Sex And Apostasy

Drew Dyck has written a book called Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith. . .and How to Bring Them Back. I want to focus on just a few passages from his interesting five page article from last fall in last November’s Christianity Today. Unlike many Christians who, despite living in a culture still saturated with Christianity, assume that most non-believers are complete strangers to their faith, Dyck gets it that

the problem today isn’t those who are unchristian, but that so many are ex-Christian. Strictly speaking, they are not an “unreached people group.” They are our brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, and friends. They have dwelt among us.

So most of his article laments various bits of good news about the rising tide of unbelief among young people and factors which make him suspect that this generation’s defectors may be more permanent than previous eras’. For example,even though people typically return to church when they get married and (especially) when they have children, Dyck thinks that this generation’s tendency to delay marriage and family until their thirties makes them less likely to gravitate back to church.  He thinks spending a longer time being single may habituate this generation more to non-churchgoing than past generations which experienced shorter spans of time between leaving their parents’ nests and starting ones of their own.

He claims it is important to ask “hard questions” about why people leave, but he does not ask any really difficult questions about the lack of good reasons to believe, about the silliness of various Christian doctrines in the modern world, about fundamentalist Christianity’s hysterical obsessions with preventing all non-marital heterosexual sex, about fundamentalist Christianity’s politicization, judgmentalism, materialism, or any other of its deeply questionable ideas or practices.  All he recommends is more of the same message, just with more completely closed minded “listening” and less gimmicky techniques for outreach.

Rather than questioning his faith at all, he diagnoses the various reasons people leave in a way that shows little willingness to take us apostates terribly seriously.  This makes sense since he eventually concludes his entire piece by declaring that in most cases people’s skepticism is actually “the tortured language of spiritual longing” (because of course there is no possibility for spiritual fulfillment away from Christianity!) and that as long as Christians can build trust with these hurting people, that trust can be exploited to “light the way back home”.  His advice to believers relating to us apostates is a simple, manipulative strategy: listen long and hard our stories so that we will feel like you really care—just so you can reconvert us.

So, with his eventual intentions in mind, here in his own words are his bad faith attempts to understand the morality-related reasons that we apostates leave (whether temporarily or permanently):

So 20- and 30-somethings are leaving—but why? When I ask church people, I receive some variation of this answer: moral compromise. A teenage girl goes off to college and starts to party. A young man moves in with his girlfriend. Soon the conflict between belief and behavior becomes unbearable. Tired of dealing with a guilty conscience and unwilling to abandon their sinful lifestyles, they drop their Christian commitment. They may cite intellectual skepticism or disappointments with the church, but these are smokescreens designed to hide the reason. “They change their creed to match their deeds,” as my parents would say.

I think there’s some truth to this—more than most young leavers would care to admit. The Christian life is hard to sustain in the face of so many temptations. Over the past year, I’ve conducted in-depth interviews with scores of ex-Christians. Only two were honest enough to cite moral compromise as the primary reason for their departures.

I find it, first of all, amusing that he assumes honest apostates would admit that Christianity has a truer morality that they feel bad about failing to live up to.  While it is possible that more than just two of the unbelievers he questioned may experience their disobedience to puritanical Evangelicalism’s excessive strictures as “moral compromise”, it is dubious of him to assume that it is immoral to “change one’s creed to match one’s deeds”.  It seems more morally mature to me that young people who do find positive values in premarital sexual activity as part of dating and growing up in general come to explicitly reject the value judgment that this is inherently sinful.

Of course if someone engages in actually immoral behavior that person should not rationalize it as okay.  But for human beings who have been sexually mature in physical terms since they were 13 but who very well may not be socially, emotionally, or financially ready for marriage until their late 20s or 30s (if ever), it is quite healthy to reject an over burdensome and sexually repressive rule against all non-marital sexual experimentation, sexual love, sexual friendship, and sexual pleasure that would actually threaten to cause them arrested development.

Unfortunately so many people internalize religious moral standards so unquestioningly that even when they engage in sex as a good and positive thing in practice, they nonetheless conceive of themselves as sinning.  Rather than encouraging young people to take a healthy, morally conscientious, but nonetheless experimental, approach to discovering and developing their sexual expression in later adolescence and early adulthood, and to think through what they learn from such experiences about how to have the healthiest and most ethical sex they can, the religious prefer them to either abstain altogether or at least view themselves as guilty “moral compromisers”.

Would that more people felt completely comfortable and guilt-free in their entirely consensual, other-respecting, physically safe sexual encounters.  Would that more people were morally intelligent enough to learn from their experiences of positive value in unnecessarily banned things to reject the prohibitions against those things rather than themselves for engaging with them.

