Stories of Christians abandoning their faith have us thinking about the relationship between deconversion and convictions. So, when we heard about John Marriott’s book, The Anatomy of Deconversion, it got our attention. Today on the podcast, John joins Tim and Rick to talk about Christians losing their convictions. They dig into surveys, statistics, and stories involving people who leave the Christian faith and consider some dynamics that may have undermined the durability of their convictions. John unpacks three kinds reasons people tend to leave the faith and four stages of faith development. This is part 1 of a 2-parts series on Christian deconversion with John Marriott.
John Marriott: In the case of people who end up losing their faith, part of what is driving them is that now that inherited or intuition that has been placed into them that they need to know the truth and they can't ignore the evidence or what looks like to be evidence that contradicts what they think that they believe. So stage four is a tough place to be.
Rick Langer: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction podcast. My name's Rick Langer, and I'm a professor here at Biola, as well as the Director of the Office of Faith and Learning. And I'm also participating in the Winsome Conviction Project with my good friend, Tim Muehlhoff.
Tim Muehlhoff: Hi, my name is Tim Muehlhoff. I'm the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project along with Rick. I'm also a professor of communication at Biola University. And one of the great things about being at Biola is you get to meet some amazing people, start up friendships. So we have one of our friends and colleagues, John Marriott. John serves at Biola University as the research and program coordinator for Biola University Center for Christian Thought. Man, what a great program, Rick.
Rick Langer: Yes indeed.
Tim Muehlhoff: The Center for Christian Thought is an amazing group. And you can certainly check out their website, check out what they're doing. He also teaches in the department of philosophy. He's a former pastor. He holds a PhD from the Cook School of Intercultural Studies. His dissertation focused on deconversion from Christianity to atheism. It's a topic has been a lifelong pursuit of him. He's the author of three books on deconversion, A Recipe for Disaster, how the church contributes to the deconversion crisis. The Anatomy of Deconversion, key ways to a lifelong faith to the culture of abandoning Christianity, and then last, Going... Going... Gone..! Why believers lose their faith and what can be done to guard against it. John, welcome to the Winsome Conviction. You have arrived [crosstalk 00:01:49] pinnacle.
John Marriott: Yes. Yes. Thank you. This is it. I can check this off my bucket list now.
Rick Langer: I hope you had a long bucket list to get down to that.
John Marriott: Oh no, this was right at the top, right at the top.
Rick Langer: One of the things that actually we care an awful lot about, and we like to emphasize is that we're concerned not about civility per se. Well, we are concerned about civility, but we call it the Winsome Conviction Project for a reason. We really care about conviction. We care about Christian conviction and we believe in effect that in the absence of real authentic Christian conviction, we won't have actually real Christians. It is our convictions that make our faith a reality. So when you write a book about deconversion and people in effect losing their Christian convictions, you get our attention.
Tim Muehlhoff: No, John, seriously long before I met you, I read your book, A Recipe For Disaster, Four Ways Churches and Parents Prepare Individuals to Lose Their Faith and How They Can Instill a Faith That Endures. And I'm just a fan of yours. The book is expertly written, very compassionate, research-based, and it absolutely caught my attention. And I knew you were an adjunct here at Biola. So I just called up and said we got to have coffee because I'm parents of three sons. And the statistics you shared, John, are just frightening I will say, and disturbing. Let me just read some very quickly. John just did a great blog post for the Christ Animated Learning Blog that is sponsored by the Christian Scholar's Review. Please check it out. But in it, you say this and we just want to ask you about this, John, because it's so disturbing that you almost want to say this just can't be true, that this just cannot be the reality we're looking at.
Tim Muehlhoff: But you mentioned a couple of things very quickly. In 2015, the Pew Research Center reported that for every individual who becomes a Christian, four leave. I mean, think about that for a minute. And then the Pinetops Foundation in 2018 claimed that over the next 30 years, Christian affiliation in the US will decline by 1 million per year, which means that between 30 and 42 million young people raised in Christian families who call themselves Christians will say that they are not by 2050. And the researchers surmised this while it is hard to find clear data. As far as we can tell, this is the single largest generational loss of souls in history who are nominally raised in the church and no longer call themselves followers of Jesus where, John, that catches our attention and scares us. What do you make of these statistics? And can you clarify them at all for us?
