Three Thoughts on Denunciations and Deconversions

This is like an Onion headline, my friend texted. His message was followed by the […]

David Zahl / 7.31.19

This is like an Onion headline, my friend texted. His message was followed by the link “Christian dating guru says he’s getting divorced, denounces faith.” Sigh. It wasn’t a joke. If you’ve been anywhere near the Christian interwebs for the last few days, you know that he was referring to Joshua Harris, the heavy-laden author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

Harris isn’t the first leading figure of 90s Evangelicalism to “deconstruct,” and my sense is that he won’t be the last. Ten years ago, if you were fed up with Evangelical Protestantism, you “swam the Tiber” and converted to Roman Catholicism or possibly Greek Orthodoxy. Today, you throw out the entire metaphysics. Suffice it to say, the #Exvangelical movement will not be getting any smaller (or more merciful, but that’s a separate post).

The point here is not to analyze Harris, tempting as that might be. I met him once and he struck me as an extraordinarily gentle dude, not by any means a charlatan. The only thing I’ll say is that writing a book about sexual purity as a 21 year old–and then selling a million copies(!)–sounds like a curse on about three different levels. (Didn’t anyone watch Wonder Boys?) I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

I was either too late or too scared to engage with that book, having been spared the more toxic parts of 90s youth group culture by parents who moved us three times during my high school years. My wife read the book as a teenager and simply said that it “f-ed her up.” But I did serve as a youth minister in its wake and certainly recognize the theological factors (and spiritual damage) that David French and Katelyn Beaty identified in their columns the other day.

Instead of speculating about this man’s personal life, or even what his change of heart says about Big Evangelicalism, past, present, or future, it seems like a decent opportunity to reflect on what has become a phenomenon. I’m not talking about the slow-burn indifference and distraction that fuels most people leaving the faith. I’m referring to public denunciations and what have come to be called “deconversions.”

A separate friend asked me recently what goes through my head when I read about something like this–or simply hear of someone, high-profile or not, chucking their faith–and it was a fertile exercise. I’ll share three thoughts:

First, on a recent episode of his Revisionist History podcast, Malcolm Gladwell interviewed a number of Jesuits about their approach to problem-solving. To say that he walked away enamored would be an understatement. Having attended a Jesuit college, I recognized one of the phenomena that impressed him so. One priest recites a litany of reservations about the Church, which prompts Malcolm to ponder aloud how the man can still identify as a Catholic, a priest even, without batting an eye. “If you have so many problems with the Church, why don’t you leave?” he asks. The priest answers that it had never occurred to him to bail, that he was a Catholic in the way he was an American, or the way he was a part of his family of origin. Plus, he’d taken a vow.

Protestants for whatever reason don’t have that luxury (or freedom). Our fundamental interiority, not to mention the insistence on an unmediated, personal connection to God, can’t really abide much shilly-shallying, I suppose. In practice this means we operate according to an all-in or all-out mentality–which strikes me as strange, given the way life works. I get why this dichotomy might be compounded for a pastor but still… We act as though there are only two options, on-fire believer or committed atheist.

The older I get, the more that feels like a young person’s mentality. In fact, when I was a student at said Jesuit university, I found it supremely frustrating that my peers would identify as Catholic when they didn’t assent to almost anything the Church taught. Yet where once I saw complacency or hypocrisy, today I see something closer to humility and even grace, a willingness to give people a long leash, acknowledging that life isn’t short and phases are inevitable, even necessary. Again, I understand that there are reasons Protestantism has a harder time with casual observance–some of them wise!–but it makes me sad nonetheless.

Second, every time I hear about a deconversion it makes me increasingly grateful for Richard. Richard was the older colleague who pulled me aside during my first year as a youth minister. He told me I’d be tempted, based on the very real wreckage caused by “the Big Two,” AKA sex and drinking, to emphasize those topics with the high school students in my care. You’ll watch as ‘mistakes are made,’ he said, as hurt is inflicted, laws are broken, and if you have a heart, there’s only so many middle-of-the-night phone calls you can take before you succumb to the pressure from parents to preach the gospel of abstinence.

But, he added, you’d be doing those young people a disservice. If all we accomplished in our work was to underline–with religious ink–prohibitions that would expire when they came of age or walked down the aisle, then why bother. After all, there were plenty of forces in these kids lives urging them to avoid teenage pregnancy and DUIs. There were much fewer, if any, witnessing to the reality of a God who would meet them in a jail cell or delivery room with mercy and forgiveness. The latter at least stood the chance of staying with them after graduation.

