The Table Podcast

Why Do People Leave the Church?

In this episode, Mikel Del Rosario and John Marriott discuss deconversion, focusing how individuals lose their faith and how churches and parents can help instill a faith that endures.

Timecodes
00:34
Deconversion and losing faith
06:44
What is the extent of the problem?
09:06
How those who leave the faith identify their current beliefs
10:55
Factors leading to loss of faith
13:44
Common traits of those more likely to leave the faith
17:08
Environments that contribute to people leaving the faith
21:20
Under-preparing people to retain their faith
23:47
Ill-preparing people to retain their faith
25:32
How the problem of evil influences deconversion
28:01
How churches can better prepare people for crises of faith
30:31
How parents can respond to children who question or leave their faith
34:15
The role of disappointment with God
36:12
Understanding certainty and doubt
41:20
Understanding the cost of deconversion
43:34
Reconversion and returning to the faith
Transcript
Mikel Del Rosario
Welcome to The Table where we discuss issues of God and culture. I’m Mikel Del Rosario, Cultural Engagement Manager here at the Hendricks Center, and our topic today is “Why People Leave the Church.”
And we’re going to be talking with a deconversion expert. My guest today coming to us via Skype from sunshiny Southern California is John Marriott.

John, good to have you on the show.

John Marriott
Thank you, it’s great to be here; I appreciate the opportunity.
Mikel Del Rosario
Yeah, John is the Director of Global Leadership and Partnership at Biola there at The Cook School, my alma mater. So, good to see you and have you on the show.

I want to talk about this whole idea of deconversion. You’ve been called a deconversion expert. First of all, what is deconversion, and then how did you get interested studying that?

John Marriott
Yes, it’s a little bit ominous to be known as a “deconversion expert,” but I guess I’ll take the title. I got interested because I was starting to work on a Ph.D. here at Biola in intercultural studies, and I was looking at something to do with Buddhism. And I realized it was a challenge because it was almost an entire new language that I needed to learn, a whole way of looking at the world that I needed to educate myself in.

I had a conversation one night with a professor, and I was just sharing with him about a blog I’d run across, and it was about people who had left their faith. And I was amazed at how many people had posted their narratives online about how they were once Christians and now they no longer were. And she said that that would make an incredible research project.

And I said, “Do you think that’s something that I could do for my dissertation?”

And she said, “I think that that would be great.”

And so I started to look into it and became more intrigued, and that’s eventually how I came to write my dissertation and then continued doing more research in that area.

Mikel Del Rosario
Hmm. Did you have any personal experience with that? Like was there a Christian that you knew who had deconverted?
John Marriott
I did, and it was – it made a real impact on me. It was – in 1996, I was competing for an NCAA Division I Track and Field Program, and we had gone to Florida State to compete in the Florida State relays. And I was doing the triple jump, which was my event, but I was having a really difficult time. I was not meeting the expectations for myself or the university, and I was feeling really dejected.

And one day, one of my teammates came and said, “You’ll never guess who’s here.” And it turned out that Jonathan Edwards, the world record holder in the triple jump, who’s from Great Britain, was at Florida State training. And Jonathan Edwards was a hero of mine because he was the contemporary Eric Liddell.

He had missed competing in the Olympics and in the World Championships because of his conviction that he didn’t want to compete on Sunday. A year earlier, he had broken the world records three times, and yet the British press thought that he was more impressive for his Christian testimony and the character of his life because they couldn’t find any skeletons in his closet.

And I was so impressed with him, and he did my event, he would have been the one person that, if I could have talked to anybody in my struggle, it would have been him. And then, providentially, here he is at the same track meet that I’m going to be at. And I went up and introduced myself. He invited me out for lunch, and he told me about how he wanted to go to Dallas Theological Seminary when he was done competing because he wanted to study Israelology. He wanted to do a systematic study on the nation of Israel.

Several years later, I was on the Internet, and I was looking up Jonathan Edwards and wanted to know where he was now and what he was doing after he retired and came across an article that said that he was now an atheist. And that really rocked my world. That was probably in the background of also why I decided that this would be something to study.

Mikel Del Rosario
Mm-hmm. Well, you wrote your dissertation on the topic, and then you came out with a book called A Recipe for Disaster, which I have right here, and the subtitle is Four Ways Churches and Parents Prepare Individuals to Lose Their Faith, and How They Can Instill a Faith That Endures. Be a little bit more specific about what you mean by “those who lose their faith.” How would you define that?
John Marriott
Yeah, that’s a really good question, and I appreciate you asking it. So, in the book, I say that I’m coming at this from a more sociological perspective; I’m not coming at it from a theological perspective because there are two sides, of course, as listeners will know, to the issue.
Some people believe that a born-again believer in the family of God can lose their salvation or can apostasize, can reject what they once believed and walk away, and go from being born again to someone who is a reprobate. There are others who will say that this is impossible, and that if you are truly born again, you will persevere to the end.

