The last time I went to church was almost a year ago. At the time I was inches away from becoming a pastor at a large mega-church. I guess it’s fairly obvious that is it has been a strange and unusual journey since then. And now that I am an evangelical exile, I frequently hear people describe reasons explaining why young people like me have left the church (or religion in general). Unfortunately, none of the reasons I’ve heard reflected even one element in my own journey.
In the last year I have had the pleasure of meeting about a hundred people who have similar journeys that expelled them outside of religious orthodoxy, and after lengthy interaction with about half of them I discovered that, they too did not fit any bullet points on the usual list of motives. This group of drop-outs includes everyone from philosophical atheists, to agnostic seekers, and even some Christian deists, so it’s rather difficult to give accurate generalizations, but I will try nonetheless. (I will note that this is a sloppy qualitative/anecdotal survey based on a small personal sample, not a rigorous study, that said these answers are consistent with what large scale quantitative studies have shown).
Here is why we did not leave our religion
1. Think it’s true but are looking for freedom
The great irony here is that the Christian motto is that Jesus gives freedom. In fact, there is even a New Testament verse that states “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Thus if one has to leave the church in search of freedom, what does that say about the church not living up to it’s claims? Usually the “freedom” motive is proposed by people who are involved in a very authoritarian church culture (perhaps in some cases, an almost cult-like church) that tries to control every element of their members lives. Yet I have never met a person who completely abandoned Christianity because of one authoritarian church, but I know many deeply committed Christians who simply found a less totalitarian church. In any case, only a fool would wholly abandon a religion he was convinced was true, simply because there were too many rules among one group of followers of that religion.
2. Think it’s true but want to sin
Of the many dozen church-dropouts I’ve spoken with, none have become the depraved, morally nihilistic, preachers of debauchery they are purported to be. Certainly, some people follow moderately different lifestyles, a few now drink alcohol in moderation, have married people they were not formerly permitted to marry, and etc, but none have shown a radical change. Nobody divorced their wife and went on a drug induced romp through the Nevada brothels. No one has yet become a serial murderer, alcoholic, or pedophile. If these people left the church in order to sin, they certainly aren’t doing it very much. Even my anecdotal evidence aside, the very idea is nothing short of stupid. What person in their right mind would rebel against a God they know exists, by pretending he doesn’t exist, in order to justify their sin, for which they know they will pay dearly? That would be like a burglar, who is utterly certain the police are around the corner, telling himself “there is no police” in order to justify a theft that he knows will lead to his arrest and incarceration. It’s absurd! If a person merely wants to sin, they would do far better to stay the church and utilize free grace, after all, God forgives an infinite multitude of sins if you just ask.
3. Think its true but hate your particular version of God
I have been accused of this a thousand times. Usually their eyes roll around in circles, as though they are grasping for some logic to explain everything. Then, it’s as though a bright light appears, their eyes widen, they lower their voice, and out it comes. “You just hate God! You hate him and want to be your own God! That’s why you don’t believe!” Sigh. Yes, because everybody who claims to not believe in Santa Claus actually knows, deep down, that Santa is real and vehemently hates him. Because everybody who claims to not believe in Allah actually knows of his existence, but hates him desperately and is only pretending to not believe. All that aside, many of the people I’ve met told stories of deep sorrow and much weeping at the loss of faith, as though mourning for an old friend who died. As Chuck Templeton, who once was Billy Graham’s best friend and fellow evangelist, said after losing his religion, “I miss Jesus.” That’s right, some of us still miss Jesus, we wish the good parts of the story could be real, and only reluctantly admit that we don’t think they are. There is no hatred. When asked “if there was a good and loving God who revealed himself to humanity, would you rebel and hate him?” every single church drop out I’ve met says “never, what on earth for?! I’d like to meet him, but where is he?”
4. Think it’s true but are just too lazy
This whole argument rests on the premise that anyone who leaves the church or the faith is simply “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” because they couldn’t handle it. It’s similar to thinking that someone can stop believing that gravity works because their physics class was too hard. It’s utterly preposterous, and generally comes from someone sporting a holier-than-thou attitude, who just knows that you can’t have tried as hard as they have, because they have all their answer figured out. Surely if you were as committed as they, you would agree with them on everything. Alas, not only is the theory behind this premise severely lacking, so too is any real evidence of it from my experience as an exile in the post-evangelical wasteland. Nobody that I have spoken with had a faith crisis because they just didn’t try hard enough.