John Marriott: I hope so. The statistics are not... These stats that you just read are consistent with just about everything I think that's come out over the last 15 years when it comes to how many people identify as Christians, the amount of folks who are staying, the amount of folks who are leaving. In 2009, the Pew Research Center said that young people are leaving religion at five to six times the historic rate and that seems like it's only gone up since then. So it's not as though I cherry-picked a few stats, the stats are uniform and consistent across the board when it comes to religious affiliation. Now, this is in some ways specific to the west and in the United States, Christianity and other parts of the world is growing. And that's an important thing to note. But here in the United States, we certainly are becoming a much more secular culture.
John Marriott: We are having a hard time having folks maintain and continue values that have traditionally and historically been part of the Christian narrative in a culture that doesn't esteem those values anymore. And the other thing that I would say about the numbers is that there's one word that was used in that last quote from the Pinetops Foundation that I think is important. They said that this is the largest generational loss of souls in history who were nominally raised in the church. And I think that's important to point out because it does seem, and I think that most of our listeners would be on the same page here, that there's a lot of people in the United States who would identify as a Christian but if you were to drill down a little bit further than just the surface veneer, you might suspect that they really haven't come to a real saving understanding of who Jesus is.
John Marriott: Therefore, a lot of the numbers here might just be reflecting people who identified as a Christian on a survey who came from a home that wasn't Muslim or Jewish and historically would have maybe had some church attendance but no longer are they willing to identify in that way. That's I think a bulk of the folks. But then there is a whole other source of information other than just the statistics. There are thousands, tens of thousands of deconversion narratives that are online. And I've read hundreds of them and interviewed dozens of people who sit across the table from me and they weren't nominal in their faith. They were former missionaries, worship leaders, some of whom were pastors, others who were just very committed, seminary grads, et cetera, and those are the really troubling stories I think.
Rick Langer: And that seems to be one of the things from reading your book, it seemed like you clearly kind of at the outset bracketed a whole bunch of issues about this large nominal group, and that does tend to inflate the statistics are shaped those but the really intriguing thing about what you did was to say, let's forget about that part for a moment and talk about the people who you would say had an authentic, orthodox belief, whether or not their departure from the faith. We aren't really having discussion about eternal security here where they not saved at all before but they had kind of visible outward signs. That kind of a separate question. The point is what happened and why was it that their faith proved not to be durable? So perhaps you could give us a quick glimpse of that. What is it that you found as you were talking to folks?
John Marriott: Sure. And if I could just step back, take one step back, and just say that the issue that you raised about eternal security is always one that comes up in this discussion. And there will be some folks from a particular theological stream that will say this issue is not relevant to us because we don't believe that a real Christian can ever lose their salvation. So they weren't saved so why are we worrying about what caused them to depart? And to that, I would say that the apostle Paul, in that same tradition that same may be reformed reading of scripture would have been very convinced about the sovereignty of God in election and predestination and drawing people unto salvation. And yet he himself went above and beyond in trying to make sure that he placed no offense or stumbling block towards the people that he was presenting the gospel.
John Marriott: So he really felt he had a part to play in making sure that the gospel was clearly heard, even though on a strongly reformed reading that it's all of God. And I think the same thing is true when it comes to loss of faith and deconversion. Even if we believe that you can't lose your salvation once you're saved, you're eternally secure and you will persevere until the end. We, like the apostle Paul, should still want to avoid putting pitfalls and barriers in front of folks that will give them a crisis of faith, even though it may not lead to their loss of faith. And so that's why I think this research and things that I have discovered are helpful for everybody in the church. Not just for people who think, "Well, I don't want my child to lose their salvation." We should say, "I don't want my child to have a massive spiritual crisis that while they make it into the kingdom and they're there eternally, they went through a ton of struggles to get there."
John Marriott: So that's the first thing that [crosstalk 00:09:40] I like to say about that. Some of the things that I've discovered that caused people or that are at least causal factors in why people lose their faith, is that the main thing is that they just come to the conclusion that it's just not true, right? They've come to the place where they say, "I don't believe this anymore." And then they list the reasons why and those reasons are almost exclusively in three different categories. One there's intellectual reasons. Two, there are reasons that we might call value reasons. And three, there are experiential reasons. A when we think of intellectual reasons, we think of problems with the Bible.
John Marriott: We think that maybe the apologetics doesn't support the belief. Maybe there's not enough evidence. When we come to values, we think of things like, "Well, how could I believe in a God who would send people to a place like hell that I read about? Or what about what he did with the Canaanites? Or what about biblical historical traditional positions on LGBTQ plus issues? And I'm going to say if that's what the Bible teaches and I can't line up with that, I can't affirm that." And then lastly, the experiential reasons would be perhaps being let down by God, some expectations that he had that people had of God that he didn't meet, and being hurt by the church. Those would be the three broad categories.
Rick Langer: That's a great overview, thanks.
Tim Muehlhoff: And then you talked about, I thought this was fascinating about the stages of faith, John. When I read this, I really took note of this and I thought it was really helpful. Do you want me to read those? Or can you do those off the top of your head?
John Marriott: No, go ahead and read them, please.
Tim Muehlhoff: Stage one generally occurs around preschool. At this stage, ideas about God are largely absorbed from the adults in a youngster's life. I think I might... I would grew up in a non-Christian family. My three kids grew up in a Christian family where God was always the backdrop, right? Second stage begins to develop in school-age children, their faith and beliefs about God are more logical than those of persons in stage one. They are able to make distinctions between fantasy and reality, but we'll take many of the stories and symbols of their faith very literally.
Tim Muehlhoff: Then you get to stage three. At this stage, an individual's belief system has largely taken for granted. That is they do not realize that their belief system is one of many possible takes on the world. For them, it's just a description of the way things are. Literal reflection or critical analysis occurs at stage three and authority rests largely with religious teachers, right? And then stage four is characterized by a time of intellectual and emotional upheaval that can go on for whatever reasons, meaning gay friends who seem sincere in their Christian faith and maybe learning about evolution in a high school class or a college classroom. And this is a time of great upheaval. And then you say, once you hit stage four, you can never go back. It's like, okay, I've encountered all these things and now I have to deal with them in one way or another.
Tim Muehlhoff: I can't go back to stage three where things were so much easier. And then you get back to stage five, right? Faith survives but is now marked by an inability to live with the apparent contradictions and ambiguities that stage four had raised without needing necessarily a solution to them. So John, to me, that was really helpful because at Biola University, we see students navigating stage four sometimes or high school students. And most people don't know what to do at that stage that they don't have a conception of how to handle the doubt, the challenges, they're confused. And so help us understand a little bit about particularly stage four.
John Marriott: Sure. As you're reading that, I was thinking back as to when I was writing that in my experience growing up and I grew up in small, not small, but medium-sized town in Northern Ontario but five hours north from where you grew up. And it was somewhat remote, we didn't have a lot of religious options. Everyone I knew was a Christian. My grandmother, who was the most significant Christian influence in my life came from an even smaller community and had never met really anybody outside of that. Came from a very fundamentalist, in many ways, legalistic church environment. But she had no reason to question the truth of it because she never encountered anyone who held any other view. And she might've known that there were people on the other side of the world who believed in other things, but they were no threat to her or ever caused her to doubt because she never experienced them personally.
John Marriott: And it was very easy for her to trust in her authority figures. And they would tell her that, "Well, no, they're wrong because that's not what the Bible teaches." And that was fine for her and that was fine for me for a really long time. And then I started to have this sort of... I started increasing in kind of the stage four where I started to think, "Wow, but what about these folks that I met at high school who aren't Christians?" I had a Muslim friend and I had a professor who taught us about evolution and he made these arguments for it. And then these all started to cause me to have this cognitive dissonance in my brain about how could I believe what was true. And yet these people were nice people and they were good people.
John Marriott: And there was no flexibility in my theology whatsoever for them to fit in. They either were a hundred percent right or they were a hundred percent wrong. And I had to figure out which one it was and there's a myriad of issues that came my way. And so I think people who are in stage three, in some ways, it's kind of a nice place to be. If you're not troubled by doubt, and you're not influenced by the culture that surrounds you. And you're very either you're insecure enough that you can trust in authority figures that are really strong. And that gives you a great sense of confidence then in some ways that's enviable, or if you're someone who is incredibly self-confident and very secure in your opinions and you can stay in stage three, you lack a sense of turmoil, and you might have a sense of contentment and peace about what you believe.
John Marriott: And I would never want to drive someone out of that experience, especially if what they're believing is true largely. But it's for those people who go into stage four, who have a really hard time going back to stage three because the toothpaste is already out of the tube and you can't really put it back in. You can't say, "Well, I didn't hear that evidence for evolution in my class and I didn't hear those criticisms of the Bible when I went to university and I can't ignore those anymore, especially if I care about truth."
John Marriott: And this is where we do a really good job in the evangelical world because we are always making an argument that truth is paramount but in the case of people who end up losing their faith, part of what is driving them is that now that inherited or intuition that has been placed into them that they need to know the truth and they can't ignore the evidence or what looks like to be evidence that contradicts what they think that they believe. So stage four is a tough place to be.
Rick Langer: And so that's kind of an indication of the dangers of what you might call intellectual blinders. You think about blinders you put on a horse like in horse racing exactly so you can't see what's going. Just focus on what's there, which is great if you happen to be driving a horse in a horse race. But if you're actually living a Christian life and or trying to follow Jesus' command to be in the world but not of the world, you don't have the luxury of those blinders oftentimes. A great point about your grandma. Depending a little bit on where you live and who you hang out with and we don't need to give people a disease they don't have. But for many of us, you bump into these things all the time and then to say, "Oh, I either have to abandon this notion that I'm really committed to the truth, or I have to engage information that pushes back against my perception of it."
John Marriott: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: So let me add a personal note. And then, Rick, you said something I want to... I don't know, maybe push back on just a little bit. So let me tell you my stage four experience. I'm on staff at the Christian ministry. I just got engaged with my wife and I love Apologetics. I mean, I would read all the Apologetics books from Lewis to Josh McDowell, J.P. Moreland. Somebody sends me a book and to this day, I have no idea who sent it to me. It came and it was called, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? It was a debate between Antony Flew, who's one of the top British atheist, and Gary Habermas, who's one of our top evangelical defenders of the resurrection. When I got this thing, it was awesome. I devour it in one weekend and walk away saying, "Okay, at bare minimum, it was a draw."
Tim Muehlhoff: But I really think Antony Flew kind of carried the day. I think he kind of... I was on the debate team in college so I can kick into debaters mode. And I'm reading this going, "Man, these are really good points Antony Flew made." And then what happened next is what I want to ask you about. I went to my Christian friends... Now, again, I'm a full-time Christian minister and said to him, "Hey, I read a really disturbing book where this guy made these points about the resurrection." John, here's what I got from virtually everybody. "Dude, you do know the resurrection is the hallmark of the Christian faith. And if it didn't happen, we don't have a faith." And I was like, as if it was like, "Oh yeah, hey, thank you for that reminder. I had totally forgotten that point." Everywhere I went, it was shut down.
Tim Muehlhoff: There was nowhere for me to go that I could raise these issues and so then you're forced inward. Now just a really cool part of the story. At the time, I'm working at a university where Edwin Yamauchi teaches. He's one of our great historical experts when it comes to the faith, particularly, Persian history. So I go to his office, knock on the door, walk in, sit down. Now, this is after weeks of devastation where I'm literally holding stage four internally like, oh my gosh, I don't know what to do with this because the paste is out of the tube. Right? Sit down, I said to Dr. Yamauchi. I said, "I read, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The debate between Habermas and Flew." First words out of his mouth.