I don’t take a position on that in the book. What I do in the book is I interview people who once identified as Christians and had a clear Christian testimony, that were very committed to their faith, that were positions of leadership—some were pastors, some were missionaries—and they came to the place where they no longer believed; they lost their faith. They felt that they couldn’t continue with intellectual integrity to affirm something that they no longer believed, and they walked away.

And I think it’s important to say that regardless of whether these were folks who were once saved and lost their faith, or these are people who were never saved to begin with, the issues that I raise in the book are issues that I think that people of both theological persuasions need to hear. Because even if you can’t lose your faith, these kinds of issues are—that set people up for a crisis of faith—inflict all kinds of people, even if it’s not possible for one to lose their faith.

And so, regardless of where one comes down on the issue, I think that the four ways that I lay out in the book are valuable for both sides there.

Mikel Del Rosario
Mm-hmm. So, in your study, how large of an issue is this in America. We hear statistics like, you know, 50 percent of Christian kids who leave the church—you know, who go to college—will walk away. And what are the stats that you’ve actually uncovered that are substantiated?
John Marriott
Yeah, it’s always hard to know exactly because the stats are never the same, and there’s lots of people who are reporting on this, from the Southern Baptists, to the Assemblies of God, LifeWay, UCLA, Fuller. All of them have different numbers, but they’re all pointing in the same direction.

For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, a number of years ago, said that between 70 and 88 percent of their young people will leave the faith and not return. The Southern Baptist Council has said that 88 percent of their young people, by the time they’re 18, leave the church. Barna has reported that 61 percent of young adults who are now disengaged from the church once were very committed as teenagers.

The Assemblies of God say that 67 percent of their young people who attend a public university leave their faith after four years. The Fuller Youth Project says that’s between 40 and 50 percent of young people who leave high school and go on to college struggle to retain their faith. LifeWay says that 70 percent of young people leave their faith after college and only 35 percent of those return. And UCLA did a nationwide study several years ago asking freshmen what they identified as their religious identification, and of those who checked “born again,” by the time they left university four years later, 59 percent of them did not check “born again” at the end of their university experience.

And so, it’s always difficult to know what the difference is between someone who says, “I was a Christian and I’m no longer a Christian,” or, “I’m just leaving the church.” But all of the studies point in the same direction, that this is becoming a significant problem.

Mikel Del Rosario
Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. So, of course, God knows people’s hearts; we don’t know people’s hearts. And so, you’re looking at this from a sociological perspective of people who were active in church, people who had a Christian testimony—as far as human beings can tell—who now no longer identify as Christian.

Now, for those who have moved out of the church, have left the church, now identify as not Christian, are most of them atheists? Agnostics? Are there other worldviews or religions that they gravitate towards?

John Marriott
Yeah, it’s hard to tell. Certainly we see an increase in those who would identify as “nones”—the N-O-N-E kind of none—that say, “I no longer have any religious perspective.” Now, in that group, there can be people who are agnostic and who say that, “There might be a God, but I just don’t really know.” Then there would be others who would say, “I definitely don’t believe in the existence of God,” and still others who would say, “I don’t possess that belief that God exists.” And so, there’s kind of a wide range of folks in the category of “none,” but that category is definitely growing as we become a part of post-Christian secular culture.

So, I don’t see an increase in other world religions amongst those who are leaving Christianity. They typically leave and say, “I just don’t think that there’s anything—that there’s really anything here. So, I don’t identify as any kind of religious person.”

Mikel Del Rosario
Hmm, that’s interesting. I talked to an ex-Jehovah’s Witness recently who says this is a growing problem amongst people who are leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses as well because they are taught that all the churches on earth are false except for the Watchtower. When they find out the Watchtower is false, then they say, “Well, I guess I’m going to be an atheist now; I’m going to be an agnostic ’cause there’s no sense checking out other churches ’cause they’re all false.”

So, yeah, this is a problem that I’ve found as well, even amongst groups like that, like Jehovah’s Witnesses. People who deconvert from that don’t look at other religions. They just go to atheism or agnosticism.

Now, on the cover of your book, there’s a wooden spoon, and it’s very interesting that you have a wooden spoon on the front of your book, and it’s called A Recipe for Disaster. You use this cooking metaphor in the book, which I thought was really unique. Explain to us a little bit about what that – what you mean by that. What is the recipe for disaster?

