Thursday, October 7, 2010

Five Deconversion Factors: And Why Craig Blomberg is Wrong

The Deconversion Factor
Americans are becoming less and less religious. (Refer to the Gallup-poll: “Americans are Becoming Less Religious.”)
At the same time Christianity is under assault by the razor sharp criticism of the New Atheism movement. To anyone who has been paying attention to the religious debate, it seems more and more Christians are leaving the fold (I should know—I’m one of them). The question arises, what can account for this mass exodus of once faithful adherents joining the ranks of the nonbeliever, the skeptic, the free thinking everyday person? Some evangelical apologists have claimed that these apostates were all fake Christians and weren't true believers to begin with—but such an accusation is absurd. The numbers are simply too big to suggest ALL these people were insincere. What then could possibly be contributing to the advance of secularism and the dwindling of faith?

Craig Blomberg, a Christian Evangelical scholar, has recently posited on his blog that there are three consistent factors that lead to a rejection of Christianity. Blomberg states:

Studies of deconversion find three fairly consistent factors or kinds of experiences that trigger such rejection of Christianity. First, a crisis of some kind unexpectedly intrudes into a persons life. Maybe it is the loss of a loved one, a major personal failure, or even sin, a life-changing injury, a divorce, or a devastating financial loss. Second, the community to which this individual has normally turned to for support in hard times turns on that individual instead. Perhaps it is a kind of church discipline that does not seem geared to lead to rehabilitation. Perhaps it includes interpersonal estrangement rather than empathy. Third, the hurting person is introduced to and/or for the first time takes seriously and investigates seriously an alternate worldview. This may be a different religion or, as it commonly seems today to be, some form of agnosticism or atheism.

So in summary Blomberg’s de-conversion requisites include (but perhaps not limited to):

1.      A personal crisis.
2.      A let-down by the church/religious community.
3.      A questioning of his or her worldviews.

Over at Why I De-Converted from Evangelical Christianity we atheists and nonbelievers discussed the feasibility of Blomberg’s proposed list. Needless to say the deconverts which commented on the above three reasons were mainly split, most finding it too vague and generic, while the majority stated that neither 1 or 2 played much of a roll in their own deconversions. Another objection was that the list was only capable of explaining Evangelical Christian deconversions but failed to take into account deconversions from other religious faiths. To most of us it seemed like a (mostly) inaccurate list. Soon thereafter Blomberg joined the discussion and clarified:

A few clarifications: I would absolutely agree that the same three factors can lead to other forms of religious or worldview change—to or from Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, naturalism, etc. The three factors are by no means universal, as several of the posters have indicated, but research from ex-evangelicals like John Loftus and Ed Babinski and evangelicals like Scot McKnight and Hauna Aundrey do show that they are remarkably frequent. My personal experience with friends and acquaintances backs that up too, anecdotal though that evidence is.

Personally, I would like to know what studies is Blomberg initially referring to, and what specific research does he mean when he brings up other ex-evangelicals? A citation here would be nice.

A Few Objections
A couple of things actually. First of all, it is nowhere clear to me that this list can account for other forms of religious or worldview change. It seems it might account for some very specific cases. Maybe this list works for a very narrow demographic of evangelicals who have deconverted but, as Blomberg himself admits, it is nowhere near comprehensive.

Secondly, religious cultures are set up differently in different cultures. In some cases there would be no communal let down because the religion functions separately from the community even as they may share cultural features (e.g. Buddhism). Whereas other times there may be a massive communal let down because the religious culture and traditional culture of the society are so tightly interwoven that it would be nigh impossible to distinguish them apart (e.g. Islam). In most cases fear of being ostracized would defeat number two anyway, so in order for number two to be true the crisis would inevitably have to be bigger than what seems necessary to lead to deconversion. This means that although crisis may factor into a person’s deconversion, it’s not a required factor, and a church/community let down is more likely to be the side-effect of a prior crisis than the deciding factor of the initial reason for deconversion. Therefore we can deduce other factors must be at work.

Thirdly, Blomberg’s list is inadequate in another way too, as it doesn’t explain, for example, apostates such as myself (a post-theist) or those like Thomas Paine (a deist), as well as those like us, who deconverted primarily for rational reasons rather than traumatic ones stemming from crisis.

An Oversight: Missing Other Important Deconversion Factors
An area I feel Blomberg overlooks (or else grossly underestimates) is education. Numerous studies have shown that education plays a large factor in the rejection of or dismissal of prior to held religious beliefs. The recent PEW Forum on Religion and Public Life did a study on “Other Beliefs and Practices” that proved that atheists and agnostics (nonbelievers) knew the most about world religion and religion in general.  

