Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Roots Of Faith

It was difficult to let go of Christianity.  Looming before me was the prospect of becoming literally the only unbeliever in my entire extended family.  Our family has, what Christians sometimes call, a "spiritual legacy" and (until this point) it had remained completely in tact among my siblings, first cousins, aunts, uncles etc.  How might breaking that chain impact future generations?  Would my children become atheists, Christians, or something else?  And what about my children's children, and so on and so forth?  There was simply no way to be predict the ripple effect.

I knew very well what my reasons were for leaving the faith but, this got me to thinking, why had I become a Christian in the first place?  On one level, the answer is pretty straightforward.  My mother led me to Christ, at the age of five, by the side of my bed.  It's a day that I still remember vividly.  But, why had my mother become a Christian?  And, my father?  

My dad's "testimony" begins with an invitation to church (it was somewhere around age 8, I believe).  The sermon that day was on hell and, long story short, the little boy, the one who was to one day become my dad, went forward and got "saved".  Afterward, in part because of his influence & persuasion (plus that of a local pastor), both of my father's parents "accepted the lord" as well (and, ultimately, his siblings).

My mother's parents were also "unsaved" when they got married.  As I understand it, they found themselves in a pentecostal church, got "born again", and the rest, as they say, is history.  (I get the impression it was one of those highly emotional evangelistic revival type meetings.)

So, why do I bother to bring this up?  

Well, what really struck me, as I thought more about this spiritual legacy, was how incredibly flimsy its foundations were (and are).  

I mean, my father was just a kid who (quite literally) got the hell scared out of him.  What child wouldn't go forward, to get saved, after a sermon on the horrors that await them if they don't "accept Jesus as their lord and personal savior"?  Had he really understand the implications of what he was agreeing to, especially at such a young age?  Did he consider the fact that this information (presented to him by a trusted adult) might, in actual fact, be false?

Of course not.  Like I said, he was just a kid.

In my mother's case, her father had been doing a bit too much smoking & drinking, in the early days of his marriage.  The conversion experience helped to put him on the straight and narrow, so to speak, and he subsequently took the necessary steps to clean himself up.  From that point forward, they were a "Christian family" and my mom, plus all of her siblings, accepted the lord. Might my mom's dad have become an alcoholic, were it not for what happened at the pentecostal church that day?  It's hard to say.

Here's the thing...despite the positive side effects, which I don't question, do either of these stories represent good reasons to embrace Christianity?  Remember, it was these very experiences which led to the so called spiritual legacy in my family.

As I pondered more on this dynamic, I began to also analyze the conversion experiences of other Christians that I know pretty well.  Were their initial reasons, for "accepting Christ", any better than my mom's or my dad's?  I won't take the time to tell you each of their stories, since I have already illustrated the essential point, but my conclusion, after going through this analysis, was as follows...people, generally speaking, convert to Christianity due primarily to one of the following three factors (or some combination thereof)...

  • a Christian home
  • a personal crisis (emotional, financial, physical...)
  • the influence of a friend and/or family member

I'm sure there are exceptions to this rule (aren't there always?) but it's crucial to keep in mind that exceptions don't disprove the rule (that's why we call them exceptions).  Having said that, I've actually found it surprisingly difficult to think of viable exceptions to the above three scenarios (even when I'm trying to do so).  Reflect on your own conversion experience for a moment...does one or more of these areas apply, as the primary factor leading to your conversion?  How about the conversions of your family & friends?  I'm willing to bet that nearly all of them will be a perfect fit with only, at best, the occasional exception.

Initially, I wondered if someone like William Lane Craig might serve to be an exception.  After all, Craig is arguably Christianity's #1 living defense lawyer.  Surely he, if anyone, must have accepted Christianity for purely rational reasons.  Not so.  Actually, the way Craig tells it, he was on his way to becoming a "very alienated young man", filled with "hate" and "inner anger", the kind that "eats away at your insides", "making every day miserable" etc.  While in high school he ran into a girl, named Sandy, who had a happiness about her that he didn't have at that time in his life. After finding out she was a born again Christian, Craig read the New Testament and became captivated by the "ring of truth" to Jesus' teachings (yes, he actually used the phrase "ring of truth").  It sure sounds to me like the main influences, in his conversion, were personal crisis (my second point) and the influence of friends (my third point).  I would encourage you to watch Craig's testimony, in his own words, right here.

Here again, you might be tempted to ask, what's my point?

Well, take note of what's missing here.  If my basic theory is correct, than consideration of the evidence is not one of the primary factors which leads to (the lion's share of) Christian conversions.  In other words, the majority of Christians embrace Christianity, initially, for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with its truth claims.

