From Fear to Faith–stories about leaving conservative churches

From Fear to Faith–stories about leaving conservative churches May 30, 2013

I want to take a moment to introduce you to a book that just came out a couple of weeks ago, especially given our recent conversations on this blog: From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls, edited by Travis Milman and Joel L. Watts and published by Energion.

From the introduction (written by Watts):

This volume focuses on people who have lived in … conservative churches and have moved away from them. These are the stories of the why and the how. Why did they move and how did they make it through? Some may laugh or dismiss the transition out of these conservative churches, but it is nothing to laugh at. If it goes wrong, the victim will be as militant an atheist as they were once militant Christians. If the transition is handled sloppily, it may result in severe emotional trauma. 

From Fear to Faith is a memoir of a spiritual and intellectual journey from fear and shame to a renewed embrace of Scripture and the God behind it. Watts and Milam have collected compelling stories from a number of fellow travelers who model this journey.

They give voice to a growing phenomenon in conservative Christian culture of disenchantment with conventional and apologetically driven answers to difficult and pressing questions posed by Scripture, modern culture, and the intersection of the two. The stories in this volume will be an encouragement to those struggling with their own transition from familiar yet dissonant surroundings to unexplored but inviting spiritual and intellectual territory.

The broader vision of the volume is a call to build cultures of trust, where Christians can feel that they will be honored and valued for taking the risk to ask honest questions rather than being dismissed, marginalized, or ostracized. Too many are growing dissatisfied with the status quo, and are looking for language to move on. This volume will help them on their way.

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  • Ann Gingrow Corbett

    There are only a few copies of this book left at Amazon; hopefully your local bookstore carries it too.

  • Tim

    “If it goes wrong, the victim will be as militant an atheist as they were once militant Christians.”

    Come again?

    • finallyitssummer

      This happened to me in just the last two years – I was (what many others considered) a very strong Christian who had some difficult things happen – throughout my whole life but especially recently – and was hurt by the Church in the process, so I left after months of painful but faithful church attendance and open dialogue in the Church. With exactly the same tenacity that I once held to conservative Christianity I held to an ever-morphing mix of confusion, atheism, and agnosticism. This is only my experience, and perhaps being a Christian for 20 years and a seminary student for three has added “more than normally” to the sharp contrast in my beliefs over the last two years as life progresses, but for me personally I feel as though I can relate rather well to this statement.

      • Tim

        Thanks. I do get that, believe me. But the problem is this statement divides those leaving Conservative Christianity into two groups – those that transition well into a less fundamentalist version of the faith, and those who transition poorly into militant atheism. It’s insulting in a way

        • finallyitssummer

          I suppose I didn’t see that reading the statement, since it only speaks of transitions that go wrong and makes no comment about other kinds of transitions (I’ll categorize “sloppily” as “wrong” here). I’ll have to read the book to see what other kinds of transitions are written of – if mentioned – and make a clearer judgment since I do see what you’re saying. After all, I must say I transitioned exceptionally well into militant atheism. 😉

          • Dan Ortiz

            this is not so uncommon. in fact Eric Hoffer’s book True Believer discusses this phenomenon.

  • Eric Kunkel

    This whole construct of a Pilgrim’s progress is intriguing. I doubt more mainline churches are really more tolerant, people are seldom too open-minded about things like politics and religion.

    But In the USA there are so many places you can go. I suppose I have been lucky in my own travels. And from early on in my quest I have been fortunate to have had smart, tolerant Christians to turn to from my earliest days. Of course it is a shameful thing when any institution academic or ecclesiastical is hurtful to people.

    Thanks Pete for being one of those people who keeps on keeping on.


  • Jo

    I guess I have never really experienced this in my 30 years as a Christian. I’ve moved around alot so I’ve attended about 6 different churches. Never once have I felt that my different theological view caused so much alienation. Where are these churches anyway? It reminds me of the progressive preacher who gives a message ragging on Christians and saying we have to stop saying: “God Hates Fags”.

    In my entire Christian experience, I have never once encountered a practicing Christian say “God hates fags”. I’ve heard lots of atheists say Christians say that, or “hip” Pastors trying to make a point say that. But I’ve never heard a practicing Christian say that.

    I don’t wish to be argumentative, but I really see many of these posts positing a strawman argument. And, I know that the Westboro Baptist Church exists, but seriously, do they even have to be addressed?