Many experienced intellectual crises that seemed to conveniently coincide with the adoption of a lifestyle that fell outside the bounds of Christian morality.

This is honestly infuriating.  If you find that a value system is at odds with your own legitimate happiness and you are being an honest, rational person, you have every reason to doubt the legitimacy of the intellectual foundations of that flawed value system.  That’s what critically thinking, morally sensitive people do.  And even in cases where people are not changing their philosophical views to (justifiably) match their actual experiences of value, does Dyck ever consider that maybe genuine, intellectually abstract realizations can precede and motivate mature, intelligent, experimental changes in behaviors?

Dyck sees someone who claims an intellectual change of mind and assumes that he must have followed his loins to it rather than that an actual thought process may have come first, before his sexual behavior ever changed.  And Dyck also does not note the “convenient” coincidence that the freedom from their parents which young Americans experience in their early ’20s can coincidentally involve both freer thinking and freer behavioral experimentation without either causing the other to happen.  It is a period of general expansion of autonomy.  Young people are not staying mental children and only changing their views about the world because they are being mindlessly led around by their genitals.

And, finally, I want to turn the table on Dyck’s assumptions.  He never questions the legitimacy of the traditional behavior in which people return to church only when they get married and have children. He only laments that this previously reliable gravitational force may have less power over the present generation.  He never questions whether people’s return to faith after their period of youthful experimentation is as much a function of a convenient phase in which people (rationally unjustifiably) change their values to match their new behavior.

When it is actually beneficial in practice for people to reject fundamentalist Christian restrictiveness about sex, they leave the church.  When they are married and raising children, suddenly they endorse a system of values that conveniently allows that only married people can have sex and that their teenage and young adult children cannot.

Religious people of this sort are some of the worst and most blithe and uncondemned species of hypocrites out there.  They condemn the same healthy process of normal sexual development they personally benefited from while considering themselves especially devout and moral people for “repenting” of their ways when all they did was get married and find the church suddenly extremely convenient to their sexual goals of monogamy and their desire that their teenage and young adult children remain chaste.

As a young person, I suffered in my own psycho-sexual development under the repressive advice of such hypocrites (and of regular hypocrites too, like the youth leaders in my church who were sleeping together while teaching us about the importance of abstinence!).  And I admit I resent seeing people who were sexually active as teens now grown up, married, and hypocritically preaching unhealthy fundamentalist Christian values to impressionable, devoutly religious kids who are more conscientious than they ever were but who very well may not come out as emotionally well adjusted as they did, thanks to their warping influence.

To be fair to Dyck though, he does concede that it is not only sexual “compromise” that leads young Christians away from their beliefs.  He tries to address their intellectual journeys and the various cases of abuse at the hands of Christians that lead others away, next in his article.  In my next post on this topic, I address his equally dismissive and shallow analysis of the young apostates’ explicitly intellectual journeys away from the faith.

In the meantime, Your Thoughts?

 

  • Jeff Dale

    I’d like to introduce him to a church that preaches that setting one’s hair on fire is the highest moral virtue, the way to communicate with Burninghead, the supremely virtuous supernatural overlord of all. These pious churchmen, facing apostasy in their own ranks, would gladly echo back his words to him:

    “Tired of dealing with a guilty conscience and unwilling to abandon their sinful lifestyles, they drop their Haironfireist commitment. They may cite intellectual skepticism or disappointments with the church, but these are smokescreens designed to hide the reason. “They change their creed to match their deeds,” as my parents would say. I think there’s some truth to this—more than most young leavers would care to admit. The Haironfireist life is hard to sustain in the face of so many temptations. Over the past year, I’ve conducted in-depth interviews with scores of ex-Haironfireists. Only two were honest enough to cite moral compromise as the primary reason for their departures.”

    Oh, those backsliding, hedonistic apostates who just want to enjoy the not-on-fire lifestyle. If only they knew how much we care, they’d come back and light up again.

    This should be enough to highlight the unrecognized false assumption on which his whole line of thinking is based. But maybe he still wouldn’t get it.

  • mikespeir

    I don’t think it’s at all uncommon for one to stray onto a new path for the wrong reasons only to be surprised when it takes him to the right destination. Why should we automatically assume that the one we started on would get us there?

  • Lyra

    And I admit I resent seeing people who were sexually active as teens now grown up, married, and hypocritically preaching unhealthy fundamentalist Christian values to impressionable, devoutly religious kids who are more conscientious than they ever were but who very well may not come out as emotionally well adjusted as they did, thanks to their warping influence.

