Why Do Christians Leave the Faith? The Problem of Responding Badly to Doubt

Why Do Christians Leave the Faith? The Problem of Responding Badly to Doubt December 1, 2011

Part 3 in a series on deconversion

Does Christians’ bad behavior cause people to leave the faith? When we started this research project deconversion, I assumed that the most frequently-referenced cause would be Christians’ misbehavior—something along the lines of “I left the Church because Christians don’t act like Christians.” After all, this “Christians don’t act like Christians” narrative is extremely popular among Christian writers.

A majority (42 out of 50) of the deconverts that we studied did mention frustration with the Christians they knew, but it usually wasn’t misbehavior, per se, rather it was something that I never would have guessed: Frustration with how their fellow Christians reacted to their doubts.

The way that Christians react to the doubts of others can, inadvertently, amplify existing doubt. Many of the writers told of sharing their burgeoning doubts with a Christian friend or family member only to receive trite, unhelpful answers. These answers, in turn, moved them further away from Christianity.

For example, a former Southern Baptist, rather harshly, identified this tendency among the Christians that he had known: “Christians have their PAT phrases for every little whim. . . Christians always use the word “faith” as their last word when they are too stupid to answer a question.”

Standard pat answers included statements such as: “God will never put more on you than you can bear,” “God works in mysterious ways,” “it was God’s will,” “your faith wasn’t strong enough,” “God wanted him in heaven,” and “God is testing you – stand firm!”

Frequently, such statements are not Biblical quotations but are common interpretations and understandings among Christians. One writer recounted, “I asked questions that no one else dared to ask, like ‘What about all the starving people in the third world?’ The answer I got was, ‘They are just as culpable as we are.’”

Ex-Christians were not only critical of fellow parishioners, but also of clergy’s and church lay-leadership’s failure to address the doubter’s questions. One ex-Christian wrote: “And to top all of it off, I could get no satisfying answers to my questions (they call them sinful doubts) even from the pastors and elders. I was told not to read the bible to try to find problems, that was a sin.”

In sum, the absence of thoughtful answers and the lack of listening carefully to questions were interpreted as both anti-intellectualism and a lack of empathy, leading the writers to feel trivialized.

Related were several remarks about rule enforcement. For example, a former member of an Assemblies of God church recounted an incident regarding his smoking. “I was struggling with smoking at this time, and was sincere about wanting to quit. At a prayer meeting one Thursday night, I told the group of 5 men about my struggle with tobacco. They proceeded to tell me that smoking was sin (the body being “the temple” of the Holy Spirit and all), and that “god doesn’t hear the prayer of a sinner.” What happened next stunned me. As the men took turns praying, it came to be my turn, and as I began to say my prayers, they all got up and walked away from me!!!”

Ultimately, Christians appear to contribute most directly to the deconversion process by reacting badly to those who are struggling with their faith, either in their belief or action.

We did find occasional mentions of Christian hypocrisy, but they tended to reference rather severe actions. For example, a former Pentecostal Christian, and now self-described Hellenic pagan, spoke of her “mistake” in dating a Fundamentalist Christian and how she felt abused by him. “I also found out that he was an addict, and had lied about it. . . After being with this person, I felt spiritually raped.”

Several writers commented on what they perceived as general, amoral behavior among Christians. One wrote that extra-marital sex was rampant in the church that he attended. “As long as you go church, you can have all the sex you want. I know this because I sat back in churches for 15 years watching people repent of Saturday’s escapade on Sunday morning.”

Just as commonly, however, the writers spoke fondly of their previous coreligionists and how they missed interacting with them more regularly. As I’ve written about at length, Christians do a lot of right things, and so maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that hypocrisy wasn’t a main driving force away from the faith, at least in this small study.

What does this mean for us Christians? We need to come to terms with Christian doubt. For many people doubt is part of the Christian walk for many. Why even Mother Teresa felt deep doubts about her faith at times. It happens, and the real question is how do we respond to it in ourselves and others? How can we love the doubter in truth? I would be interested in your thoughts on this question, but it seems to me to require both of empathy and wisdom.

For pastors, it seems like a good idea for them to occasionally preach on doubt in the Christian faith. Hearing sermons about doubt would make us more accepting of our own times of doubt. It would also make us more sympathetic of other peoples’ doubt was well as equip us to respond to it wisely.


Part 4: The Relative Unimportance of Non-Christians

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