Why does having an abundance of knowledge about religion, and knowing about other religions, lead to rejection or dismissal of religious beliefs? Two things come to mind. First, as Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, has quaintly stated, “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

Having knowledge ties directly into the second reason, those who don’t have knowledge about their religious beliefs have no reason to question them (as they have nothing to compare or contrast their own beliefs against). Basically they are free to take their faith (and religious beliefs) for granted. Consequently, this lack of knowledge sponsors a massive credulity and simultaneous ensures they remain completely naïve. Most religious people (especially Evangelical Christians—according to the Christian research group Barna) are ignorant of their faith to the point of being illiterate when it comes to understanding the doctrines which inform their devotional beliefs (see the Barna Group study HERE). So it is no wonder then that knowledge, or the lack thereof, is a determining factor in whether one is religious or not.

Granted there are always exceptions, some highly educated people remain devoutly religious, but the data all points toward the fact that the more (better) education you have the less likely you are going to be beguiled by religious, metaphysical, or superstitious claims. This also explains why many atheists and secular free thinkers tend to be naturalists more often than not. It's a simple deduction really, since the dismissal of supernatural bunk leaves you only with a naturalistic worldview and the rejection of a supernatural God (or gods) leaves you with atheism. Blomberg’s list of factors fails to predict this trend and so cannot be relied on for depicting the extemporaneous factors which do come into play for any genuine deconversion.

So I must disagree with Blomberg, it seems the first key factor in a person’s deconversion from Christianity is education and an improved working knowledge of religion. Not a crisis as he assumes.

Christian Professor of Sociology Bradley R.E. Wright, in an interview with Christianity Today, brings to our attention some more startling factoids. Evangelical Christians are not only biblically illiterate, but they are also the most racist, harboring or sponsoring prejudiced attitudes toward those of ethnicity and other cultural backgrounds, at the same time they are the worst offenders in assaulting gay’s rights and civil liberties. 

I only bring this up because, as per higher education, Wright mentions that those who are nonreligious (and with higher educational background we might assume) are more tolerant and open minded to different ideas, peoples, and worldviews. What this implies, I think you’ll find, is that education and knowledge directly impact our worldview and in turn this enhanced worldview feeds back into our knowledge and education. 

Freedom from Religion
Wright also notes that an inbuilt part of the Evangelical message focuses on demoralizing its adherents, sponsoring shame and regret. Ironically enough, since everyone are (supposedly) sinners, Evangelical Christianity has made a massive profit in selling self help books on how to correct or improve one's life by focusing on God and Jesus. 

I find this aspect of Evangelical Christianity especially wicked. The idea is that if you are living for Christ you'll be less of a sinner and better off for it. Books like The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, God Speaks Your Love Language by Gary Chapman, The Father Connection by Josh McDowel, It's Your Time: Activate Your Faith, Achieve Your Dreams, and Increase in God's Favor are all books focused on helping people improve their relationship with God by offering 'uplifting' or 'spiritual' sounding bits of scripture as to give you the means to repair your sinful broken-down life. 

Personally I find the whole enterprise insulting. The reason so many religious people feel crippled by sin and feel their lives are broken down is because their religious faith tricks them into believing it! It demonizes their integrity and worth making them feel shame or disgust for either their behavior or lifestyle sending them on a huge guilt trip. Then, at the last minute, it reverses the demoralizing and degrading assault and suddenly says, "But wait! You aren't worthless like you think--you're special. And God loves you! And he has a plan for you. All you have to do is sign up today! Give yourself unto Jesus, and you'll be seeing results instantly!" It's like an abusive relationship which you keep going back to because, in the end, he always says he didn't mean it--that in spite of it all he does loves you--and that he's sorry only to start the mental abuse and battery all over again. 

Once again, religion seems to be the mechanism which generates crisis--this time by replicating the patterns of an abusive relationship. So maybe people aren't so much deconverting from religion as they are escaping it? I know that when I finally relinquished my religious beliefs I felt a huge relief wash over me, for the first time in my life I felt entirely liberated. Perhaps it is by overcoming the repetitive cycles of religious inculcation, getting free of dogma, and steadily increasing and gaining in knowledge, we can overcome the limitations religion places on our own worldviews.

This leaves us with option three, questioning one’s worldviews. This one I think Blomberg gets right. Gaining a deeper understanding of other walks of life, peoples, cultures, etc. inevitably leads to a broader worldview. I know that this was a substantial factor in my own deconversion, but with one caveat, it wasn’t an external force that caused me to question my Christian worldview, but rather, it was my Christian faith that forced me to since it was directly interfering with and hindering the growth of my broader worldview. Hence the crisis! Albeit a crisis which was generated by my own Christian belief system, thus, once again, it was because of Christianity that I was forced to reconsider my personal beliefs, not in spite of it, and that’s where the distinction needs to be made.

