Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Who Is More Likely To Leave The Faith?

In the comments section of my last post, Paul Sunstone asked this question:

Do you think conservatives are more likely than liberals to have difficulty maintaining a belief in deity once they admit that their belief is only one among many?

It is an interesting question and I wanted to wrestle my thoughts with it out on a post, and perhaps lure in some other folks to offer their two cents.


Off the top of my head, I think it would be harder for a conservative to get to that point. Conservatives, I think, tend to be very either/or in their process; so it would be harder to get them to that realization. A liberal, who tends to see things in shades of grey, would be more likely to start the journey.


However, I think liberals would have a lot more opportunities for "safe harbor" on their voyage to Atheism. I spent many years as a liberal Christian and I wonder, if I had not had my experiences with Mormons, if I might have stayed there.  


But as I think of the various folks I know who have gone to Atheism, they were often conservatives who went through a liberalizing period, and ended in Atheism. Usually Hell, or the church's treatment of homosexuals or women, or some such issue caused a period of questioning. Once they pulled on that thread, a lot more unraveled than they had anticipated.


For example, my friend Bruce was an extremely conservative Baptist pastor, but he went through a liberalizing of his politics and theology before finally abandoning his faith.  I think that is the typical route.... so I am wondering:


Does anyone jump straight from conservative theology to Atheism in one fell swoop?

18 comments:

Thomas Didymus said...

I don't think anyone makes a straight jump from conservative theology to Atheism in one fell swoop. If someone did it would likely be a total mental collapse for that individual, straight into deep depression or suicide. People need to think things through, work through contradictions, ask questions to themselves, and then have realizations that make sense. Without those it's just a crash.

Andrew said...

So then Thomas, do you think someone would have to go through a more "liberalizing" process first? I know there are conservative atheists, but I wonder how many of them were never religious.

Chad said...

I went from very conservative Mormon to Atheist and then I read Ayn Rand and it held me there for almost 20 years.

Thomas Didymus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thomas Didymus said...

I'm not so sure about the liberalizing part. There appears to me that there are people moving out of a conservative religiosity straight into a kind of Ayn Randian free market secular "theology". The transition is simply a matter of God slowly fading into the background, until he disappears altogether.

Thomas Didymus said...

I don't see them declaring themselves atheists much either, but then I figure it's not that important for them to do that. It occurred to me a while ago that this was happening when I was "discussing" something with a fellow on Facebook. I had assumed he was a Religious Right guy because of what he posted, but he corrected me when I quoted scripture to him, that he wasn't a Christian and really didn't care what scripture said, and I recall him mentioning that he was basically agnostic (which I think has become a kind of generic position for all theological related issues, for those who just no longer care about theological issues). It was like as if anything a god might say really wasn't all that important, what really mattered was what the founding fathers said (but I can't recall too much of that rather pointless online conversation was about, except this thought here).

Bob Ingle said...

Define "The Faith"... we have rejected Calvinism which to many is the faith become by definition more liberal which has strengthened our belief in and practice of the simplicity of the Gospel http://www.unheardwordz.com/2012/10/following-jesus-101.html

Andrew said...

I mean anyone with a religious faith (the interesting thing one finds when leaving faith is how much all faiths start to look alike).

I am curious who you mean by "we"?

Paul Sunstone said...

This might be a bit off-topic, but one thing I've noticed is that many of my atheist friends began as exceptionally devout Christians. I would call some of them "conservative" Christians, but not all of them. Yet all of them were devout in the sense they made great efforts to model their lives on Christian teachings, regardless of whether they interpreted those teachings in a conservative or more liberal manner. That is, they not only professed Christianity, they tried very hard to walk their talk, too.

It seems that what typically happened to them is they pushed their religiosity to the limits, then one life event or another came along that they could not reconcile with Christianity.

For instance, one of my friends was very devout into early middle age. It was then he discovered that his younger brother was gay. He could find no way to reconcile himself both to his younger brother's homosexuality and to his Christian faith. So, he began to question his faith. And once he had opened the door to questioning it, he rapidly devolved into first an agnostic, and later an atheist.