John Marriott
Yeah, the recipe for disaster is my attempt to try and give a holistic approach and understanding to the loss of faith. And many times people will say, “Oh, you are interested in why people leave their faith. What’s the reason why people leave their faith?” And I don’t think that it’s that simple. It’s not so easy as to say that there’s just one reason or a predominant reason. I think that there are – just like in a recipe, there are ingredients, there’s a preparation, and there’s a cooking environment.

I think there’s something similar going on in loss of faith, that there are certain ingredients – and those would be the personality traits, the values, the psychological make-up that people bring to the deconversion process. There is a preparation in the same way that we take ingredients to bake a cake and we prepare them a certain way. People are prepared and socialized into their religious background or into their Christian world. And then there’s a cooking environment where you take all of those ingredients that have been prepared a certain way, and you put them into an oven or a microwave or a deep fryer, and at the end you should get a product like a cake or something like that.

Mikel Del Rosario
Mm-hmm.
John Marriott
And our culture is the cooking environment. So, when you take an individual who checks off enough boxes on what I would call a deconversion profile, and you prepare them in a particular kind of way that I would identify as a poor preparation methodology, and then you send them out into our world that is becoming more secular and much more difficult, I think, to maintain a robust Christian faith in, that would be the recipe for disaster.

And in the book, I say, “You can’t control much of the ingredients – the personality traits and the temperament of someone; you can’t do much about the culture that we live in; but we really can do a better job, I think, of preparing people well to live in the culture that we find ourselves in.

Mikel Del Rosario
Mm-hmm. Yeah, it’s interesting, the cooking metaphor. Now for those who are watching the video, you have a shirt that says “Cook” on it. That’s The Cook School of Intercultural Studies. It has nothing at all to do with cooking.
John Marriott
Correct.
Mikel Del Rosario
[Laughs] That’s from Dr. Clyde Cook, is that correct?
John Marriott
Correct.
Mikel Del Rosario
Who was the president of Biola at one point in time. And his son, actually, Dr. Craig Cook, was my Bible teacher at Faith Academy in the Philippines where I grew up, and that’s one way I learned about the school.

And no relationship to the – but do you like to cook yourself?

John Marriott
No, I am not a good cook at all.
Mikel Del Rosario
[Laughs] So, when you think about all the ingredients, you’d say there’s a kind of profile that certainly doesn’t guarantee that somebody’s going to walk away, but in your study, you’ve seen these kinds of traits are prevalent amongst those who do. What are some of those traits?
John Marriott
In the literature – and I’m talking about, like, the academic literature – you’ll find lots of articles in the last five or six years that identify the kind of personality traits that seem to be predominant among those people who leave religious traditions. And I appreciate how you phrased it – is that there’s never a guarantee that just because someone has these sets of characteristics that they will leave.

But there is a statistical predominance, or there’s a statistical likelihood, that says if you have these in a robust number, then yeah, you are more likely to really wrestle with your faith and to maybe struggle with it and then walk away.

And so, one of them would be “open to experience.” And this is one of the big five personality types that psychologists say that you’re particularly born with and almost lasts throughout your entire life. And a person who’s open to experience would be someone who’s interested in learning about new things, who wants to hear the other side of an argument. Who, if there is someone from a different worldview or religion giving a talk down at the Student Union, they’re interested in going to hear about it. Skydiving? Let’s go give it a try. Right? So, anything that’s new and that they can have a new experience from or learn something from, people who are open to experience and score high in that are also people who tend to lean towards deconverting.

Others would be having a “low tolerance for an authoritarian style of leadership,” being told what you need to do, being told how you have to think – particularly if that is inclined to be more on the right side of the spectrum of political beliefs and a right-wing kind of authoritarian leadership style.

There would be a “high sense of self-determination” that many of these folks have. There’s a professor in Hong Kong named Harry Hui who has come out with a study looking at a number of several hundred Chinese converts who came to know the Lord, who lived as Christians for a while and then left the faith. And he followed these folks as a cohort, about 600 of them, and he surveyed them before they ever became Christians. So, out of the 600 he surveyed, he followed those who became Christians all the way through until they ended up no longer identifying as Christians. And one of the things that many of them had in common was that they had a high sense of self-determination, which meant that they needed to be in control, that they needed to be the captain of their own ship, that they didn’t want anyone else telling them how to live. And that’s fascinating to me because it seems like that was a character trait they had before they became Christians, while they were Christians, and when they left the faith.

“University educated” is another one – people who have at least one year of university education, scoring lower in benevolence and the care and concern for others, and then being particularly analytical and being maybe a little bit above average in intelligence and looking at things from a more analytical perspective. All of those character traits are ones that people who have left the faith seem to score high in to varying degrees.

