing sense of cognitive dissonance sets in. They have become aware that much of the Santa story doesn’t add up, but they may still want to believe in Santa, so they seek answers to their own internal skepticism that will let them maintain their belief in Santa and still be rational. Eventually, however, all children come to the point where they can’t believe in Santa anymore. The cognitive dissonance produced as a result of what they have come to know of reality and their belief in Santa Claus reaches a point where it can only be resolved by admitting what they know to be true; Santa does not exist.
Something similar underwrites a significant percentage of deconversions. The biblical narrative that once easily fit within their childlike understanding of reality began to get squeezed out as they matured in their understanding of reality. The stories in the Bible about miracles, witches, giants, demons, etc. began to feel as out of place as Santa. To resolve the problems they may seek answers that will allow them to continue to believe in such things as adults in the 21st century. This is the experience not just of those who deconvert but all educated, reflective Christians today. I suspect that even for those that do remain Christians, the cognitive dissonance never completely goes away, it just has been reduced to a level that allows them to continue to believe. For deconverts however, the cognitive dissonance is not sufficiently assuaged by apologetics. It grows despite their efforts and reaches a tipping point. As in the case with Santa, the only way to resolve the tension is to admit what they know is true. God does not exist.
RR: Ouch. Sounds pretty bleak. So what’s the way forward?
JM: Responding to this challenge is difficult because it is closely connected to the power that culture has to shape our thinking. And we have very little ability to change that. But let me offer three brief suggestions.
First, we need to do a better job of doing apologetics. I appreciate you and your work because it is measured, articulate and you know what you are talking about. So much internet apologetics and even published works at the popular level are unhelpful. Amateurs who don’t know what they are talking about parrot the arguments of qualified philosophers, historians and scientists, without having the depth of understanding needed to do it well. Individuals who leave the faith should be leaving because they found the best of Christian thinking to be lacking, not because a self-styled apologist let them down. Much more could be said here.
RR: That’s why I stopped referring to the Borde, Guth, and Vilenkin Theorem in debates on cosmology and God’s existence: I didn’t really know what I was talking about! I think we should all be more careful about attempting to amass a bag of talking points or factoids to support our view when we don’t really understand the conceptual frameworks in which they’re embedded.
JM: Second, we need to help folks see the role of plausibility structures, social imaginaries and other socio-cultural factors in influencing our thinking. What we take to be rational, and what answers we are willing to consider are already determined in part by when and where we live. As Charles Taylor has so persuasively argued, the conditions of belief have changed and they make it harder to believe in the biblical story. We live in an increasingly secular culture. But what needs to be pointed out is this is not because the “secular” was inevitable as humanity evolved. Nor is it a sign that we are becoming more rational in some objective sense. The secular turn is as much a construct, and product of historical factors as the religious nature of the Middle Ages was. The secular culture and its attendant “rationality” is not what is left over after you subtract religion and superstition. It is a construal with a philosophic lineage. As such, we should remind Christians that beliefs in the miraculous, and strange, which feel rationally out of place within our cultural moment, do so, not because they are inherently irrational but because we are secular. To counter the negative affective influence of our secular age on faith formation, we need to immerse ourselves in another culture; the church.
RR: Yeah, that’s a great point. I’m reminded here of the following quote from new atheist Sam Harris in which he describes atheism simply in terms of rational belief:
“Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, ‘atheism’ is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a ‘non-alchemist.’ We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.”
Harris seems to have no awareness that he has a worldview no less than the “religious” people he disparages. Time and again, I find average atheists expressing a similar view to Harris: they think they simply have a neutral, rational view of reality rather than recognizing that they have a historically conditioned finite perspective no less than anybody else.
JM: The third counter measure we can apply in helping believers maintain faith in the midst of a secular culture that makes them feel akin to an adult believing in Santa, is to find good communities of faith that reaffirm the biblical narrative we indwell. Authoritative communities like local churches (and to a degree the global church) act as plausibility structures, the necessary social framework for belief maintenance. Space prevents me from saying too much here about plausibility structures and the crucial role they play in faith formation. But I would encourage readers to pick up Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy. In it Berger demonstrates the role and importance of the church, specifically church communities, in providing legitimacy to the biblical narrative. This was true not only in the Middle Ages, but also in our own. Being around healthy, biblical communities that reinforce the truth of Christ through preaching his word, worshipping him and loving each other well, can powerfully counter the faith draining effect our secular age can have on faith formation and maintenance.
RR: I certainly agree. Indeed, some years ago I wrote an article about this very idea titled “Worshipping a Flying Teapot? What to do when Christianity looks ridiculous.” In addition, the following quote from Os Guinness seems particularly relevant here:
“Roman Catholicism is more likely to seem true in Eire than in Egypt, just as Mormonism is in Salt Lake City than in Singapore, and Marxism in Moscow than in Mecca. In each case, plausibility comes from a world of shared support.”
So yeah, I agree heartily with your point about the critical importance of communities of shared belief.
But as we conclude, let me push back a bit on a couple of points. First, what would you say to the person who worries that your analysis that there is no privileged perspective — like the modern secular view — leads to relativism? That is, we just have a multiplicity of independent and equally true perspectives?
JM: I would say that just because we cannot extricate ourselves from our perspective – embedded as it is in a particular time and place – that does not entail relativism. At least ontologically, anyway. We may see things from a perspective, but that doesn’t mean reality itself is a social construct with nothing beyond it. Beliefs are either true or false depending on how they reflect reality, not if my peers let me get away with holding them. The challenge is how to demonstrate which view best reflects reality. To do that I would appeal to some non-foundationalist forms of persuasion and analysis. Examples here would include, the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, Lesslie Newbigin, and Esther Meek, among others.
RR: Okay, now for my second question. What would you say to the person who worries that your emphasis on securing belief within mutually reinforcing belief communities could encourage indoctrination? For example, if the Flat Earth Society realizes that the next generation will only accept a flat earth if they continue to live in a community of likeminded flat earthers, then they may never be exposed to rational critical thinking and evidence to question their entire framework.
Do you see that as a danger?
JM: Theoretically I suppose it is. But what I have in mind isn’t a siege or ghetto mentality. Rather, I am advocating that believers take advantage of the great resources that God has given them in the church. One of which is that it provides the encouragement they need as “strangers and aliens” in the broader culture. Good churches, or outposts of the Kingdom, will be those that seek not to indoctrinate but to be channels through which the Spirit of God can work in bringing about spiritual formation. One way they can do so is by helping individuals to love God with their minds. Loving God with one’s mind entails evaluating all things and holding fast to what is true. The church has nothing to fear from critical thinking. In fact, it should be known for doing so with excellence.
There is much more that could be said on the subject of deconversion. If readers would like to learn more one way they can do so is to visit my website www.johnmarriott.org . There you will find the latest research, help for those trying to understand the loss of faith, and hope for those trying to maintain it. A second option is to pick up a copy of my recent book, A Recipe For Disaster: Four Ways Parents and Churches Prepare Individuals to Lose Their Faith and How to Instill a Faith that Endures. In it you will find more data on the rates and scope of deconversion, a survey on what the New Testament says about apostasy, and more about how well meaning Christian parents and church leaders unwittingly contribute to the process of deconversion.
Thanks Randal for taking the time to chat with me. It’s been a pleasure.