He wasn’t suggesting, by the way, that I/we ignore virtues like chastity or temperance. What he meant was simply that we had to be extremely careful, treat them like dynamite. Because high school students (like all of us, but amplified) can turn pretty much anything into a law to rebel against or judge their peers by. And if they internalized a picture of God as concerned primarily with behavior rather than belief–a relationship of contingency–it would prove incredibly difficult to dislodge later, regardless of how they claimed their faith had evolved or whatnot. The baggage clings, especially when taken on during adolescence.

If I’m being honest, pretty much every time I hear one of these de-converted folks talk about God–or the Gospel–their conception sounds a lot like the one Richard had warned me against rather than the one I hear about on Sundays. Maybe that’s what we default to out of pain, I don’t know. What I do know is that oppressive contingencies have a pesky way of following us out the church doors.

Which leads to the third, and most important thought. While I wouldn’t want to dismiss theological factors wholesale, they are largely secondary when it comes to people denouncing a faith they once held dear. Yes, we can talk about legalism and grace and the confusion over the role of the law, post-conversion. We can talk about the theology of the cross and the essential place of failure in the Christian life. Less defensively, we can ask what argument or fresh piece of evidence tipped the scales from belief into apostasy.

Much as I sympathize with the instinct to “address” or “discuss,” it’s usually a way of alleviating our own insecurity rather than actually responding to the person involved. Because these decisions, like most decisions in life, are emotional before they are intellectual. Our favorite refrain–“what the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies”–applies just as much here as it does anywhere.

Along those lines, then, what are the kind of emotions that would lead a person to denounce something? Resentment would be at the top of the list, I’d imagine, accompanied by exhaustion. Perhaps there’s a long-building feeling of betrayal based on an expectation we had of God or Church, either explicitly or implicitly.

Or maybe there’s an explosion of resentment against a system that talks about grace but doesn’t embody it when it comes to the Big Stuff (i.e., sexual and/or financial acting out). That is, we know the landscape well enough to predict how non-theoretical doubt and/or sin are handled in practice (as opposed to theory), and thus we know our only option is a nuclear one. Who knows, maybe we want to hit back as we leave.

Then there’s the gravitational pull of self-justification, especially where the Big Stuff is concerned. And let’s not forget the allure of belonging to–or no longer feeling like you have to resist–the reigning culture, which carries emotional rewards of its own.

Most of all, though, when I hear about a high profile denunciation, I feel for the person involved. No one comes to such a decision without a ton of pain. Which is why, even in the most acrimonious “break-ups with Jesus,” you almost always hear a sigh of relief. Relief from cognitive dissonance, or from the crushing burden of transference, or from having to uphold some facade of holiness or pretense of zeal, or I don’t know what. Whether or not they should have been in pain is beside the point. They were in pain–and probably will remain so for some time.

And yet, I like to think God is a healer. Yes, the surgery is slow and the anesthetic often lacking, but that’s where the hope lies: God is not done with any of us.

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9 responses to “Three Thoughts on Denunciations and Deconversions”

  1. I noted a nuance in Harris’ tweet that actually gave me a glimmer of hope. I’m not sure if this was super intentional, but he wrote “by all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.” Observing a bit of his teaching over the years I’d suggest that by his measure I am not a Christian either! I’m personally enlivened by those I work with here in Los Angeles as they question long held assumptions foisted upon them in their youth. I pray that we remain here to help as they pick up the valuable pieces of the wreckage and experience anew the true God who is encountering them, even in the midst of destruction. TOC all the way. Thanks for this!

  2. Phil Wold says:

    “in practice this means that there’s an all-in or all-out mentality that seems increasingly strange to me, given the way life works.… We act as though there are only two options, on-fire believer or committed atheist. The older I get, the more that feels like a young person’s mentality.”
    As I read this, and the next few paragraphs, I couldn’t help but smile.
    Some great insights, David, and it felt fun to be in that conversation with you.
    As I read on, I couldn’t help but join you in sadness at the pain of one who “deconstructs.”
    Both of these moves were a gift to me.
    May God the healer work caring and kindness in us all.
    Thank you for the conversation, the insight and the compassion.

  3. Michael Nicholson says:

    Very good angle on this, David. Thank you.

  4. Pam B says:

    Thank you David. This was full of Grace.

  5. Connor G. says:

    Brillant and pastoral.

  6. Interesting watch:
    He appears to have traded one set of ‘how to’ principles for another. Note particularly his validation of natural selection around the 8 minute mark, essentially as a replacement for death and resurrection.
    Sobering stuff.

  7. Kevin says:

    I felt the headlines of “renouncing” or “deconversion” were premature. As Dominic pointed out above, “by all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian” doesn’t sound to law & gospel trained ears as the statement of someone leaving but of someone coming to the realization that they have never left the starting line (and probably never will).

    Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but that will be my prayer nonetheless, because people like Joshua who know brokenness first hand have a powerful way of sharing radical grace.

  8. Andrew says:

    I thought it would be worthwhile to give the view point of the apostate. I have been an atheist for 13 years. The transition from theist to atheist is different for everyone. The time it took me to get here was quite long, maybe 22 years of study and research. Having said the last 10 or so years was not in christianity.

    To get to my view (keep in mind all atheists are different, we dont have anything in common other than a lack of a belief in a deity, and we all arrived here for different reasons and a different path.) For me there was no pain, discomfort, anger at a god, depression or a feeling of being let down. I have had a great many discusions with thiests and apologists who have had that misunderstanding of us who have deconverted. I dont know if it is because tjose thiests can not imagine a world view without a god belief, or they have never taken the time to put thought into it. I do agree that i did feel relief and a feeedom from cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy.

    My journey was about being the best christian i could be. I read the bible from beging to end a few times, studied it deeply talked to as many religious leaders as i could. My family is moravian by tradition (which i discovered broke away from the church almost 50 years before Martin Luther did, which was most likely one of Luthers influences for doing so) so i grew up with the passive learning of religion like everyone else through that protestant denomination. My choice to grow as a christian began with the catholics since i wanted to learn from the oldest christian denomination. (I know catholics would argue they are not a denomination) I did a lot of churxh hopping through all the available denominations in my town. Attending mass on Saturdays and Sunday mornings the protestant services afterwards. (Sunday mass is at 9 so i could attend service at 11) i learned a lot. I wanted to understand why christianity is devided into so many different forms. what i descovered was that learning is a bad thing. I was discouraged by every leader of every church of every denomination from learning, From asking questions, from wanting answers and having a better understanding of this thing thought was the most important thing in my life. Every leader told me the same thing: “Only christians are going to heaven, only people in my denomination (whatever church this person was a part of) only people who attend my church (the building they attend weekly) and even then only a few people in my church including me are going to be in heaven.” What a lonely place heaven will be as only 15 or so people are good enough to make it there.

    It became very obvious that nobody knew anything about their flavor of christianity much less christianity in general. If the eternal fate of your everlasting soul is at stake, why haven’t they bothered to learn anything about their faith? The more i learned the more i realized the bible could in no way be the “Breathed” word of god or the inspired word of god. Too much contridiction and unrealistic information, and all the horrid atrocities ordained by god to be done in his name. Hatred, devisivness, murder, genicide, infanticide and lies all side by side with love and togetherness. It made no sense and i found more bad than good.

    Becoming an atheist is not a decision, it is a realazation. We dont decide what we believe, we believe in things we are convinced are true. Our beliefs are not always based on good reasons or reasons at all, so can arrive at a belief for bad or false reasons. I had no pain whatsoever as this realization came to me. I felt no let down or anger at a god or religious leaders. It is quite obvious many religious leaders do have an agenda of control over others and profit. I do think most religious leaders truly believe what they say and promote belief because they truly believe it is for the betterment of others. That does not make it right but i dont have any resentment towards them.

    It is important that theists understand that not all atheists go through a painful, angry and resentful deconversion. We can not be angry at something we dont believe in. We experience a great deal of relief at stepping away from the hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance. We embrace a reality that has been hidden by a veil of religious dogma.

    I enjoy a healthy discourse if anyone choses to discuss anything i have said. I have four caveats for any discussion:
    1.  I am not trying to deconvert you and I expect you to not try to convert me. 
    2. Our conversation should always remain civil, calm, and rational.
    3. Duringglad our discussion, if, and when, our passions get the best of us and we no longer can remain civil, calm, and rational, we step back and take a break untill we can regain our composure so we can return to the conversation.
    4. I hope we learn something from eachother.

  9. Marcos says:

    Thank you David. What you said about “the big stuff” is important. I’ve been having the same conversation at our church. I call it “the biggies” meaning sexual issues, addiction, divorce, etc… the BIG sins cultural christianity finds most repulsive/compelling. As leaders, we seem to run to the biggies to deal with them through counseling, prayer etc… We miss that most of the times the biggies are the proverbial shit hitting the fan that could have been avoided by a community of believers acknowledging that sin is really as bad as scripture teaches. Our Christian culture feeds the thinking that leads to people like Harris building that resentment, maybe because we spend so little time teaching how broken we really are and how great God’s love really is.We sang a song at church yesterday (a reformed church by the way) that says Jesus was “created from dust” and then proceeded to tell me how awesome I am. I didn’t feel awesome. The song just made me feel worse. I get why Harris walked way.

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