    Yessssssssss! Although I’ve never been a Christian, as a child I bought into this whole, “Don’t have sex before you’re in a deep, committed relation that you intend to be in for the long haul.” I followed it.

    Now that I’m an adult (and still unmarried), I’m talking with all these infuriating adults (married) who preach the same message while confiding in me that they got involved with their spouse through the behavior they are now preaching against! ARGGGGG!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001373579092 martalayton

    I remember that CT article – IIRC, I actually mentioned it in a blog post, because I was flummoxed at the arrogance to think high moral standards were what drove people away from Christianity. Modern-day and historical Christianity have a long list of sins, if you will forgive the phrase – the Crusades, anti-Semitism, slavery-enabling, homophobia, pedophilia, the social gospel, and the list goes on – that I think would more than explain why people find contemporary Christianity distasteful. And I say this as someone who still identifies as Christian and happens to think that casual sex is actually immoral (though far from the top of the hit list). I should not be a hard sell, and yet even I would probably reject Christianity if I was deciding based on the morality of its institutions.

    Seriously, if I wanted an easy-to-follow moral code, I think I’d choose Christianity. Stay away from drug use, gay sex, and obviously promiscuous heterosexual sex, and you’re pretty well in the clear. Throw in a conservative Sunday suit/dress and a tidy haircut and a minimal “tithe” (the $5-$10 most contribute is hardly a tenth….), and don’t swear too loudly, and you’re practically a saint. Violence is allowed (look at the military/sports culture). So is obesity and excess in pretty much everything but drugs. Harry Potter might get you in trouble depending on the church, as might your beloved Nietzsche, but even that’s seen as a kind of extremism these days. Certainly there’s no need to fight against unjust corporate, social or political structures. That’s actually a fairly low threshold to meet!

    I do wonder whether you and Dyck alike are conflating two ideas, though: faith vs. religiosity. They seem like very different things. Your person who returns to the church once married because it’s a convenient tool for socializing the kids is dealing mainly at the level of religiosity. But then you seem to criticize them as having insincere faith; but those actions could be running counter to a faith that was either never there or else was expressed in some other way than church attendance. Dyck conflates the two of them, too, when he thinks that people reject Christian belief just because they reject Christian practice. It’s an easy connection to draw because the two are related and practice is usually the outward sign of belief; but I also think they’re related rather than identical.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Seriously, if I wanted an easy-to-follow moral code, I think I’d choose Christianity. Stay away from drug use, gay sex, and obviously promiscuous heterosexual sex, and you’re pretty well in the clear. Throw in a conservative Sunday suit/dress and a tidy haircut and a minimal “tithe” (the $5-$10 most contribute is hardly a tenth….), and don’t swear too loudly, and you’re practically a saint. Violence is allowed (look at the military/sports culture). So is obesity and excess in pretty much everything but drugs. Harry Potter might get you in trouble depending on the church, as might your beloved Nietzsche, but even that’s seen as a kind of extremism these days. Certainly there’s no need to fight against unjust corporate, social or political structures. That’s actually a fairly low threshold to meet!

      Exactly.

      I do wonder whether you and Dyck alike are conflating two ideas, though: faith vs. religiosity. They seem like very different things. Your person who returns to the church once married because it’s a convenient tool for socializing the kids is dealing mainly at the level of religiosity. But then you seem to criticize them as having insincere faith; but those actions could be running counter to a faith that was either never there or else was expressed in some other way than church attendance. Dyck conflates the two of them, too, when he thinks that people reject Christian belief just because they reject Christian practice. It’s an easy connection to draw because the two are related and practice is usually the outward sign of belief; but I also think they’re related rather than identical.

      But once they go back to church the sincere belief, the faith, grows now that it fits their monogamous, settled, no-longer-experimental, conservative, increasingly established and financially comfortable middle class practice. That’s what I am arguing.

  • http://www.seditiosus.blogspot.com Stella

    As long as Mr. Dyck takes the view that one moral code out of many conflicting ones is the only correct one, he’s going to have a hard time seducing us Milennials back into the fold.

  • Doug

    Dan, great piece! It reminded me of something, so I went looking and found it. In this book, “Zen Without Zen Masters” ( http://www.amazon.com/Zen-without-Masters-Camden-Benares/dp/1561840734 ) if you do a ‘Search inside the book’ on “Ben and the Fanatic”, there are a number of interesting tongue-in-cheek observations. The one that came to mind was #3: “Any practice that is forbidden offers something that the system cannot successfully replace with an alternative.”

    Just thought it was topical…hope you don’t feel it’s too flippant.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Not flippant, thought provoking. Thanks.