In this article, I continue a conversation with John Marriott on Christianity and atheism based on his new book, A Recipe for Disaster. In part one, Dr. Marriott summarized some of the catalysts that lead to Christians becoming atheists. In this article, we continue the conversation by turning to consider ways that Christians might seek to address this trend.
RR: John, in the first part of our exchange you laid out some sober statistics on the numbers of Christians becoming atheists. You also provided an astute overview of the main problems that contribute to this trend. All in all, it was a rather disheartening, if necessary, introduction to the problem.
At this point, I am reminded of the seventeenth century Quaker, Thomas Ellwood. After he read the great Puritan poet John Milton’s magisterial work, Paradise Lost, Ellwood remarked, “Thou hast said much here of Paradise lost, but what hast thou to say of Paradise found?” In the spirit of Ellwood, I can say that you’ve done much to diagnose the problem of Christians becoming atheists. Now, what can you propose by way of a solution?
JM: Admittedly, it’s much easier to diagnose problems than it is to solve them. But I think there are some things that we can do to avoid setting believers up for a crisis of faith. You may have noticed that the three factors I identified all relate to how the church / parents socialize deconverts. In pointing these out, I don’t mean to imply that the church is the cause of deconversion. Deconversion is complex and ultimately inscrutable. But for many former Christians their religious socialization played a crucial role. Of course, some of the factors that produce a loss of faith are completely out of the control of parents and churches.
Consider two examples. First, individuals who possess certain personality traits and highly rate specific values are statistically more likely to lose their faith than the average believer. Likewise, our increasingly pluralistic / secular culture can have a withering effect on keeping the faith. Parents and churches have no control over either of those. But they do have direct control over how they pass on the faith. So we need to get it right. Therefore, in response to the three problems of faith transmission I raised earlier, I offer three responses that I believe not only avoid setting up believers for a crisis of faith but give them the best chance for a faith that endures.
RR: Well said. To illustrate your first point, some research suggests that autism is positively correlated with a tendency toward atheism. More generally, we’ve probably all met people for whom belief and commitment came naturally and others for whom it has always been a struggle.
And as for the second point, there is no doubt that a post-Christian culture brings unique challenges. Though, I would add that Soren Kierkegaard famously pointed out how avowedly “Christian” cultures can be subversive of genuine faith as well.
Anyway, how about we look at a quick overview of your three responses?
JM: If my first critique involved requiring believers to affirm an excessive and bloated set of non-negotiable beliefs in order to be a Christian, what is the alternative? I suggest that we identify those beliefs that are minimally sufficient to adopt in order to be considered a Christian and then emphasize those, leaving all others open for discussion. I think there are two sets of beliefs that meet that requirement: The salvation message and the ecumenical creeds of the church. The first is sufficient for salvation, the second for orthodox belief.
Salvation, as far as correct belief is concerned, has to do with possessing a fond appreciation that the work of Christ on the cross and his subsequent resurrection are the means by which an individual has their sins forgiven and are reconciled to God. Fond appreciation, in this sense, includes both believing what the Bible claims about Christ’s substitutionary death and trusting him as the savior.
There is more to being a Christian, however, than just being saved. There is also the matter of what the Christian community has identified as the boundary markers for correct belief. Soteriologically speaking, an individual may be a Christian, that is they are saved, but in the broader theological sense they may not be very Christian at all. A person can be born-again and hold to all kinds of aberrant and unorthodox theology. To guard against this the early church crafted statements that identified specific beliefs that were important for Christians to hold in order to be orthodox in their faith.
These are commonly known as the ecumenical creeds of the church, the Apostles’ Creed 200 CE, the Nicene Creed 381 CE, and the Chalcedonian Creed 451 CE. These three creeds, accepted by all three major branches of the church, identify the minimal set of beliefs that a person ought to affirm in order to be orthodox in belief. It is these major theological doctrines that we should be concerned to pass on. Not the unique and sometimes picayune convictions we hold individually or as a church.
By emphasizing these minimal tenets of the faith, we do two things. First we make it less likely that we will pass on a distorted version of Christianity by equating our denominational distinctives and personal opinions of what it means to be a Christian with Christianity itself. Second we give believers a faith that is both sturdy and flexible. Sturdy in that it is built upon major doctrines accepted and defended by believers throughout history; flexible because the creeds do not commit one to any particular theological model for making sense of their content.