    • rvs

      File this under anecdotal evidence: I have a friend in Minnesota who specializes in “spiritual abuse” (she’s a traditional Christian counselor who works with men and women going through transitions like those noted in the book above). Her business is booming. She gets a lot of young couples, in particular. She thinks that passive aggressive shaming techniques are the bread and butter of too many conservative evangelical churches (and some not-so-conservative evangelical churches; –think about the “unselfishness” point in The Screwtape Letters and at the beginning of “The Weight of Glory” sermon). My intuition is that late-night infomercial rhetoric has a stronger influence: buy our elixir, manufactured with care by our pastor and our five slightly paranoid male deacons, none of whom have been divorced, or you will surely die.

      • peteenns

        And this sort of thing is not an aberration.

    • Jo,

      When the Secretary of Defense and the Vatican call the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church and plea with him not to burn a Qur’an, it’s clear to me that, yes, these types of Christians must be addressed. (Of course, I blame the media for sensationalizing the actions of a fundamentalist pastor of a tiny, 40-member church and giving them much more power than they ever deserve.)

      Ever been to Pensacola, Florida? In the five years I lived there, I encountered a large number of hateful, fundamentalist churches all the time. I’ve even seen families and marriages ruined from their hateful practices.

      The anecdotes are no strawmen.

      • CarolPiet

        Just a quick correction: the Quran-burning pastor was Terry Jones, from Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, FL.

    • Jo,

      Sadly it’s not limited to Westboro Baptist Church. There’s a pretty famous (or infamous) church in Seattle that has at least one blog that is a “safe space” for those people who have left that particular church because they have been wounded by their experience with said church.

    • Andrew Dowling

      Jo, unfortunately your anecdotal evidence means little. 6 different churches? Do you know how many Christian churches exist in this country?

    • kenny Johnson

      Like you, Jo, I’ve been blessed to be accepted in every conservative church I’ve belonged to, but the difference is that I know I’ve been blessed… largely, I think, because 1) I live in SoCal and 2) I choose to belong to churches that are loving and accepting.

    • peteenns

      Jo, I’m glad for your experiences. I have a similar one, in that I attended a very conservative church, theologically and culturally, for about 6 years. Yet, they were centered on love and prayer. Although they knew who I was and what I did, they never once judged me. They remain dear friends. However, these are OUR experiences, and they do not cancel out or call into question the seemingly endless life experiences I have witnesses I over the past 30+ years that are represented in this book.

  • I bet a number of people who write for the Christian pro-evolution website, BIOLOGOS could have their testimonies added to the above book! I’m glad there is such a book and also glad that BIOLOGOS was founded in 2010. About time!

    • Edward,

      An adaptation of my 5-part series I wrote originally for BioLogos in November 2012 is featured in this collection.

  • Jack

    I agree with Jo, this is mostly blowing smoke

    • And you, Jack, are fully entitled to your misinformed and incorrect opinion.

      • Jack

        So are you Mike

        • This is true. It’s just that, in this particular instance, I chose not to exercise that right.

          • Jack

            I disagree, you have exercised it. However, I can’t stay in this sand box Mike.

    • cm

      I wish it were, Jack and Jo. Please read the book. I think it would help increase your empathy. Your careless comment is hurtful to me, having grown up in one of these communities. I knew nothing but fear of the world outside my home and very small sect. Was given minimal education, women don’t have use for one, which has been an almost insurmountable position to begin life outside from.

      Have not read the book but am grateful to see attention brought to an issue that has affected many that I know.

  • Thank you, Dr. Enns!

    Currently, I’m in a United Methodist Church that is pretty darn tolerant, including in our congregations…

    No wait. Gotta buy the book! 😉

  • Dave C.

    Marylin Manson went to a Christian school.

    Just sayin’

    • Pepe

      Just talking out you ass you mean.

      • Dave C.

        I meant no disrespect to Dr. Enns in the informality of my comment. Marylin Manson is a rock star who has bulit a career on shocking his audience – with album title like “Antichrist Superstar” or antics like tearing up Bibles on stage. His anger – and knowledge of exactly what buttons to push to upset conservatives – well illustrates the point being made in the book quoted. It is valid to ask how a Christian upbring could have generated such anger.

        • peteenns

          If I read you correctly, it seems irresponsible to connect MM with this book! It’s authors are reconstructing their faith after years of emotional trauma, not trying to shock. Your comment seems aimed at discrediting a book on the basic of very little formation. If I read you wrong, please correct.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    For those who doubt, you might consider the site “Stuff Fundies Like”. It is satirical, but for a lot of us survivors, it is a good way to handle all the crap we were taught before. There is a lot more to “Christian hate” than Westboro – some IFB, but a lot in other places as well – most evangelical.