Mikel Del Rosario
Hmm. And then you talk about the environment when you have that kind of a person in an environment where you talk about being “over-prepared.” Explain what you mean by that, how the church can sometimes over-prepare people for engagement with the broader culture.
John Marriott
“Over-preparation” is a term that I use for really well-meaning and sincere folks who misunderstand and mistake their particular view or take or version of Christianity for Christianity itself, and then say that to be a real or genuine Christian, you must accept and affirm all of this or nothing at all. It’s kind of an ultimatum, and if you don’t accept all of it, then you’re really not being a true follower of Jesus, because a true follower of Jesus believes the Bible, and this is what the Bible teaches. And it is this massive raft of beliefs where secondary and tertiary beliefs get elevated to the primary.

And what ends up happening is – and I think that you’ve identified this even with your Jehovah’s Witness friend that has left their faith – is that folks don’t often think that maybe there are other perspectives out there that they can go to if they don’t find this perspective of Christianity to be one that they can buy into.

Now, I think that we always need to set the Bible up as our ultimate and final criterion for truth, but what happens in being over-prepared is, when doctrines get elevated to the essential level, it’s like a house of cards, and if you pull out one of those cards, the whole house will collapse. And some of those doctrines that people are told to believe, and that if they’re going to be true Christians that they have to affirm, are ones that really challenging and practices that are very narrow.

And well-meaning, well-intentioned parents and church leaders, passing on their faith, often pass on way more than what is the essentials of Christianity and make it something that becomes a burden for them to bear.

Mikel Del Rosario
Mm-hmm. So, confusing the secondary and tertiary things with the essential things, or elevating those things, or confusing an interpretation of the text with the text itself then leads people to say, “Well, hey, if I was raised a young earth creationist, and I’ve come to believe that that’s no longer a viable belief and I believe something else, well, I guess all Christianity’s false then. Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, and there is no God.” So, is that kind of what you’re saying?
John Marriott
Yeah, absolutely. That is the primary example that I hear from people. Now, I think that young earth creationism is an eminently justifiable biblical position. And so I’m not saying anything about that. But what I would say would be, when you make that a fundamental, essential element of the faith that must be true, because if it’s not, then it becomes the one Jenga block that’s holding up the rest of the tower – and I’ve heard this statement made by good folks in the young earth creationist movement that says, “If Genesis is not a literal 6-day, 24-hour creation period, then it is the foundation for the rest of the Bible, and if that foundation is gone, then the rest of the Bible also goes with it.”

And so, all that needs to happen is for folks to get to the place where they say, “I just don’t think that that’s true anymore, and if it’s not true, then the rest of the Bible can’t be true either, and so what am I left with? I’m left with either I have no intellectual integrity, and I keep trying to affirm something that I don’t believe in anymore, or I have to have intellectual integrity and say, “I just don’t – I can’t believe it anymore.”

So, they don’t realize that there are other interpretations or other ways that they might understand the text that are broader, that are different, that are more flexible.

Mikel Del Rosario
Mm-hmm. So, when you say over-prepared, it’s kind of Christianity’s essentials plus something else.
John Marriott
Yes.
Mikel Del Rosario
And if that tertiary or secondary thing turns out to be something they’re not convinced of anymore, then they begin to question their faith and leave their faith.
John Marriott
Yes.
Mikel Del Rosario
What about the idea of under-preparing people in the church? What did you mean by that?
John Marriott
I think under-preparing is when we fail to really understand the power and the impact that our culture has that we live in and the difference that exists between it and the world of the Bible. There seems to be almost a sense of vertigo, amongst many people who left the faith, in trying to reconcile their understanding of the text of the Bible with the contemporary world.

The Bible is a book that’s enchanted. It has all kinds of what we would consider – many people would consider today mythical kinds of creatures, where there’s talk of Leviathan, there are talking snakes, there’s Samson killing a thousand people with the jawbone of a donkey. There’s all these fantastic stories, and yet we live in a world that is completely disenchanted.

We don’t live in a world where we appeal to God for why a drought happens, or we don’t look for – necessarily, for miracles in our world. We look to the scientific, to the technological. And in almost every area of our life, we are continually growing in every academic discipline that we study.

So, you’re starting kindergarten and learning what the numbers are, and then by the time you’re done with your education at university, if you’re good enough, you could do enough math to send a rocket into space and bring it back. Same thing with physics, and the same thing with history, the same thing with all the other disciplines.

But unfortunately, when it comes to the Bible, almost all of our understanding gets left at an elementary school kind of a level, and it’s very difficult to reconcile on Sunday hearing about Adam and Eve and naked people and a talking snake in a garden and then going off to UCLA on Monday and talking about mapping the human genome and how we’re going to make cell phone technology even faster as we beam our voice invisibly out into space and bring it back. How do we bring these two worlds together in a way that it doesn’t seem like there is a massive disconnect?

Mikel Del Rosario
Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. And so, there’s genre issues, there’s worldview issues that people have to wrestle with, and sometimes we’re not preparing them for that. Is that what you’re saying?
John Marriott
Yes.
Mikel Del Rosario
Yeah. Okay, then you also talk about people who are ill-prepared and how we’re ill-preparing people. What’s the difference there?
John Marriott
The difference would be, ill-prepared is when people have – and I use the phrase in the book – that they’re kind of “half-baked,” and a half-baked individual is one who has half the truth, but maybe not all of the truth. They’ve been given some information that’s correct, but not all of the information, and it’s not a well-formed biblical conception that they have. And that leads to a set of expectations and assumptions that often are unfulfilled.

An example would be the concept that many believers would have of who God is. And they would know that God is loving, and that they would know that God is good and that God is kind. And yet He allows very difficult things to come into their life.

And when they have lived for Him, and they have tried to serve Him, and they’ve given their life for Him, and then they say, “Well, wait a minute. Why is this happening to me? Why is my child getting sick?” or, “Why am I going through this financial problem where I am losing my home?” They say, “This is not what I expected; this is not really the God that I was serving. Is this what I can expect from God?”

And the crisis of faith comes because there’s a set of assumptions and expectations they have that God doesn’t fulfill because the concept that they have of Him has not been rounded out and fleshed out in a robustly biblical way.

Mikel Del Rosario
Hmm, hmm. And so, maybe even reading difficult parts of the Bible that weren’t covered in Sunday school or from the pulpit give people a little bit of a worldview shock, saying, “Well, I thought God was all loving. How could He be angry in this passage? How could He wipe out these people?”

How much of the problem of evil would you say and suffering like you were mentioning, how much of that really plays into the deconversion story of a lot of people that you’ve talked to?

John Marriott
It plays in in two ways. One is intellectual, and the intellectual problem of evil I think primarily is now focused on the problem of God in the Old Testament.
Mikel Del Rosario
Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
John Marriott
I think that we see [break in audio] of people like Pete Enns, and Greg Boyd, and others, the evangelical world has recognized that the outside world has exposed many in the church to these terror texts and some of the darker passages of the Old Testament that, in the past, we’ve either maybe ignored or skipped over or just have said, “Well, we’re not really sure how to deal with this, but we just trust God,” where I think people like Dawkins and Hitchens and Sam Harris have really brought that to the fore.

And now young people especially are saying, “I didn’t realize that this was in there. I didn’t realize that Jephthah offered his daughter up as a sacrifice and God didn’t stop it, and that God annihilated the Canaanites, and unfortunately the word genocide gets misapplied to that passage quite often.

And so, there’s this intellectual problem with the problem of evil because they see it as almost, it can’t ever be justified. So, we have to figure out a way around that intellectually for the problem of evil, some people will say.

The emotional problem of evil is the one where – it is maybe a bit more common – is that, yeah, like why would you believe in a good God and a loving God when you stop and think about all of the tragedy that happens in the world, especially when it comes home to you and it really impinges on your life, because if this is supposed to be the good God of the universe who deeply loves us, then why does He let these bad things happen?

Mikel Del Rosario
Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. You mentioned this idea of false reciprocity in this idea that, “Well, I’ve been living for God, and why is this happening to me?” We see that in Job, for example; we see that even with Paul’s life. And yet a lot of believers sometimes struggle with that. You know, when it’s your own personal self vs. reading it in the Bible, or even if you have read those passages and understand, when it’s your own personal self, that’s an emotional problem that sometimes makes people question their faith and walk away.

What would you say, then, churches can do to help people better be prepared for those kinds of existential crises?

John Marriott
Well, one way I think is that we need to do a better job of setting expectations and by really pointing out that throughout the Bible you find God’s people – some of God’s all-stars like Jeremiah and the apostle Paul going through some really, really difficult experiences. Not just experiences at the hands of others, because I think that that’s one way we can say, “Hey, I at least feel like I’m suffering for righteousness’ sake,” or, “I’m being persecuted because I’m following Jesus.”

But there are lots of things that happen in the life of the apostle Paul, where if I was him, I think that I would be very frustrated with God, because there are some things that you would think that God could have intervened in his life and spared him from that are outside of the will of agents who were opposed to him.

So, for example, he says, “I spent three days and three nights in the deep.” If I was living for God the way the apostle Paul was, I would sort of expect that maybe he would get me out of sitting in the water for three days and three nights. And he tells Timothy to bring a cloak to him in prison because he’s cold. Right? These are just small things, but there are lots of inconveniences and hardships that God’s people go through that are in the text, and that Jesus even says, “I tell you these things in advance so that when they happen that your faith won’t fail,” John 16.

I think that we need, especially as it becomes more difficult to live a full public Christian life in the United States, I think that it’s helpful to highlight those things, that God’s people are not immune to suffering and hardship, and that He does not always intervene, and that He does not necessarily owe us anything because we have been faithful to Him for X many years.

Mikel Del Rosario
Mm-hmm, yeah. The Bible is very, very real when it comes to evil and suffering, and Jesus does say, “In this life you will have trouble.” Not the favorite Bible memory verse people like to crochet on their babies’ blankets, but the Bible is very, very real when it comes to that.

Well, how – what would you say – I’m thinking about some of our viewers and listeners now – what would you say to a Christian parent who has a high schooler, who has maybe a first-year college student, who says, “Hey, we raised our child in the faith. They believe the Christian worldview is true, and they just don’t want to be Christian anymore; they just don’t want to be a part of the Christian life.” How do you counsel a parent to begin to engage their child that way?

John Marriott
Parents are the most influential people when it comes to retaining faith. That’s not disputed by anyone. A number of studies show that friends are important and have an influence, people in church have an influence, people outside of the faith have an influence, but the people who have the greatest influence on whether young people will retain their faith are parents.

And so, I think that what I would say to somebody who is in that situation would be to be very patient and to listen really well, because often it is easy to assume that it’s an apologetic issue. And I am convinced that it is less an apologetic issue, and it is more of a cultural value issue.

What I mean by that is, Jonathan Haidt has written a book. He is, by his own definition or his own self-description, is an agnostic Jew liberal. So, he says, “You know, I’m not a Christian; I’m not a theist,” and he teaches at NYU. And he has argued that when it comes to many of the disagreements that we have over religion and politics, that we tend to think that the arguments are going on at this level up here at sort of the cognitive level of the reason level.

He says, no, they generally are anchored in some deep value, and it’s a value where you need to get down to and find out what it is that young people are finding so distasteful about the Christian worldview or the Christian life or living as a Christian. And that value is often the result of, and has been embedded in them by, the culture that we live in.

I had a student ask me if he could talk to me once, after a talk I gave about Christmas, and I said, “Sure.” And I thought we were going to talk about Christmas or something like that.

And he said, “Can I talk to you about homosexuality?”

And I said, “Sure.”

And he said, “So,” and he pointed to his head and he said, “up here I know that the Bible says it’s wrong, and I believe that it’s wrong.” Then he said, “But down here,” and he pointed to his stomach, he said, “I just don’t know how I can say that because I don’t feel that it’s wrong; I think that it’s intolerant, and I think that it’s unfair, and I think that it is suppressing people’s right to be who they are.”

So, for him, the issue wasn’t what he intellectually thought; it was this value that he had embedded in him, and that has come directly from the culture that he’s a part of.

I would encourage parents who are in a situation like this to really listen well, to try and engage, to not immediately jump to try and solve the problem and answer the questions, but to listen and to love and to pray and to continually model their faith well.

Mikel Del Rosario
Mm-hmm. How much does disappointment with God play into the deconversion stories that you’ve worked with in your study?
John Marriott
It’s hard to know. That’s a good question because if you listen to enough deconversion stories, and you listen long enough, and you hear people talk about their disappointment with God, you start to wonder whether or not they have actually become either atheists or agnostics, or they are just – and I mean this sensitively – throwing almost an adult temper tantrum, where they still believe in God, but they’re very angry with Him, and they’re not going to give Him what He wants, which is maybe worship or acknowledgement.

And I think that disappointment with God plays a big role in that because they feel a sense of betrayal from God. They expected that He would provide them with a spouse, or that He would give them their job, or that because they had sacrificed and gone to the mission field for God and had given their life for Him, that God would give them the child that they always desired. And when God doesn’t do that, they feel like, “I’m kind of angry at You, and maybe You’re not really there.”

Mikel Del Rosario
Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Now would it be any different if you were talking to – there are a number of pastors who watch the show, who listen to the show – if you were talking to a pastor who was concerned about somebody on their staff, or even themselves working in the church, who are kind of wrestling with this and considering leaving the church, difficult as it is, because they just can’t believe anymore, what would you say to them?
John Marriott
Well, the first thing I would do is I would listen. I try and listen really well. The second thing I would do is I would sympathize with them because I don’t think it does anyone any good to put up a false front of exaggerated confidence.

So, for example, while I am – I think that there is enough reasons for a hope worth acting on, I don’t have absolute certainty or 100 percent confidence that what I have committed my life to is true in some sort of – with some apodictic certainty. Right? I think that faith is being able to have enough reasons to act on and to continue to go forward in more of, in a trust kind of a manner.

So, I would want to hear where they’re coming from, and I would be able to – I would want to empathize with them in that struggle. I would also say that it’s probably important to step back and maybe to evaluate and to ask some important questions like, “What are some of my assumptions? What are some of my expectations that I have, and are they reasonable?”

Another question I would ask would be, “How much of the doubts and the questions that I have are a product of the culture that I live in and that may not necessarily be good objections or good doubts, but they seem that way because of the culture that I’m a part of?”

And third, I would maybe hope that they would ask questions like, “Is there another way that I can still be a Christian?” An example that I am thinking of is a young man who grew up in a very charismatic environment, saw lots of what he came to believe were not genuine experiences of the Holy Spirit. It was very fundamentalist.

He was told that he needed to be separate from the world, and there were many practices that he couldn’t engage in like dancing or imbibing in any alcohol. And he believed that that was Christianity; he didn’t know any different. He thought that this was what it meant to be a Christian until he came across a more Reformed perspective on Christianity, one that engaged his mind, one that said that perhaps he was right in some of his evaluations of the excesses in his movement, and one that said you need to engage the world from a Christian perspective, and that you do need to get out and be a contributor to culture, and that being worldly doesn’t look this way.

That’s what really rescued him and saved his faith, was thinking about being a Christian otherwise. And so, I think that when I talk about being over-prepared, that’s one of the setbacks and problems of being over-prepared. People need to have the essentials grounded and then a faith that is flexible enough to be able to question some of those issues that maybe they just don’t think sit right with their understanding of the Bible.

Mikel Del Rosario
Mm-hmm. So, how is doing this study for you? How has this impacted the way that you now speak to student groups and do ministry?
John Marriott
It has helped me to clarify what’s important, and I think that there is a difference between essential and important. I think that I want to – I really want to communicate the essentials of the faith, but I don’t want to downplay that there are other important doctrines that aren’t necessarily essential.

I do think that as Christians we need to honor the Lord by studying His Word and trying to understand what it does teach. But as I communicate to young people, what I try and communicate is, I want to make sure I’m communicating the essentials, and I want to give them accurate concepts of what it means to truly believe in Jesus.

I spoke with a woman who has been a missionary on the mission field as a pastor. Her and her husband were in a church up in California – here up in California for years, probably 30 years. And I gave a talk about deconversion, and I mentioned that belief is not necessarily being a psychological state of mind where you’re certain about everything, but it’s a committed trust experience where you think that there is enough information to take that risk and step into the arms of Jesus and follow Him.

And she came up afterwards in tears, and I was shocked. And she said, “I never understood that before. I always thought that belief was meaning you had to be certain of what you believed, and if I wasn’t certain, then I wasn’t really a good believer, and maybe I wasn’t a believer at all because I questioned some of these doctrines.” And so, I try and clarify that for people as well.

Mikel Del Rosario
Mm-hmm, yeah, it’s interesting you say that because a lot of people think that doubt is the opposite of belief, when in fact, unbelief is the opposite of belief. And a lot of times, when people doubt, they’re kind of chewing on their faith; they’re kind of mulling it over, and arguably, some people do leave the faith. But arguably, that’s what helps some people get really serious about this faith.

I know in my life and in college that’s what happened to me. It was just kind of mulling over, “Do I really believe this?” And I think a lot of Christian students have to go through that, where for the first time they’re out of their parents’ house. “Am I going to go to church today or not? I don’t have to, nobody’s making me.” Right?

John Marriott
Right.
Mikel Del Rosario
We all have to come to those points in our lives where we make our faith our own.

Well, what’s the number one takeaway that you got from doing your study?

John Marriott
The number one takeaway was surprising, and it was that – it ended up being the title of my dissertation, and the title was “The Cost of Freedom.” Because after listening to and interviewing a lot of people who are professed former Christians and reading narratives online – and there are lots of narratives online, and I would encourage people, if they feel as though they can do so without it being too much of a stumbling block, to read some of those because it will help you get an idea of where people are often coming from.

For some, it’s really clear. You’ll say, “I don’t think that this person really understood the gospel message.” For others, it’s not so clear; they were involved in full-time ministry for years.

But the number one takeaway was that regardless of how difficult it was in losing their faith, in losing their community, in losing their identity and losing their metaphysical kind of map of reality, for almost every person that I interviewed, it was worth it, they said, because of the freedom that they found in shedding the Christian faith.

Now that should tell you something about what often motivates deconversion. It’s a particular kind of Christian faith that doesn’t match up with the words of Jesus who says that, you know, “I’ve come that they might have life and life more abundantly,” and, “If the Son sets you free, you’ll be free indeed,” and that, “My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

Somewhere along the way, they were told and they were indoctrinated or socialized into a version of Christianity that was burdensome, that weighed them down, and that became intolerable. And that is sometimes the result of an excess number of beliefs that they had to affirm, and sometimes it’s that combined with many practices that they either had to do or that they had to shun.