To sum up my first suggestion on how to avoid setting up believers for a crisis of faith, I suggest we should place no greater doxastic burden on individuals than that which is sufficient for salvation and mere orthodoxy. In all other areas of belief there should be freedom to reject beliefs without fear that in doing so one is rejecting Christianity.
RR: Growing up in a dispensational Pentecostal church, we had a long list of required beliefs ranging from young earth creationism to pre-tribulation premillennial dispensationalism. (Whew, that’s a mouthful!) Heck, there was a time when I was even suspicious of post-tribulation dispensationalists. Needless to say, I didn’t even have categories for non-dispensationalist Christians. They might as well have been from Mars!
These days, one finds all sorts of other things being added to mere Christianity. For example, are you pro-choice or pro-life? Pro-gay marriage or anti-gay marriage? Calvinist or Arminian? Penal substitution atonement or Christus Victor? Complementarian or egalitarian? Pacifist or just war theorist? Capitalist or socialist? All important topics, to be sure, but none of them is at the core of Christian identity. And I think we’d all do well to keep the main thing the main thing.
JM: My second suggestion is that we need to do a better job of articulating important theological concepts, especially when it comes to God. I have no doubt that a number of former believers have a balanced and theologically robust conception of God. No doubt some would say that a biblical conception of God is precisely what brought them to the place where they could not believe in him anymore. As tragic as I think that is, at least they are rejecting the God of the Bible, not the God of their ill-formed theology. As I mentioned previously, many deconverts reveal in their deconversion stories that the catalyst for leaving the faith came as a result of being disappointed with God, or at least the concept they had of him.
In reality though, they had a significantly unbiblical conception of God, one that more closely resembled the God of Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism identified by sociologist Christian Smith, than the God of the Bible. MTD holds that God exists (deism), he wants us to be happy (therapeutic), and we should treat others in ways that maximizes their happiness by being good, nice, and fair to each other (moral). If that is how we make others happy, it is reasonable to conclude that is how God makes us happy, by being good, nice, and fair. According to Smith, for American teenagers “God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, [and] professionally helps his people feel better about themselves.” But biblically speaking, this is not what God is like, nor how he acts. The conception is not mapping onto reality.
When one’s conception of God does not adequately map onto the reality of who God is, it can cause a crisis of faith. But it doesn’t have to. We can largely avoid these kinds of faith shaking disappointments by providing believers with a more biblical conception of God and what to expect as one of his followers. Without question there is great reward to be expected from following Jesus, both in this life and the next. But the rewards, which are primarily spiritual and relational, are experienced amidst a fallen world. Over and over again, the Bible tells us through stories and direct statements that this is a broken world, controlled in significant measure by a malevolent being. That suffering is par for the course. That followers of Jesus often will suffer both moral and natural evil. That God himself will allow bad things to occur, or even have a hand in bringing them to pass for reasons that may be opaque to us, but are for an ultimate good.
RR: Yes, if people think that this life is simply about being as happy as one can be, they are bound to be disappointed. From a Christian perspective, the primary focus of this life is about becoming holy not merely happy.
JM: There is no better example of this than Jesus himself. He was (for the most part) homeless, experienced hunger and thirst, abandonment, humiliation, being slandered, misunderstood, mocked, spit on, unjustly convicted, beaten and publicly executed. If that is what God allowed to happen to his son, what reason do we have to think that if those things happen to us, that God has failed us? Especially since Jesus himself warned us “that in this world you will have trouble”?
Again, I understand there are former believers who did have a more or less biblical conception of God and no longer believe in him for various reasons, some moral, some intellectual, some existential. But deconversion narratives reveal that for many that was not the case. Instead of rejecting the God of the Bible, they rejected a distorted version of him. One they received from their Christian community. Tragically, it implanted in them expectations for how God would act and what they could expect from him that ultimately went unmet. A crisis of faith ensued. We can do better. We need to pass on a biblical portrait of God and let the chips fall where they may.
RR: Back in the 1980s, I was a big fan of the Christian heavy metal band Stryper. And in one of their songs, “Reason for the Season,” they actually sang, “Everyday can be a holiday when he is with you.” Um, don’t tell that to Job! So I agree with you. When we sell people a false bill of goods, we set them up for failure.
JM: The lead singer of Stryper used to live not far from me out here in California. As a teenager I had their Soldiers Under Command, album. But I was more of a Petra guy.
Stay tuned for the third and final installment of our conversation.