The thing that interests me most about these deconversions is that the people all began as devout Christians. I suspect -- very strongly suspect -- that had they been much less devout to begin with, they would have remained Christians. That is, the life events that prompted their deconversions would not have troubled them as much.

Does any of that make any sense, Andrew?

Andrew said...

I agree Paul. I think the less devout are much more likely to stay & I also agree that many folks I have known who left the faith took it VERY seriously.

I also agree that there is often some sort of significant destabilizing event that messes up life's playing board enough that the person is intrigued to look at that board more closely. For me, generally speaking, it was the Mormons. My wife can point to a very specific event (though she would not use the term Atheist for herself).

I take morality, philosophy, and the human condition seriously. I feel like I needed to leave Christianity to pursue those avenues more honestly.

Jon said...

Sorry to join in late Andrew but it's been so hot here for the past week or so my brain's been frying. I think you thesis has some merit although you would have to talk in terms of probabilities as everyone's jouney is a little different.

I supect that key point is that no-one changes their world view all at once. Humans are just not that rational, we're not always thinking about what be believe on every topic. Otherwise we could never do anything because our minds would be paralysed. So if we change our worldview - either moving from faith to unblief, or in the other direction - it comes about because of some seemingly small point which is important to us at the time - like your need to know how to relate to Mormons, or Paul's friend's need to recalibrate his attitude to gay people.

However these issues may not always lead to abandonment of faith. I remember reading Phillip Yancey's account of how one of his best friends, who made films for Billy Graham, came out as gay. It led to a lot of soul searching for both of them but Yancey changed his attitude to gays without abandoning his faith. Perhaps it depends a lot on what your faith is, and this can't be easily compartmentalised into conservative and liberal.

Perhaps part of it is what is happening in your subconscious. If you have filed away a large pile of doubts for later reference, perhaps a traumatic event will bring them tumbling out and you have to deal with them all at once.

Andrew said...

Jon, I like your point about a bunch of things, unaddressed, that come pouring out at once due to a traumatic event... I think that probably happens a lot.

Kristen said...

I went straight from zealous and conservative Mormon to a liberal atheist, but it was as an early teen. My nature is to be liberal, and the conservatism was resting on the same mental platform as the mormonism. Once I knocked that out of the way, the rest fell into place. I think it would be a lot harder for an adult who had more invested in conservative moral beliefs because to acknowledge atheism requires accepting that morality is subjective.

John said...

I had to make the step from conservative to liberal theology before stepping away completely. The liberalizing process was just learning more about the Bible and it's origins. The more I learned I discovered that I simply no longer believed in the inerrancy and infallibility of scripture any longer.

Alice said...

Interesting comments. I agree that we usually do these things in stages, and that life shaking events are often the beginning of the end of faith.

Steve H. said...

I think for many American Atheists there is a traumatic unraveling of the weird concoction of culture and faith that is American Christianity. Many, like myself, have seen it for what it is and attempt to separate what is really the Kingdom Jesus was declaring from America the Beautiful.

Others just discard it all together. What I find interesting about Atheists like yourself who come out of conservative American Christianity is how much more time you spend now analyzing and writing about Christianity. I know many European atheists and they just don't give much thought about God. The haven't had the traumatic "break" so they genuinely don't care.

Andrew said...

That is true, the atheists I know who were raised without faith do not think about it nearly as much as I do. But I suspect they think about it a lot more than European Atheists because America has a higher tension than Europe when it comes to separating rule of law from religious inclinations.

Don said...

My journey to this present day has occupied over ten years of my life. I was a conservative Southern Baptist for almost sixty years. The event which "rocked my world world" was my youngest son' revelation that he was gay. ( He was 18 years old). The revelation led to questions without satisfactory answers. I have done more research in the last ten years than the previous fifty-seven. My journey has led me out of conservative evangelicalism, but not away from my spiritual side. I no longer search for god for my definition, such as it is, is not a definition of god at all. I don't feel capable of defining the undefinable, of defining the ineffable. I am in awe everyday of all that is the cosmos.

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