Expanding Worldviews Means Shrinking Religions
The truth is, once you’re thrown into an alien culture with a foreign people who don’t speak your language, where your cultural values are turned on their head, and where you must adapt to all kinds of new social norms, you have no choice—you must question your worldview. And if something is deterring you or stopping you from assimilating it could make for some very uncomfortable situations. It could be as simple as a case of culture shock or something as trying as an inability to adapt or assimilate (something I’ve seen firsthand during my time in Japan).[] Re-evaluating things, whether it is ones personal beliefs, cultural views, political views, or moral ethos is absolutely necessary in learning to understand and cope with a broader worldview.

Yet what about someone who does not face the challenge of confronting their own worldview head on? Why should anyone necessarily feel the need to confront their worldview at all? Easy, this form of questioning and critical evaluation of one’s beliefs and cultural views most often leads to a healthier lifestyle, new friendships, opens up new avenues of thought, lends experience to put someone wise, and can lead to flourishing and happiness. Not only this, but it also gives a person the ability to be skeptical whenever they come across a worldview which limits their growth or else seeks to stifle them. This is what happened with me, my Christianity threatened to destroy my whole world by interfering with my ability to assimilate, adapt, and cope with new worldviews. In other words, it was retarding my growth as a person—an each time I tried to expand my worldview I had to confront the conflicting, frequently prejudiced, demoralizing, backwards teachings of my prior Christian faith.[]

The crisis was that it threatened not only my ability to mature and grow, both mentally and emotionally, but it threatened my well being too. I had no choice but to question the faith I was indoctrinated in, and it took years of deprogramming before I could approach any different worldview without such interference. And it is in this awakening, the one where you realize your religion has failed you, where belief dwindles away and faith crumbles. Therefore an expanding worldview, more often than not, will lead to a shrinking religious worldview.

A Trifecta now a Fivefecta!
Examining the weaknesses of Blomberg’s deconversion list I think I can do one better. Not least of all because, unlike Blomberg, I actually did deconvert from Christianity and so have an insider’s perspective here. My list of factors which lead to a deconverstion of religious faith are:

1.      A higher level of education and applicable knowledge which would help to demystify or disillusion.
2.      A crisis generating mechanism inherent to faith either vis-a-vi doctrinal regulations/restrictions (or in spite of them) which breeds self abjection, shame, and demoralizing attitudes.
3.      The failure of faith to stand up to scrutiny or provide any relief for cognitive dissonance (stemming from 1), moral confusion (from 2), causing one to abandon the faith.
4.      Thus having lost faith, one must re-evaluate their worldview, thereby gaining an expanded worldview in the process (and lending further support for the validity of 1, 2, and 3).
5.      Finally, a personal crisis, either mental (e.g. the problem of evil, etc.) or real (e.g. death of a loved one, etc.), which causes one to lose faith or else cause them to reflect on or address 3 and 4.

Just to clarify, I say applicable knowledge because whereas a firm grasp of Evolutionary theory may challenge one’s religious worldview a strong understanding of baking pastries or motorcycle repair likely would not.

As per 2, a crisis generating mechanism which would generate either cognitive dissonance or moral confusion and/or anxiety and is an inbuilt part of concepts such as original sin, the problem of evil, the threat of eternal damnation, and so on. Such as that we could figure out a way to disavow the emotional crisis bread by the doctrine of hell, and detach ourselves from the fear and terrible worry it brings those who take it all too literally, one would then need to account for the cognitive dissonance which comes up in bad theology.[]

These are the keys factors, as I see them, in deconversion from faith/religion. Also, this enhanced list accounts for the problems Blomberg encountered but was unable to address due to the limited scope of his deconversion list. I feel my list easily includes world religions other than Christianity whereas I think Blomberg's list is restricted only to Evangelical modes of Protestant Christianity.

Needless to say everyone has their own reasons for deconverting or walking away from faith. I can’t possibly create a comprehensive list to explain all the various nuanced forms of deconversion, but I do feel my list captures the main reasons people typically deconvert or walk away from faith.