Later on, some Christians do seek out rational reasons, to stay with Christianity, but in doing so most still don't stop to truly consider the potential implications of the fact that they initially embraced it for really bad reasons. And, of course, the longer one holds to a belief (whatever it is) the more difficult it becomes to change.  Our own brains works against us, in this respect, falling victim to various sorts of bad thinking; ie. the sunk cost fallacy (the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it).

Now, a Christian might be tempted to say, as a defensive measure, that the same three factors apply to de-conversions; ie. those who, like me, move away from Christianity to some manner of disbelief.  They might be tempted to say this, but I genuinely think they would be mistaken. Actually, as best as I can tell, the majority of de-conversions are solo (in fact, often deeply private) experiences that are spurred on, at root, by intellectual doubts.  Usually these people are moving away from how they were raised (in contrast to the first point), typically their lives are going reasonably well (in contrast to the second point), and they are more often than not turning against everything that their family & friends still believe (in contrast to the third point).  Are there exceptions?  Of course there are.  But the more I read de-conversion stories, the more I realize that they differ markedly from conversion stories; and usually in ways that are quite similar to the ones I've just mentioned.

Of course, it would be fallacious to immediately disregard something, simply because of the manner in which it was first embraced (that doesn't necessarily mean it's false).  Even still, I now see that there are "good" reasons, and there are "bad" reasons, to both accept and reject beliefs. Not all reasons were created equal, and recognizing this is one of the keys in learning how to think well.

How about you?  Did you embrace your current belief system (be it Christianity, atheism, or something else) for "bad" reasons?  If so, maybe it's time to re-examine it.


  1. I was brought up in a Christian home. As I commented once before, my de-conversion story is similar to yours and many others that I've read which boils down to doubts leading to questions leading to realizations leading to lots and lots of reading and finally disbelief.

    There is a Christian movement to try and "reach" people when they are young (and gullible). One reason given is because George Barna research has shown that people are far less likely to become a Christian after 20 years old. I know because I used to do this and I'm not proud of it (I was an Awana Commander). Most Christians familiar with mission work know what the 10-40 window is. Well there is also a 4-14 window. Check out and click on "4-14 Window" it is very interesting.

  2. You nailed it Dave, I agree completely with your description of (most) de-conversions.

    I was never a Commander, but I did sign on as an Awana counselor once (when I was a teenager). I even enrolled my own kids in Awana just a few short years ago (directly prior to the start of my de-conversion).

    Looking back, it strikes me as odd that Christians are so brazen about their strategy to reach little kids with the gospel...when they say "children between the ages of 4 and 14 are the people in the world most open to the Gospel" it's akin to saying "children between the ages of 4 and 14 will believe anything we tell them".

    This, of course, is true because: a) they don't know any better, b) they trust adults implicitly, and c) their brains aren't yet fully developed. Is taking advantage of these dynamics something to be proud of?

  3. I became a Christian at 16 because of the influence of friends. I had just moved to a new community and was very lonely. I was invited to a youth group event and the teenagers in the group were very friendly and kind. My deconversion began when a colleague asked you don't really believe the whole earth was flooded do you? Then she commented you know that even Mother Teresa doubted her beliefs. I started searching the internet and came across Ken Daniels deconversion story on a web site. From there I continued to search for answers to my questions and the turning point was the development of the canon. I started reading Ken Pulliam's blog daily (he has since past away). Ken was a professor in at a bible college and had left the faith. The more I read the more I realized all that I had been taught was not rational. When I started my deconversion journey I was involved in a church and bible studying and there was no reason to leave the faith.

  4. I'm a committed Christian, and have to agree in large part to what you're sharing. You have hit the nail on the head, IMO.

    In most of the deconversion type blogs that I've ever read or have shared most of the former Christians have come to faith more for emotional reasons, the influence of friends, a personal crisis or because of strong cultural conditioning. Often the fear of Hell plays a huge part in this.

    Very seldom do you hear deconverts share that as young children in the church they were encouraged to question, or wrestle with challenges to faith from a early age. They are often older adults before even considering other options.

    I have actually never read on any de conversion blog that someone was converted because they were intellectually persuaded of the validity of the gospel, or that the apostolic witness to the resurrection was seen as objectively true...or that the creation seemed to them a signpost pointing toward a creator, those kind of things..

    Also, very often, deconverts almost always come from some type of fundamental or very conservative evangelical or pentecostal church, not as much from a moderate mainline kind of situation..

    There is just a whole different kind of mindset. For most Christian people in mainline denominations the question of things such as the inerrancy of the Scripture, or whether the whole earth was ever covered with water, and did Jesus Christ rise from the dead are seen as separate issues altogether.

