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Questioning the Faithless

As a sidebar to the (excellent) Losing Your Religion thread in which ex-believers tell their deconversion stories, I want to start this thread for the critical discussion of those deconversion stories. I don’t want this kind of talk to be on the other thread, because I like it being simply a place for people to tell what happened to them and why it happened to them. Nevertheless, there have been some good questions raised about these accounts, and I’d like to give the critics a place to air their questions, and for the others to answer them.

Edward Hamilton writes of Gretchen’s deconversion story, which started the original thread (follow the link above to read it):

This story stops right where I want a little more detail about Gretchen’s thought process. In particular, I’m curious as to why the progression is from “conservative Anglican” to “nothing at all”, without at least a temporary stop in some intermediate waystation like a standard mainline church. Surely the idea that all Episcopalians (or UCC congregations, or Unitarians!) would suddenly become gay-hating Ugandan types is pretty far-fetched. And some of the more liberal mainline churches are even tolerant of a total loss of confidence in the propositional content of faith, to the point where they can still comfortably function as social agencies for the promotion of an ethical guidance and emotional support.

I feel like even if I ever started losing my faith formally, I’d still never want to completely abandon the social network of people I know from church. There’s something strangely flattering in the awareness that there are so many ex-Christians who think that the only kind of Christian worth being is an orthodox one. But the emphasis here is on “strangely” for me. So many liberal-minded Christian pastors (my brother is one of them) would love to have a thoughtful agnostic in their congregations, someone with a strong moral center and a willingness to speak honestly about how religion has been a disappointment, and would never pressure that person into an inappropriate expression of faith. And I’m sure you’d hear a lifetime of sermons that never mention hell, or gays, or implausible Bible stories about talking animals, or creationism, or guilt, or generic Republican party talking points, or anything else that would dilute or detract from those valuable sermons about family life and social justice. (And I’m not being sarcastic here at all — I enjoy hearing the three or four theological liberals in my own family talk sincerely and passionately about those aspects of faith.) Why doesn’t Gretchen want to devote herself to helping those philosophical allies in the liberal mainline triumph over the forces of fundamentalism in their long crusade for the soul of the church?

I’d love to hear from Gretchen why the decision of herself and other Gretchens is so often to not even try to engage with liberal spiritual communities, but to disengage entirely and permanently. Why do the failures of orthodox Christianity so often function to psychologically discredit progressive Christianity as well? I definitely don’t want to accuse Gretchen specifically (or anyone else in this comment box full of W.E.I.R.D.people, with emphasis on that E), but I still think that many of these formal “I stopped needing religion” narratives are post-facto cover stories for more mundane transformations in lifestyle affecting entire demographic groups. That’s a fancy way of saying that 50 years ago lots of people were going to church because it was the respectable thing to do, but now that it’s less obligatory they’re gratefully enjoying a few extra hours of free time on Sunday morning.

Thursday writes:

This is one thing I don’t get angry at unbelievers for. We live in a general culture that can fairly be described as a gigantic secularist liturgy, that trains you to think in secular ways. Just going to church isn’t going to be enough to counteract that immersion in secular culture. So, lots of people are going find themselves without the same kind of faith, despite having been raised in church.

However, even if you don’t believe the same beliefs any more or don’t believe them in the same way as before, it can be incredibly difficult to leave the church. That is be where you grew up and where your family and friends, your whole life, are now. Especially if you strongly identified with the church as a culture.

However, a word of warning: if you stay, you are probably in for a world of hurt, as the core of people who stay in traditional religious institutions are not going to change their religion to better accommodate your new views. Most of the people who are there are there because they like the old ways. You’re going to be continually frustrated by how they continue to do and say things that just appall you. Staying for the culture is a recipe for burning out.

OK, readers, your turn.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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