5. Think its true but are too hurt by people in the church
This is the most common motive I have heard ascribed, it’s as if some people simply must label me with something, lest they accidentally believe my real story. In any case, I will admit that certainly there are people in churches (as well as outside) that can be rude, unkind, and hurtful. And of course that can influence people to leave one church for another. That said, it’s highly unlikely that someone would abandon a religion they believe to be the ultimate truth because some (or even many) people in that religion are rude. To do so, a person would have be at the height of insanity, for they would have to knowingly accept the eternal torture of hell, forever, just because people were rude to them. Another variation of this (one I’ve heard quite a few times) is “you’re just upset because they didn’t give you a role.” I honestly cannot fathom how deranged a person would have to be to knowingly reject a religion they believed was true (and thereby sign up for eternal hell) because they didn’t get to lead Sunday school.
Here is why we did leave our religion
1. Sincerely don’t think it’s true, started with disillusionment by the dogmatic structure
In my conversations some said they began to question their faith after seeing that the structure of the church is very antithetical to questions. They saw religious people were very hostile to those asking the kinds of questions that curious skeptics and seekers like to ask, and in fact church authorities seemed overly aggressive in denouncing those who think differently. Wondering about why these authorities were so harsh and could not handle uncertainty began a journey of questioning those dogmatic answers, which culminated in reluctantly finding insurmountable problems in the traditional religious narrative.
2. Sincerely don’t think it’s true, started with disappointment in people
A small number (this is by far the smallest group) mentioned that it was seeing the actions of people who claimed to be devout believers that started sowing doubt about the whole endeavor. Though not even one person said they specifically left religion simply because Christians were disappointing, but rather that this began the process of critical thinking in their minds. Seeing the hypocrisy of believers made them wonder “if these people claim so loudly to be perfectly right about religion, but act so wrong, can I really trust them?” As a result these people began to inquire into their religious history,reading books, and critically examining what was taught to them.
3. Sincerely don’t think it’s true, started with higher education
The largest group of people (probably 1/3 to 1/2) said it was pursuing higher education that started their journey. Interestingly, for a handful it was actually education at various Christian colleges. This in fact correlates very well with large scale statistics that have shown that each year of schooling “reduces the propensity to attend religious services at least once a month by about 14 percentage points” (1). While this certainly does not prove the validity of any belief, it shows that somehow modern education reduces religiosity, take that as you will. In my personal experiences, the people who left the church because of education stated that what they were learning created cognitive dissonance with their religious views, they had to pick some theological dogma versus an empirical observation (i.e. biological evolution, geology/age of the earth, psychology, history, etc) and that made them start asking difficult questions about their faith.
4. Sincerely don’t think it’s true, started with the Bible
Reading the Bible is my personal reason for leaving the church. Close to a dozen people that I have talked with have also reported this as being the most important and influential factor in their journey. In my purely anecdotal experience, it seems that most of these people, including myself, were overly devout (many were or wanted to be preachers/pastors/etc). For us, it was reading the biblical texts with extreme reverence and dedication, especially those passages that people really tend to avoid spurred our critical analysis of the religion we held very dear. In my own case, reading the Bible and noticing numerous contradictions, scientific errors, and morally reprehensible actions and commands that pulled the rug out from underneath me. I very reluctantly gave up my dearest friend, my faith, only when I exerted every attempt in apologetics to defend the things I was reading in the Bible. I simply could not dishonestly placate my emotions by fallacious apologetic arguments; I sincerely love truth, and would be willing to believe in anything, as long as there is good justification and evidence, but not without it, and especially not against it.
5. Sincerely don’t think it’s true, started with critical thinking
The four groups above are composed of people whose first step was a catalyst for intellectual examination of religion, yet for a moderately sized group this was the starting point. This group includes some people who have been irreligious for a very long time and made their decisions from a fairly young age. Some mentioned that as far back as they can think, they have always been skeptical because the stories they heard of things that can’t be seen, never made sense. Others started down this journey only in their mid-twenties and thirties after beginning read and think about philosophy. Overall this group of people have the most “organic” story with nothing besides rational reflection sparking their critical examination of religion.