On July 4th, the New York Times published a story on Sarah Jones. I’ve known Sarah Jones, both through blogging and in person, for over a year now. Like me, Sarah grew up in a conservative Christian homeschooling family. Like me, Sarah is now a feminist, a progressive, and a nonbeliever. Of course, our stories diverge on multiple points—Sarah was abused as a child in a way I was not, she was ultimately allowed to attend public high school, she went to a conservative Christian university, and she currently works for Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU).
The story the New York Times ran on Sarah is not anti-religious and it does not appear to have an agenda. It simply tells a story. That’s it. There is no stereotyping of all Christians, no attempt to claim just how common Sarah’s story is—it’s not that kind of piece. I’d encourage you to read it and see for yourself. Why am I saying all this? Well, quite frankly, because I’ve been fascinated by conservatives’ response to it. I expected them to hand-wring—and they do—but I didn’t expect them to come within a hair of advocating for censorship (because we can’t have anyone knowing that there are people who leave Christianity!).
Evangelical Professor Denny Burk highlighted the story soon after it appeared, suggesting that the New York Times only covers Christian-to-atheist conversion stories. He was soon forced to take back his suggestion.
The original version of this blog post questioned whether The New York Times ever published conversion stories in the other direction—from secular liberal to conservative Christian. It turns out that they do. The author Mark Oppenheimer provides some examples that he has written (here, here, and here).
Oh I’m sorry, is that whole persecution narrative not working out for you? Conversion stories are interesting. People write them, people read them, because they are interesting. It’s called plot. What happened? Why? How could someone change beliefs so completely? I mean let’s be honest, a big reason my own blog has the draw that it does is that I started in one place, and picked up camp and moved far, far away. Like Sarah Jones.
Just this week Bart Gingrich wrote a piece for the Christian Post making the same allegations as Burk before going on to make some new ones of his own.
Some may wonder why this story ran in the Times, a newspaper that generally seems somewhat uninterested in matters of religion, at least in terms of individualized stories about people coming to faith. The Times has quite a bit of heft in terms of readership and platform. It is always noticeable how it handles that power. After all, people convert to Christianity every day. Why was Jones—someone leaving the faith—chosen as an example?
Why was Sarah chosen? Oh I don’t know, maybe because her story—from fundamentalist homeschool girl to nonbeliever working at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State—is particularly interesting, especially right now with all of the Hobby Lobby debris still falling? And, as Burk learned, it is false that the New York Times ignores the people who “convert to Christianity every day.” Speaking of which—does Gingrich know that people deconvert from Christianity every day too? Has Gingrich heard of the “nones”?
I’m going to guess “no,” given what he says next:
What is not offered here is reliable data. That is the vacuum. The Times’ article and others like it would be much more compelling from a rational standpoint if there could be a strong observable trend rather than arsenals of personal experiences and stories. Stories can lend color, winsomeness, and interest to broader trends. Of course, without substantial evidence to back up these testimonials, stories can obfuscate rather than clarify.
There is room for all sorts of articles. Some articles are stats articles. Some are story articles. And so on. This article was a story article and never claimed to be a stats article. Complaining about that seems silly, especially given the, oh, I don’t know, three hundred million stats articles on the “nones” written to date. Let me break it down for you: In 1950, 2% of Americans had no religious affiliation; in 1975, 7% of Americans had no religious affiliation; in 1990 10% of Americans had no religious affiliation; and in 2010, 16% of Americans had no religious affiliation. Good lord, Gingrich, do some research and get with the story here!
And then there’s this bit:
The story—a kind of anti-testimony, an un-come-to-Jesus moment—makes readers feel like this is a common occurrence, encouraging some while demoralizing others.
Oh noes! Knowing that people leave Christianity might encourage those who have left Christianity and demoralize Christians! Wait, is this seriously an argument? Because to me it sounds like Gingrich is suggesting we should suppress stories of deconversions, because they’re subversive. For all his talk of maintaining good journalism, this sounds like very, very bad journalism.
You know what, Bart Gingrich? We are here, and we are not going away. We are the nones, the nonbelievers, the atheists, agnostics, and those who would rather not bear a specific label. For us, it’s generally not about a cause. It’s not generally about sticking it to anyone, either. It’s about the freedom to live with authenticity. It is about the freedom to choose for ourselves. It is about breaking out of boxes and embracing something that feels wider and more profound. It is about our lives, our individuality, our inward selves.
We’re not trying to threaten you, Gingrich. We’re trying to exist. But it would seem it is our existence that threatens you.