[] I have spent considerable time in the country of Japan. During this time I have seen students and co-workers come from other countries that not only struggled to adapt but could not adapt to a new worldview. Nor could they assimilate the unique cultural elements which Japan, well, Japan. In fact, I have seen people give up after a year of struggling and I have seen people walk out on contracts as soon as one month into their time in Japan. The question is what is the crisis they are experiencing? Chalk it up to clashing worldviews and the discomfort it causes. Perhaps they feel that they will lose their own cultural identity if they allow themselves to assimilate, maybe they fear they will lose themselves entirely, or maybe they are just so fixed on their own beliefs and cultural ethos that to allow for any change would be a sacrifice greater than they are willing to make? I don’t quite know, but most people manage to adapt. Only a minority few ever experience such trouble. Some people are just better suited to change, or perhaps I should say, more lenient in allowing for change. So, it may be that personality type is another subset of the factors which contribute to religious deconversion.
[] Just to specify, when I first met my Japanese wife I was still under the yoke of a strict fundamentalist piety which warned against interracial marriages with a unbeliever (i.e. non-Christian). The crisis was that my heart said this love was genuine but my faith was telling me I had no right to such love or happiness. Sure, I had a right to be happy, to be loved, but only if my Buddhist wife would convert to Christianity. Those are the rules according to doctrine, according to Christianity. If it was in the Bible, I believed it. Granted not all Christians may take their faith so seriously, but I did. So there I was, at an impasse. I could not force her, let alone expect the woman I loved to change her whole worldview simply by demanding her to. Even if she truly loved me enough to try, I would not dare expect her to, as that’s simply not love an act of love. It’s an act to salvage a love—but from what? Save it from myself—because I was unwilling, nay, unable to change specifically because of the dogmatic beliefs I held. Certainly I felt cognitive dissonance in the fact that my faith taught it would be a sin to be yoked with an unbeliever, and that I would risk an eternity in hell for loving a non-Christian, who would (according to my faith) continually be tempting me away from Christ. Would God punish me for loving someone? How could a loving God, I wondered, allow such a moral confusion? Something was horribly wrong with my faith or my religious beliefs, and so I had no choice but to re-evaluate them. When I did look into it, I discovered the Bible was wrong, so wrong that it hurt to continue to believe it to be the divinely inspired word of God. Once I rejected Biblical inerrancy I could assess the text with a critical outlook using the historical method and critical thinking skills—the rest, as they say, is history.
[] Cognitive Dissonance and Moral Confusion as caused by Religion: Just to illustrate my point, would be a Christian having to explain why an all knowing God would create a glib talking snake only to trick Adam and Eve into disobeying his commands (which he knew they’d do before the whole event ever took place) and then punish them for it (an obvious set up—since God knew prior to the act of sin that they were predestined to sin). But worse still, demand that blood sacrifice be the only means to expiate sin (of disobedience) of eating a fruit which God falsely advertised (i.e. lied about) would bring about mortal death, and clearly a mortal death is distinctly not spiritual death—as some Christian apologists will claim. (This is an obvious harmonization trick apologists like to pull to make God’s lie into not a lie; and a good example of the cognitive dissonance/moral ambiguity problem).
If God was all knowing he would have known (from the get-go) that he’d make such demands, therefore being an omniscient and all loving God would not have made those demands precisely because he knew they would fail beforehand. Only a cruel God could forcibly predestine his creation to sin and then punish them for it anyway (more moral confusion). It makes even less sense that God would eventually use his own son as the proverbial scapegoat, as a tool to expiate humankind’s collective sins, and render the whole demand obsolete—thus contradicting himself in the process—if Christ’s expiation was an ultimate atonement for sin, then why even bother with the demand to repay sins to begin with? This places the demand to repent of sin as a finite offense, since God arbitrarily assigns a finite period for sin, however long it is between the date of Adam and Eve’s (supposed) fall from grace and the act of salvation through Christ’s atonement, which makes no sense coming from a (supposedly) infinite God (yet more cognitive dissonance). In other words, an infinite being would have no reason to set a finite time to even allow for a period of sin. Nor would an infinite and all knowing God create sin only to later erase it by washing out debt clean—of course with the added stipulation that we accept Christ because he saved us (but this tit for tat demand, the I scrub your back so you better scrub mine, you sinned and Jesus saved your ass from frying so accept him damn you, can only be seen as blackmail since, as we saw earlier, the fall of man was an inescapable frame job). See, the whole concept of original sin in Christian doctrine is a mess!
As it seems to any rational person, it would have just been easier for God not to have created a talking snake. End of problem! In fact, it would have been easier not demanded that sins be forgiven only through blood sacrifice to begin with. Problem solved! To a rational person, an all powerful/all knowing/all loving God should be able to figure out a way to sanctify rather than damn. At least, one would think! As it is, a doctrine which sponsors ‘original forgiveness’ makes logical sense whereas a doctrine which sponsors ‘original sin’ makes little to no sense at all, and moreover, leads to both cognitive dissonance and moral confusion.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist