Why Do Christians Leave the Faith? The Fundamental Importance of Apologetics

Part 1 in a series on deconversion.

Several colleagues and I recently finished a study of why Christians leave the faith, and we were surprised at what made a difference as well what didn’t seem to matter. In the next few weeks, I’ll be reviewing our findings in a series of posts.

To start with, let me tell you how we conducted our study. We were interested in how people who left the faith—let’s call them deconverts—explained their actions; i.e., why did they think they left the faith. In order to do this, we found a website on-line in which former Christians post their “testimonials” about their religious history. We chose 50 of these testimonials and read, reread, and reread again each one and then we discussed them as a group. Our goal was to find themes in these deconversion narratives, and several themes did emerge.  From a methodological approach, in-depth studies of convenience samples, such as this, work well for generating explanations of a phenomenon, but they are not well-suited for testing them.  (I.e., low external validity).

Before going any further, however, let me point out different ways this type of work can be done. We examined what people said about their experience, pretty much taking it at face value that they were describing how they experienced their departure from Christianity. Another approach would be to deconstruct what they said, and not think about the content of their testimonials but rather to explore why they might have given the testimonial the way that they did. E.g., what was their underlying motive? Yet another approach would be to collect more data about deconverts and look for more “objective” correlates of leaving Christianity. This approach might look at age, educational experiences, life events, and so forth—seeking correlations with deconversion.

Each of these approaches has its strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately we need all of them to understand deconversion fully. As you read these posts, just keep in mind that we’re examining peoples’ own understanding of their experiences, which may be influenced by where they are placed in society as well as a desire to present themselves positively to the other members of the website. So, on to the data.

All told, we found four general explanations offered by these 50 people as to why they left Christianity.

The first explanation regards [Read more...]

The Surprising Consequences of the Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal

It’s no surprise to think that the Catholic sex abuse scandal has resulted in people leaving the church, but where did they go? When one is disappointed in a religious institutions, does one give up religion altogether or find a substitute? Daniel Hungerman, an economist at Notre Dame, has looked at this issue and he came out with a paper entitled: “Substitution and Stigma: Evidence on Religious Competition from the Catholic Sex-Abuse Scandal.” Here is its abstract:

This paper considers substituting one charitable activity for another in the context of religious practice. I examine the impact of the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal on both Catholic and non-Catholic religiosity. I find that the scandal led to a 2-million-member fall in the Catholic population that was compensated by an increase in non-Catholic participation and by an increase in non-affiliation. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest the scandal generated over 3 billion dollars in donations to non-Catholic faiths. Those substituting out of Catholicism frequently chose highly dissimilar alternatives; for example, Baptist churches gained significantly from the scandal while the Episcopal Church did not. These results challenge several theories of religious participation and suggest that regulatory policies or other shocks specific to one religious group could have important spillover effects on other religious groups.

What I find interesting is that people would leave the Catholic faith for a Baptist church but not the Episcopal Church. The liturgical form of worship is much more similar at the Episcopal Church, but perhaps the moral beliefs and congregational life are more similar at Baptist churches.

Thanks to David Weakliem for the link.

Interview on 100 Huntley Street

100 Huntley Street is one of Canada’s top religious programs, and here’s an interview that I did with them over the summer for my book Upside: Surprising Good News about the State of the World.

I did several dozen interviews on radio and a few on tv, and this one went really well because the host, Jim Cantelon, is not only a good interviewer, but he had read and thought about the book, and so he had interesting, challenging questions. From my own experience, and talking to other authors, it turns out that most (maybe 2 in 3, 3 in 4?) interviewers don’t read a book before interviewing the author about it. The rely on the marketing materials that publisher sends them, which include possible questions, or they skim through the table of contents.

Note that I’m wearing white gym socks… I forgot to pack dress socks. [Read more...]

Does God Use Natural Disasters to Guide American Politics?

In recent weeks, I have written about my discomfort with people aligning religion with a particular party and the costs that it might impose. Today I examine what I view as an unhelpful instance of a bringing religion into a political debate.  I use this not to critique the candidate who said it, but rather to examine its underlying logic.

In August, Republican candidate Michele Bachmann told an audience in Florida that God had sent deadly tornadoes and earthquakes in recent weeks to indicate his displeasure with the high levels of federal spending. She said:

“I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’ Listen to the American people, because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet, and we’ve got to rein in the spending.”

(Bachmann later claimed that she was joking, but having listened to her statement a couple of times, I’m not so sure.)

Whereas most religion-politics linkages take the form of “we’re on God’s side”, this takes it one step further and says “God is on our side.”

I’m quite comfortable with the idea of God communicating directly with people, but as I understand scripture [Read more...]