Over the years I’ve met many people, in ‘real life’ and on the internet, who have changed their beliefs about God. Some have moved from unbelief to belief in Jesus, others have moved from belief to atheism. And I have come across a few who have changed their belief twice – from faith to unbelief and back again, or vice versa.
Few of us are purely emotional or purely logical about these decisions, and for some these choices have involved a time of deep reflection as well as some emotional stress.
I often ponder how and why these changes of belief occur.
The chaos of youth?
It seems that many of our basic attitudes are determined by the time we are in our early twenties. By this age, many people become christians, or environmental or social activists, or communists (if there are any of them left these days), or committed atheists.
Many people stay with these commitments lifelong, but others mellow or change viewpoints altogether. A minister I knew once said that most christians start off narrow, and broaden, and I think this is often true.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall?
When people choose to walk away from the christian belief they were brought up in, it seems that often the stronger or more fundamentalist their christian belief or upbringing was, the stronger will be their reaction against it.
Fundamentalism – its own worst enemy?
More moderate christians, when they see problems in their belief, tend to take it in their stride, work the issue through, and end up slightly more liberal or progressive. But more fundamentalist christians are more likely to find the experience of doubt almost traumatic, and to reject the lot.
In the first chapter of his book Fabricating Jesus, New Testament scholar Craig Evans discusses this very question, and uses as examples four fellow scholars (the most well-known of whom might be Bart Ehrman) who grew up as evangelical christians but later became extremely liberal christians or not believers at all. He suggests, on the basis of comments each have made about their journey out of faith, that all four reacted to a fundamentalism that discouraged questioning and taught that one had to accept the whole package, or reject it.
An offensive suggestion?
Over the years, I have discussed some of these matters with ex-christian friends, and commented that it seems to me that they rejected a very different form of christianity to what I believe. Some have been slightly offended at this, because of they see an implication that their unbelief may not be well-based.
But I mean no offence. It is indeed the case that they have rejected a different form of christianity than I believe. And it is surely true that some may have responded differently if they started from a different point, just as others would not. But I cannot say how it was for any individual.
And I note that it goes both ways – many atheists say something similar to christians, suggesting that it is only their upbringing that led them to faith.
I don’t think their departure from their previous faith is necessarily a bad thing. Probably they needed to get out. Leaving untrue or unhelpful beliefs is good, and can be the first step towards God (statistics show that many people who change their mind about religion once, change it again). Most won’t see it that way, and for most it won’t be that way, but for some it will.
The range of options open to doubters
For a person raised in a ‘fundamentalist’ form of christianity, doubts are most likely to begin with the obviously questionable stories of the Old Testament (Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, Babel, Noah, Jonah, etc), or some of the darkest and most difficult teachings (the Old Testament killings, hell, women’s inequality), or a general distaste about the character of God as they have come to see it. What options are open to such a person?
Few of the most questionable aspects of the Bible are fundamental to christianity – e.g. very few of them appear in the creeds. (It is ironical that ‘fundamentalism’, which began with concern of some basic teachings, has come to be so associated with so many peripheral matters.)
So the most obvious option for someone who believes strongly in Jesus is to hold onto Jesus but let go some or all of these peripherals This will mean taking a more nuanced and flexible view of the Bible, or at least the Old Testament.
We could call this moderate christianity, and more and more christians are moving this way.
Deism or agnosticism
Some people find they can no longer believe in any of the Bible, even the parts of the New Testament which scholars say are historical, but they find the world and human experience still point to a creator and/or sustainer. They may choose some form of deism (belief in a God who created the world but doesn’t get involved with human beings) or even agnosticism.
But many ex-christians choose atheism, for various reasons. Some have been emotionally hurt by their christian experience, and want nothing at all to do with christianity again. Some find that once their belief in Bible inerrancy is gone, they have no more reason to believe (for they were never given any other reason). Still others find that once their critical faculties are sharpened and they adopt a more sceptical approach, nothing in christianity stands up strongly enough to scrutiny.
How many consider all the options?
Obviously I cannot know this. But I wonder how many people consider the full range of options when they abandon their christian belief.
Doubt in my life
I did not grow up in a christian home, though I received a modicum of christian training when I was sent to Sunday School. When I first believed the christian message, I had few preconceptions. I was a questioning teen (some would say argumentative! 🙁 ) and so I began immediately to read CS Lewis and other ‘apologetic’ books. My questioning was never criticised.
It wasn’t long before I began to question many aspects of evangelical christian belief – many aspects of the Old Testament (including the commands to kill whole tribes, and the literalness of Noah, Job and Jonah), and the standard evangelical view of Jesus that didn’t seem to take his life and teachings seriously – only his death and resurrection. And so I read a lot over the years.
This openness to other ideas led me into deep waters on occasions, but I never felt I was betraying God or being anything other than honest. And so my beliefs and faith were free to adjust to the new things I was learning, which I found exciting rather than threatening. And I found a strong basis for beliefs that remained much the same at the core but were quite different from where I started in many details.
Questions for doubters of all stripes
Most people who read this are probably well satisfied with their current beliefs. But for any who are open to questioning their current views may I suggest a few thoughts?
To those beginning to doubt christianity, I would suggest considering all the options. Ask yourself questions like: Is this matter I’m doubting fundamental to my belief in Jesus? Are there christians who doubt this? Could I change my view on this matter I’m doubting and still have good reason to believe in Jesus?
To those who have ‘deconverted’ I would ask: Do the reasons why you first doubted christianity justify the view you hold now? Is there any reason to reconsider the extent of your rejection of christian faith? Is there any reason not to? How open are you to seeing christianity in a new and less alien way?
And to convinced christians I would ask: Is all that you are teaching as crucial really fundamental to christian faith? Are you setting people up to disbelieve later because of the viewpoint you teach?
Take home message and question
I think it is sad if some people reject a God who is false and never consider the God I believe is true.
What do you think? What has been your experience?