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Why do people leave Christianity?

August 14, 2013

A scholarly article on a study of why Christians are leaving the faith cited four primary reasons, seldom if ever discussed in blog posts on the same topic. Here are the four reasons for “deconversions” found in a study of written testimonials of those who had left Christianity.

The abstract of the study, which can be found here: Explaining Deconversion from Christianity, states, “This article examines the written narratives from fifty former Christians. In these narratives, drawn from an online community of deconverts; the writers described their experiences with and explanations for leaving the Christian faith. Several themes emerged as to why they left, including: intellectual and theological concerns, a feeling that God had failed them, and various frustrations with Christians. The writers gave little mention to non-Christians as pulling them out of the faith. These narratives emphasized external, rather than internal, attributions for the deconversion. They also identified primarily “push” rather than “pull” factors as the cause of deconversion. While some narratives outlined the costs and benefits of deconversion, others told of seeking moral rightness regardless of the costs.” The four reasons cited for the large exodus of people from Christianity were (in order).

  • Intellectual and theological concerns
  • God’s shortcomings
  • Interactions with Christians
  • Interactions with non-Christians

The first three reasons were cited more often than the last one, and a large majority cited the first reason, some of which cited it as the sole reason for their departure.

The study, conducted for the Journal of Religion and Society by a group of university professors was also cited in a few great blog posts including:

The first three reasons are grounded in the failure of Christian churches to teach theology and apologetics. The intellectual concerns around Christianity are primarily due to a secular culture that at best is neutral toward Christianity and at worst is hostile toward it. People look at science and the discoveries that have been made that provide significant evidence for an old earth a cosmic creation event originating with a singularity (the “big bang”) and don’t see it matching up with the six days of creation in Genesis. The frustrating thing is that there are good reasons to interpret Genesis with plenty of room for an old earth viewpoint. Scientists, most of who have a purely naturalistic worldview, raise additional doubts when they teach that science explains everything. The assumption is that you don’t need God to explain any part of creation. All you need is physics and if given enough time physics will explain everything (is this the “science of the gaps”?). Other intellectual concerns arose as well including the apparent contradiction between a loving God and an eternal hell or between a loving God and suffering on earth. Still others cited Christian atrocities not realizing the magnitude of non-Christian atrocities. Others found stories like Noah’s ark difficult to believe in light of the science behind effect of a global flood. Noah’s flood very well may have been a regional flood that destroyed the known world at that time – but most Christians don’t hold this view. Relatively short genealogies leading up to the flood might account for why only a regional flood was all that was needed.

As for “God’s shortcomings”, those who cited this as a reason for their departure generally felt that God had not answered their prayers in times of extreme need. One person epitomized the sentiment of many when he stated “God promises me a lot in the bible and he’s not come through. Ask and it shall be given. Follow me and I will bless you. I promise you life and promise abundance. Man should not be alone. I have a plan for you. Give tithe and I will reward you. All broken promises. This god lacks clarification. This god lacks faith in me. He wants my faith. I want his too.”

Too bad that we often fail to realize the truth seen in this simple poem by Robert Browning Hamilton:

“I walked a mile with Pleasure;
She chatted all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow;
And ne’er a word said she;
But, oh! The things I learned from her,
When Sorrow walked with me.”

Many people can’t understand the struggles they face in the world. They might be thinking, “How could an all powerful and perfectly good God create a world where evil exists and people struggle?” They may also think, “Why isn’t God answering my prayers”? These doubts can be addressed with thoughtful and winsome teaching in theology and apologetics. There are good answers to doubts generally and these questions specifically.

It is disappointing to see that Interactions with Christians is also a topic that causes people to leave Christianity. I would have suspected that this was due to lives that were inconsistent with Christian teaching. People seem to be very interested in living well, but to my surprise their biggest frustration was how other Christians dealt with the doubts expressed by people. It should be seen as “ok” to doubt. Even new testament Christians had doubts. Consider John the Baptist who sent a messenger to see if Jesus was really the Messiah or the disciple who said to Jesus “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). We all struggle with doubt at least from time to time and we should be willing to discuss our doubts with each other in a loving and accepting manner without criticism or other negativity.

I’m surprised to see that the fourth category, interactions with non-Christians, was not more prominently cited. This may be because Christians in general are insulated in primarily church relationships. Another disappointing fact since we are supposed to be salt and light to a lost world. However, it is interesting to note that once people left Christianity, non-Christians helped to provide reasons to support why they left thereby confirming their decision to leave and making it more difficult for us to win them back.

In addition to the study itself and the blog posts linked above, there are some additional posts on the topic from apologist “Wintery Knight” here:

For a different but related topic here is a study of reasons churches grow:

I hope that we Christians we will do everything we can to respond to the needs of those who are leaving the faith. I would hate to see the our children spend their lives in a nation that loses the positive influence of Christianity. Even worse I would hate to see a single soul lost because we failed to live Christianly.

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