    Although, I do think it's true that many if not most deconverts because of past experience have a strong cognitive bias against the Christian faith. Often people share that they feel more free, intellectually alive, and are happier, less judgemental people since leaving their former religion. Again, mostly coming from a more fundamentalist background..

    I don't think that I've ever read of anyone who has deconverted deeply grieving a sense of a lose of relationship with God.


  5. Cerbaz, I think your story is pretty typical. It seems a fair number of people convert because of "youth group" influences (social/emotional reasons).

    Rebecca, thanks for the encouragement. I agree with a lot of your observations, as well, except I guess for the part about having a "strong cognitive bias against the Christian faith". My experience, as a Christian, was mostly positive so I sincerely don't think I have such a bias (but, of course, I can only speak for myself here). I'm certainly not "angry" about anything, that's for sure.

    Your other comments, re: liberal Christianity, are interesting as well. There was a brief period, during my own de-conversion, when I thought I was going to wind up a liberal Christian myself when it was all over. But at the end of the day there were a couple of things that prevented this from happening...

    Firstly, it just seems to me that life makes much better sense when you take off the "God glasses" completely (to see a handful of my reasons, for thinking this way, check out the various posts I've done on the problem of suffering and evolution/sex).

    Secondly, it's difficult for me to understand why liberal Christians bother with the Bible at all. If it smells, tastes, and looks like a book that was written entirely by humans (with no divine help needed) why bother treating it with such privilege? Why study it every Sunday? Either God had something to do with the Bible, or he didn't, and my conclusion was/is that he didn't.

    In short, I know what liberal Christians don't believe (ie. they reject the literal truth, of certain Bible stories etc.) but I find it difficult to get a tight grasp on what they do believe (and if they actually have any real evidence for those things, whatever they are...).

    Those are a few more of my thoughts, I would love to hear more of yours.

  6. Hi, Respectful, thank you for sharing, and for your openness.

    I don't know that I would self identify as a liberal Christian. It's just that these various terms are so relative. Coming from the perspective of fundamentalism, then I would be seen as liberal. But, coming from the perspective of, say, Jack Spong, Crossan, or Borg, then I'm pretty darn conservative..:)

    I think the Bible was written by men, and their own culture, personality, and style seems pretty evident to me in this. But, I also believe that the Scripture contains and reflects the word of God. To me, to take the Bible seriously means that we can't always interpret it literally..I think it's important to consider the context, the type of literature, the intent of the author, those kinds of things. BTW, even some of the church fathers believe that certain parts of Scripture made better sense to be interpreted allegorically. Deep truth can also be relayed through symbolism, and metaphor.

    It seems to me that God would communicate with people in terms of their own culture, and time. Would it have made sense in Biblical times for God to give the ancients a dissertation relating to DNA, and evolutionary processes? Genesis one to me is a magnificent poem relating to the creation. It does speak of God in anthropomorphic terms. Do you see what I mean? Does God walk like a man? Is He a potter to mold and to shape clay?

    The essential truth in all this, though, I think is that God is the creator. He has made us in His own image and likeness. At a certain point in prehistory, individually and collectively as a race we chose to go our own way rather than God's way. We became alienated from God, and from each other.

    Christians believe that God acted in history in Jesus Christ to reconcile the world to Himself. We are not alone in the universe.

    For me, the center of Christian faith is the incarnation, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I would say the Nicene Creed of the church pretty much reflects the essentials of Christian faith.


  7. Sure, well I think your approach (to the Bible) is more sensible.

    It's fair enough, I suppose, to suggest that God might speak to people in terms of their own culture. This isn't the sort of thing that can be proven, one way or the other.

    The problem, for me, lies in the fact that the Bible seems to bear no markers of divine origin whatsoever. What are your reasons for believing that He (God) was involved in it at all? (I assume you do believe this?)

    Your last 3 paragraphs are simply statements of faith, which is fine, I used to believe just as you do. (But I'm still looking for actual evidence...)

    I'd be curious to know how you would address some of the issues raised in my older posts. Browse around the archives, when you get a chance, and feel free to comment under any specific posts that capture your attention.

    Would love to hear your perspective, thanks Rebecca!

  8. Thanks, Respectful.

    I will do that. Might have to wait until after the
    holidays, though. :)


  9. That sounds great, Merry Christmas Rebecca

  10. Have a wonderful holiday, also, Respectful.


  11. I've been reading your story today and see many similarities with mine. I converted due to an emotional issue/crisis and now the deconverting was truly on intellectual grounds.