And so, when someone says that they feel freer now than when they came to Christ, that’s a real red flag as to the kind of faith that they had bought into.

Mikel Del Rosario
Hmm. Well, can you tell us a story of not only deconversion but of someone who actually came back into the church after a period of wandering away?
John Marriott
Yes, I can, and I’m glad that you asked that because I’d rather end on a positive note than a depressing kind of a one. Darrin Rasberry is, for listeners, is someone that they should look up, because Darrin is a young man who was a believer and then left the faith – now again, when I say believer, I say he identified as a believer; I’m not sure whether or not he was truly born again, but he would have said that he was a committed believer – left the faith and then moved into not just a position of saying, “I’m a none,” or, “I’m an agnostic.” He was a very committed atheist.

He was part of a group called “Debunking the Bible” online. John Loftus, who is also someone who identifies as a former Christian and is now a very strong antagonist towards Christianity, has written a number of books against the Christian faith and why people should leave the Christian faith, has a website called “Debunking the Bible.”

And Darrin worked for him for years. I believe it was about 15 years that he was an online atheist apologist. But eventually he said that he came to the point where he could no longer, with integrity, deny some of the things that he was experiencing and coming across in his life – both academically/intellectually and emotionally and personally – and realized that maybe the story that makes the better sense of reality is not the one that he was living in now but the one that he had left behind.

And he revisited his Christian faith, and he started thinking about it more from a – more from an academic/intellectual perspective and eventually came to the place where he said, “You know, I’m really pretty committed now to the idea that God exists, and I’m also pretty committed to the idea that He walked the earth in the person of Jesus.”

Now, he will say, “I’m not sure what I think about things like inerrancy and who all the authors of the Bible are,” but he would now identify as a Christian and a genuine follower of Jesus once again. And he is one of a number of people who have left the faith and then have returned.

And so, I want to encourage listeners who know someone who has left the faith, have a family member who has left the faith, that there is a difference between Judas and Peter. Peter denied Jesus three times and eventually he returns; Judas doesn’t. People are like books
until the last chapter’s written, we really never know how they’re going to end.

And so, I want to encourage our listeners that just because someone has moved away from their faith does not mean that that’s the end of the story.

Mikel Del Rosario
Yeah, yeah, that’s a great, great story. Thanks for sharing that. Yeah, for those of us who have – we have people in our lives who we’re praying for daily, I would say don’t give up, keep praying for them; God hasn’t given up on them, and God loves them more than we do.

So, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us on the show and sharing with us, John. Thank you.

John Marriott
Oh, you’re very welcome. I appreciate it. And if anybody would like to get in touch with me, you can get in touch with me through my website which is www.johnmarriott.org, which is two Rs and two Ts, or www.losingmyfaith.org. And I’m happy to talk with people who are believers who are really wrestling with their faith and who are struggling and trying to maintain it; I resonate with that, and I can appreciate where they’re coming from.

And for those who are trying to think well about how we disciple and socialize the next generation into the faith so that they have a faith that endures, I’m also happy to engage in conversations about that as well.

Mikel Del Rosario
All right. Well, thanks so much, John.

And we thank you so much for joining us on The Table today. If you have a topic that you would like us to consider for a future episode, please e-mail us at thetable@dts.edu; that’s thetable@dts.edu. And we hope that you will stay with us, and we’ll see you next time here on The Table where we discuss issues of God and culture.

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John Marriott
John serves at Biola University as the Director of Global Learning and teaches in the department of Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. A former pastor, he holds an M.A. degree from Biola University, an M.A. degree in Philosophy of Religion from Talbot School of Theology, and a Ph.D. degree in Intercultural Studies from The Cook School of Intercultural Studies. He is a regular guest on the Apologetics.com radio program on 99.5 KKLA in Los Angeles, addressing various contemporary topics relevant to the Christian faith. His radio program Culturally Speaking can be heard weekly on Hope Stream Radio. John is the author of A Recipe For Disaster: How the Church Contributes to the Deconversion Crisis (Wipf & Stock, 2018).
Mikel Del Rosario
Mikel Del Rosario is a PhD student in New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, Project Manager for Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center, and Adjunct Professor of Apologetics and World Religion at William Jessup University. Mikel co-authors The Table Briefing articles in Bibliotheca Sacra with Darrell Bock, manages the Table Podcast, and helps Christians defend the faith with courage and compassion through his apologetics speaking ministry. He holds a Master of Theology (ThM) from DTS and an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University.
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