  • Travis Milam

    Thank you Dr. Enns! Your review gives a big boost that we help other people by telling our stories.

  • DragonF1re

    Hey Peter I just wanted to say that I first heard about you from some church friends who attended Westminster seminary and they were having a heated discussion. Your name was constantly brought up so I looked you up and ended up reading your books – which were fascinating by the way.

    After your books, it sparked a huge intellectual thirst which led to more research on the origins and authorship of the bible, how the Christian faith came to be, and eventually the atheistic arguments. For the first time in my life I felt like I was giving my religion (that I was born into) a fair shake.

    Despite my initial depression and shock, the act of shaking off my beliefs and assumptions that had been placed upon me from birth has liberated me. I feel happier than I’ve ever been as a Christian and I approach every day of my life as an incredible gift. I choose to be a moral and kind person because it is the right things to do, not because someone up above will punish me or reward me for my actions.

    Life is good, and I still maintain great relations with my church friends and my parents by keeping my atheism to myself. I hope one day I can freely label myself as a non-believer without incurring hate and pity.

    Anyways, thank you Peter Enns for sparking my intellectual journey towards making my own personal decision on matters of religion, spirituality and life. I hope you find the answers you seek one day.

    • peteenns

      You’re in transition, DF. Leaving behind false faith is a first step to finding a true one.

      • Anna

        Agreed. The kind of faith that can be dismantled by reason and truth is not a faith worth having. Faith should be founded on these things so enjoy the journey.

      • Tim


        How is it fair to DF to tell him he’s in transition? Would you respond well to someone to someone saying the same to you? That you’re transitioning to atheism maybe? Do you see the insult there, unintended though it may be?

        • Seeker

          I tend to agree here with you Tim… Pete might be right that DF is just in transition, but maybe not. I’m probably in a very similar spot to DF right now and it never feels good when those around you don’t seem to take seriously the fact that you might just ultimately determine to walk away from your previous system of faith/belief. The “true” faith that DF finds may in fact be his conviction that God does not exist… If that is his final destination, so be it. Pete is not ultimately responsible for where DF or someone like myself lands theologically. I’m just thankful Pete is moving the conversation forward. If Pete is presenting solid evidence and arguments that provide a more plausible way of understanding the Bible and Christian faith, then I hope we have the wisdom to deal with it rather than dismiss it… At the end of the day I am not primarily concerned with whether or not I can hang onto the traditions of my parents, but I am interested in still working through the significance of Jesus and the ramifications of his message upon our world – and maybe even my own life…

      • DragonF1re

        Thanks Pete.

        • peteenns

          DF, were you insulted by my comment above? If so, I apologize. Or is Tim projecting?

          • DragonF1re

            I see your comment as open-ended, and perhaps a bit cryptic. Ultimately, I see it as well-meaning.

          • Tim

            Not projecting Pete. My Evangelical Fundamentalist family thinks that one you fall from their particular pinnacle of truth, the only thing you can “transition” to is something worse. But I was trying to empathize, particularly given all the pain and social cost that comes with leaving one’s faith tradition. But it looks like DF is good with it, so glad all’s well.

          • peteenns

            I hear you, Tim. I can see where you would think what you did. For what it’s worth–and this may explain my quick comment a bit better–I think the transition from fundamentalism to atheism not from one extreme to another but one step to the side. I know that comment (as all of our do) can seem reductionistic, but both work in absolutes based on a certain type of rationality that expects God to show up a certain way.

          • Tim

            Thanks Pete for the reply. I would be cautious to characterize atheism as an absolute though. I myself am theist, but if I’m being honest there is some doubt there. I would be shocked if you didn’t have some as well. But I assume you have enough belief to avoid characterizing yourself as an agnostic. Atheists are typically the same way. Not enough reason to believe there’s a God, but with their own small uncertainties as well – just not enough likewise to call themselves agnostic? It doesn’t have to be just an alternative form of fundamentalism. Certainly you could envision an atheist version of yourself? It must have happened to other colleagues? Or friends? Or at least associates with whom you’re familiar? Ones who didn’t lose their faith through some reality crash from fundamentalism, but through a gradual unraveling of their worldview as they came into conversation with differing views and information?

          • peteenns

            Fair point. I was envisioning “hardened” atheists, simply one “kind.” And yes, indeed I do know many like what you describe–including friends and others close to me.

      • Jack

        And, of course, Pete has the true faith.

    • NT

      Another great testimony of Peter turning a Christian into an atheist. You really have redefined evangelicalism. You must be so proud.

      • Seeker

        NT, what an unhelpful comment… It seems you feel the need to defend evangelicalism – but you don’t. Maybe pause to consider that perhaps evangelicalism DOES need redefining. The world is changing rapidly, and living in isolation from major developments in our understanding of the world we live in and how it impacts our worldview/theology is extremely unhelpful. I’m glad those like Peter won’t be “gagged” into silence by comments that seem aimed at intimidation. That is just childish manipulative tactics rooted in fear.

        You might also consider that comments like yours are actually what drives many people from the faith. If, at the end of the day, Peter takes a step back from his scholarship and feels he has given his best effort toward pursuing a coherent way forward for those in the faith with MASSIVE questions that won’t be easily swept away, then he can rest easy. Do you prefer the alternative? That someone like DF stick his head in the sand and hope that the questions will just go away? Trust me, not gonna happen.

        After the little boy yelled out to the crowd that the Emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes, it was pretty hard for everyone to pretend any longer that he was. Perhaps Evangelicalism isn’t completely naked at this point, but it might be down to a pair of whitey tighties! The need to cover up the embarrassing exposure of inconsistencies and implausibilities would only be worse without the attempts of Enns and others like him.

        Think about it…

        • NT

          I used to think like you, that Peter was providing a great service, now, not so much. Some people have doubts, and Peter is helping those doubters fully jettison their faith. I thought I would find answers here. Instead I find snarky comments. Someone once said that Peters books are great, but this blog is meaner in spirit. I agree. I loved genesis for normal people. But, I wonder if Peter has moved on from that. This blog seems more like theological rock throwing. There are others who are asking the tough questions, but are very sensitive to their readers and always try to close on a positive note. I prefer those

          • peteenns

            I am sorry to see your anger, NT. But with a comment like that, I’d prefer if you gave your name–at least in an email to me. I am not sure if your comment is genuine.

          • Seeker

            NT, I guess my experience here has been very different from yours. I often find Peter pointing people toward faith, not away from it. (Take this very post as an example!) I think you would find this as well through a survey of this blog over the past 6 months or so. I think I keep coming back to this blog because I am intrigued that others out there who are working through the same questions that I am are still finding ways forward in their faith in Christ without feeling the need to “check their brains at the door”… I don’t want to follow Christ just because I feel I “have to,” or because my parents did, or because all my friends do, etc. etc. If anyone follows Christ, it should be because they are compelled by the truth of the message of Christ.

            If anything, Peter seems to be helping the Christian community jettison much of the unnecessary baggage that has been tied to Christianity by the evangelical/fundamentalist movements. This, in my opinion, does not lead people to jettison their faith. Rather, it can provide them with an intelligent way forward.

            I certainly don’t think the evidence for evolution is going to quietly disappear, or that the human fossil record is going to shrink rather than continue to grow, or that all the archaeological investigation of ancient Mesopotamia and how it informs our study of Genesis will suddenly disintegrate… So why would we ever want to avoid the difficult questions that these types of data pose to the prevailing evangelical narrative?? Wouldn’t that be intellectual suicide? If that is the type of faith that God expects of us, why did God “give” us a brain in the first place? 🙂

      • DragonF1re

        Had it not been for Pete I’d have blindly followed Christianity without once examinings its roots, or questioning its validity. What a terrible way to live the rest of one’s life.

        His books allowed to me to begin a process that would give my religion a fair shake. His academic ventures are brave, and you are a coward.

  • OrthoRocksDude

    So how many of these more open-minded churches are interested in getting someone in talk about the reasonableness of believing in Jesus’ resurrection? One huge problem that I see is that churches that are welcoming to non-inerrancy, pro-evolution type people exclude ever talking about a positive case for Christianity. It’s a tragedy.

    If all I ever did was read Peter Enns’ books and other literature trying to dig into the rough patches of Christianity, I would be an atheist like DragonF1re here. But that would be missing the other side of things as well! The British evangelicals have successfully avoided this pitfall since you have I. Howard Marshall, N.T. Wright, and Richard Bauckham, all who have condemned inerrancy as unhelpful and even harmful, yet all of them still write wonderful apologetic books for Christians. Where is this the U.S.? Get over inerrancy, accept that Genesis 1-11 is mythological and get back to a basic apologia, or these Christians will have nowhere else to turn but to other disgruntled Evangelicals who have NO reason to stay Christian other than it’s psychologically easier for them to do so.

    • DragonF1re

      I’ve read quite a few books for both sides. If you think Enn’s books are a strong driving for atheism, then you haven’t read actual atheist books which hit home HARD.

