Deconversion Narratives: Is There a Connection between Liberal Christianity and Atheism?
Just like we hear surprising conversion stories from time to time, we also periodically hear about deconversion stories. In other words, someone once claimed to be a Christian, and now is most definitely not.
I think we’re all familiar with stories of individuals who lived within the limitations of a very strict expression of Christian faith. Eventually strict obedience and legalistic rules give way to doubt, and doubt festers into a full-blown deconversion. Bart Ehrman comes to mind. Before becoming a well-known skeptical New Testament scholar, Ehrman was a fundamentalist Christian who attended Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. Other examples to consider are David Bazan (the singer of Pedro the Lion) and the pastor-turned-motivational speaker/spiritual guru, Rob Bell (to be fair to Bell, I have no idea what he now believes, but it keeps drifting farther and farther away from historic Christianity).
With that said, the question I’m posing for this particular post is whether some deconversion stories issue from the opposite end of the religious spectrum. Put differently—is there a connection between “deconversion” narratives and diluted forms of Christian faith? Could it be that some of those who have publicly rejected faith have actually rejected a very weak, compromised, or even counterfeit version of that faith?
A few years ago I had the pleasure of hearing an interview with the atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett. As he conversed with WNPR’s Colin McEnroe at the Mark Twain house in Hartford, he recounted his disdain for the Congregationalist minister of his youth. He mocked the man as a religious clown—a buffoon pontificating cute stories from the pulpit. I am curious to know if Dennett’s rejection of God has any connection to the fact that the denomination he grew up in is notorious for watering down biblical truth into a lowest common denominator gruel of “be nice” and “do good.” It’s cute. Perhaps amusing. But not life changing. And certainly not intellectually satisfying.
In Peter Hitchens’ book The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, he notes that he and his brother—the more well-known and recently deceased atheist Christopher Hitchens—were brought up with a nominal connection to the Church of England (which, depending on the bishop and priest, has at times ventured off into the same liberalism seen among the American Congregationalists). I am not sure about Dawkins. Apparently he had what he calls a “normal Anglican upbringing.” That can mean just about anything.
Timothy Keller once noted that people often abandon the Christian faith without ever truly experiencing it. I wonder if some atheists have abandoned Christian faith without ever encountering its intellectual integrity. That, of course, is very sad. As pastors and parents we must do our due diligence in teaching the Christian worldview in comparison with other worldviews. It is inevitable that some will abandon the faith. Hopefully no one does so in an uninformed manners (which I think is often the case in our churches).
The aforementioned examples warrant only an impression—a few examples of something that may or may not reflect an actual trend. It would be interesting to see (or conduct!) some research on deconversion narratives. What did the person walk away from? Legalistic, anti-intellectual fundamentalism? Watered-down liberal Christianity—the kind of weak faith that is relevant to the point of irrelevance? Or . . . do some walk away from a fully informed, biblically faithful, Christ-centered and intellectually robust faith?
I’d be interested to know.