Tim Muehlhoff: "Wow. Flew had a good day, didn't he?" And I was like, "Yes. Oh my gosh, yes!" He goes, "Well, that's okay. We have good debates, bad debates, and stuff." And I said, "Well, it's really concerning." And then he guided me through an entire year, John, of helping me understand textual criticism, the arguments for and against the resurrection, but never judged me. Never said, "Hey, you're a full-time Christian worker. What are you doing kind of freaking out about this?" Right?
Tim Muehlhoff: So John, just for a second comment on how should we treat people who are in stage four and then Rick, I want you to respond to but is it good to leave him in stage three? John, I want you to respond to this as well. I mean, life was great at stage three but then when I got four, I ultimately came to stage five stronger, but are we doing a service to people to keep them from some of the really hard questions? So that's a whole lot, a cathartic moment I'll pay you later. But what's your response to people that are how should we treat people that are in for? And should we keep people in three away from crucial questions in books that might usher them into four?
John Marriott: Last night I was reading on a website, X Christian website, at deconversion story. And the woman started off by telling her background and explaining where she came from. And then she started to say, "I started having all these doubts and I started to have all these questions and so I began to ask the people in my church the questions, and I was told that doubt was a sign of sin and might even be unbelief." And then she said, "I had to shut all of that down because if that's what it means to have faith, which is what God wants, and having faith means being certain and not questioning, then I want to do what God wants." But eventually, it got to the point where she couldn't maintain that. She couldn't keep the beach ball submerged underneath the water any longer.
John Marriott: And eventually, it just popped up and then all of those doubts and questions came out and there was no one there to answer them. And she already had felt like a failure because she was having them. I think that we need to help folks... Well, let me back up and say I think that we need to realize that because of the world that we live in, specifically the internet and the influence that it has on faith and on the way that people think and the ability that people have to get information about their faith, that we will have more and more and more folks who are having these kinds of questions. I remember I was a pastor in Northern Ontario, one Saturday afternoon, I was online. I was looking something up and I came across a Muslim website and on it, it said, "Do you know that there are three times as many variants in the New Testament texts as there are words in the entire New Testament that you have in your hand?"
John Marriott: And what that meant was out of all of the manuscripts that we have for the New Testament that there are about 400,000 variations in those copies and we only have about 125,000 words in the entire New Testament. So how could you ever be confident that what you're reading in the New Testament is reliable and records what actually the original said? And I thought, "Oh wow. I had never heard that before." It was troubling but I knew enough to say there's probably some response to this, but no one ever would have got that information in the past unless they had gone to seminary. No one had ever would have gotten that information in the past unless they had run into, or are picked up a book on the matter. But the problem that we've had is that we have been in a courtroom where only the prosecution has been making the case for the last half century.
John Marriott: Right? You have apologetics ministry, you have church on Sunday, there are publishing houses, there are television networks, television shows all making the case for Christianity. And there is no atheist publishing houses. There are no atheist television networks or no atheist television shows that people could ever hear the counter side of. I had a Christian bookstore within a five-minute bike ride of my home. I would walk in, I would look on the shelf, tons of apologetic literature. I would read all of that, feel incredibly confident in what I believed and walk out and think if only people had this information, they would all become Christians.
Rick Langer: All right. We have done a wonderful job here in setting up the issue and the problem. And-
Tim Muehlhoff: But we're out of time, sorry parents. We're done. Youth pastors, we just ran out of time.
Rick Langer: So I have a different way of wrapping this up. My response was if that doesn't motivate you to come back for the second part of this conversation, I don't know what would because the point obviously here is not to just do an analysis of why we have suddenly discovered a batch of influence that are crumbling Christian conviction but to stop [link 00:24:50]. So what do we do about that? So we're going to pick up the same thread but we'll pick that up in the next podcast. But thanks for hanging around with us today, John, and we will be continuing this really, really important conversation with our next podcast. And we'd like to thank you all for joining us on the Winsome Conviction podcast. It's a thing that we'd love to have you subscribe to. You can find us on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or wherever it is you like to get your podcasts or check us out at winsomeconviction.com. So thanks for joining us.
Tim Muehlhoff: And Canadian listeners, we love you.
Rick Langer: Wow.