      I tried very hard to hold onto my faith but in the end – there’s this cold hard fact that there is no valid, real evidence or reason to believe in any religion, let alone Protestant Christianity. Apologists seem to trap themselves with incredibly convoluted and difficult theological ideas to keep their faith afloat. Why is the truth so hard to understand? It’s a shit show.

      Give me the names of these books by these British apologists. I would love to see if their arguments (which I hope are grounded in logic) are worth considering.

    • wolfeevolution

      Do N.T. Wright’s books not sell in the States? Of course they do. I think saying that “these Christians will have nowhere else to turn but to other disgruntled Evangelicals” is a bit of an overstatement, don’t you?

      • OrthoRocksDude

        Sure, his books sell in the states. But the ETHOS of his Church’s culture DOES NOT.

        …Not so much his books, but the fact the he doesn’t believe in inerrancy and still feels the need to positively defend the Christian faith is something you don’t see a lot in American Evangelicalism. Unfortunately, it seems like the vast majority of Evangelicals that have rejected inerrancy focus on unraveling it to the exclusion of everything else. Scot McKnight is one of few evangelicals who thankfully doesn’t fit this mold.

        • wolfeevolution

          I was thinking of Scot as well, as an exception to the pattern you’ve noted.

          Your general comment is spot on, I think; in fact my own comment on the “biggest obstacles” blog post a few days ago here reflects this very frustration. At the same time, I suppose I feel it’s unfair to single out one person — say, Dr. Enns — to bear the brunt of your ire. It’s a systemic problem. I think that without pointing fingers at specific people (who are quite busy engaging in whatever writing projects they feel called to do) we all need to be praying for more voices like Scot McKnight’s and N.T. Wright’s to rise up in the American church. Perhaps prior to this is praying for the American church to be the kind of church within which such a leader could find a podium.

        • Ortho,

          I think that’s slowly changing. I’ve now heard more Calvinistic, anti-New Paul Perspective, biblical inerrantist Sunday school teachers quoting Tom Wright left and — er — right. Quite shocking to me. I discovered Wright about 10 years ago, and I think the popular masses are just now starting to.

          • OrthoRocksDude

            Yeah. Maybe that’s a good thing or maybe Wright is destined to become like Lewis. Quoted by everyone that actually has very little in common with him. Lewis is another example. He certainly didn’t believe in inerrancy but focused on the majors of the faith. And I’m not singling out Pete. This is Pete’s thing and so it’s ok that he focuses on it. I like most of what he has to say. I also think it has to do with being an OT scholar. For example, biology professors are probably more likely to end up atheists than cosmology professors. I could be wrong about that, but different disciplines imply different things about the world. The OT is extremely messy and incoherent and the NT is well…quite neat compared to the OT. OT scholars have to deal with a lot more crap than NT scholars do.

            The Jesus seminar is fringy, those who say that Genesis 1-11 is mythology or that the conquest never took place are the MAJORITY.

          • The C.S. Lewis comparison is apt. How wonderful if people would actually read Lewis and learn to think critically, as he did. Instead, they imagine that he provides an adequate intellectual framework in support of their prejudices.


        • It finally dawned on me why so many evangelicals are attracted to N.T. Wright. He offers a plausible account of the bodily resurrection of Jesus (to those who are predisposed to believe it) and with that in hand, they by-pass the difficult work he has done and continue to believe what they’ve always believed (and, in many cases, continue to ignore the living Christ).

          “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.” ~ John 5:39-40

    • Andrew Dowling

      You have tons of apologetics in the U.S., they just tend to be from the conservative end of the spectrum. The cultural/religious experience of the U.S. and UK are fairly different. England has become a predominantly non-church going and secular society. The U.S. by contrast is still the most church-going country on Earth, with a population in which roughly half don’t affirm evolution and which many of the largest groups are quasi-fundamentalist/conservative evangelical-and they have certainly been the most vocal. This is a country which elected George W president twice and where the 700 club still gets strong ratings. So it would make sense that many scholars not in that mold spend more time challenging the consensus, which still yields great power although that power has started declining in the last 5 years (although the seeds of that decline I’d argue were planted at the height of the movement’s power in the 1980s).

      Lots of people like Wright, and I respect him as a scholar and honest/critical thinker, but in my personal opinion his writing style is extremely unfocused and grating and a number of his arguments are overt “pretzel making” in that they twist and turn illogically to affirm the orthodox opinion. If I was going to recommend a book to someone sitting on the fence between Christianity and atheism, “Simply Christian” would be at the bottom of my list.