Why people stop believing

Dr. Paul Chamberlain will host two ‘Fireside Apologetics’ events in the next couple of weeks which will address the topic ‘Why Do People Stop Believing and What Can We Do About It?’

The first will be at Trinity Western University (March 21) and the second at TWU Richmond (March 28).

In the following article, based on his most recent book, Why People Stop Believing, he discusses some of the issues involved.

There is a new and zealous group of people challenging Christianity today and their identities may surprise us. They were once Christians, and they include seminary graduates, former pastors, theologians and some who were preparing for Christian ministry.

I experienced this first-hand some time ago when I participated in a debate at an atheist convention.1 Hundreds of atheists were there from around the world and as the evening progressed it became clear that many were not merely atheists; they were former Christians who had been “set free” from the “shackles of religion.2 Their new-found freedom was, in fact, a cause of celebration.

These critics know their Bibles and theology better than most Christians. Furthermore, they are often granted special credibility in our culture because, unlike most other critics, they were once part of the group they are now critiquing.

Some are now giving leadership to various atheist and skeptic organizations and are unabashedly calling upon Christians to join them. Judging by the testimonials on their websites, more than a few are following them out. Others occupy academic posts from which they articulate the reasons, sometimes in best-selling books, which they say compelled them to reject Christianity.

Why do people leave the faith and how should we engage them?

Their reasons for leaving are as varied as the people. Allow me to mention just four which are cited commonly.

  • Christianity’s perceived restriction on the freedom to reason

Many who leave have concluded that Christianity, by its very nature, prevents honest rational thinking and enquiry. While Christians may claim to value evidence, their views on every issue must conform to the Bible. They are handed the truth in advance, and anything which disagrees must be set aside or reinterpreted. If you want to think for yourself and no longer be told what to believe, the only solution is to throw off the shackles of religion.3

This theme resonates and is often the cause of great celebration. One need only look at the names given to the organizations such people either start or join once they leave the faith: Free Thought Society,4 Project Reason,5 and The Center for Inquiry6 to name a few.

How can we engage this concern?

First, we should point out that this charge against Christianity is hard to square with the fact that many of the world’s greatest intellectuals and thinkers have been, and continue to be, Christians.

The list is long and includes names like Francis Collins, world renowned scientist and head of the human genome project, Alvin Plantinga, widely respected philosopher and former head of the American Philosophical Association, John Lennox, professor of mathematics at Oxford University, and Alex Rex Sandage one of the world’s greatest living astronomers until his death in 2010. He got his start as a graduate assistant of the famous astronomer, Edwin Hubble.

Somehow people like this have found ways of carrying out serious rational thinking while embracing Christianity.

Having said that, we need to listen to the experiences of those who have left and recognize the possibility that their particular Christian tradition, or church, may indeed have discouraged questioning. Perhaps it inappropriately elevated one or two viewpoints on secondary teachings to the level of essential Christian teaching and, thus, permitted no questioning of these viewpoints. We can then acknowledge this and clarify what counts as essential to Christian belief.

Christian culture at its best is a culture of questioning and thinking. The Berean Christians were commended for doing this and the result was that many came to faith (Acts 17:11-12). Furthermore, Christianity does not call us to ignore evidence or reason. It stakes its entire message on a historical moment, namely Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and then invites the world to investigate it. If it did not happen, even St. Paul writes that the whole thing is a false hope (I Corinthians 15:17-19).

Third, let’s acknowledge that Christianity is a worldview and, as such, does exclude certain ideas. This, however, is true of all worldviews, including atheistic-naturalism, the newly adopted position of many who have turned from Christianity. By moving to atheism, people do not walk away from all restrictions on their thinking; they merely replace one set with another.

Ironically, as G. K. Chesterton pointed out in 1908, on certain important issues, atheism actually turns out to be more restrictive than Christianity. He mused about why the naturalist (his term was materialist) denied all miracle reports. He did so, said Chesterton, not because his viewpoint allowed him to deny them, but because “his very strict materialism did not permit him to believe them.”7

Regardless of the evidence, an atheist-naturalist has no choice but to disbelieve all reports of miracles so long as he remains an atheist.

Fourth, to reject Christianity, or any other set of ideas, because one finds their teachings restrictive, or unappealing, is to play a dangerous game since it entirely ignores the question of truth. If Christianity’s claims turn out to be true, then it will not matter that one finds them restrictive or unattractive any more than if I find it restrictive to be told I must follow the instructions on the medicine bottle or the meds may cause harm.

Moreover, there appears to be a double standard in abandoning beliefs because one finds them restrictive while at the same time claiming to be pursuing truth. Being appealing or unrestrictive are not tests of truth.

  • Personal disappointment with God and the Christian community

Imagine you have experienced a personal failure and decide to come clean. You go to your Christian friends to explain your situation hoping for mercy and grace but instead find judgment. They doubt your word and treat you like damaged goods. It is not difficult to imagine the deep wound this could leave, or how you might start doubting God’s good nature, or even His existence? This is a real scenario for some who have left the Christian community.

We, as Christians, simply do not have the best record here, either with our own brothers and sisters or with others. One of my students who interacts deeply with Mormon missionaries commented recently that many of them report experiencing such unfriendliness, even hostility, from evangelical Christians day after day that by the end of their two-year stint, most have come to view evangelicals as a hostile group. Mormon missionaries with whom I have spoken tell the same story. As my student put it, if Christians would simply love them, it would make it easier for people like him to have productive conversations later.

We have an opportunity here to reach out and show love and grace to others and especially to those who have chosen to leave the faith. Jesus’ instruction is to put the shoe on the other foot and imagine what we would want done to us if we were in their shoes, and then do it (Matthew 22:39).

  • Intellectual difficulties with Christianity

A number of vocal critics who have moved from Christianity to atheism cite intellectual difficulties with Christianity. The list of objections is long and includes questions concerning the reliability of the New Testament, biblical morality, the character of God and scientific objections, to name a few. In their minds, atheism has become a more intellectually tenable position.

It is prudent to ask right off whether the person has examined the best, most thoughtful, responses from Christian writers to their specific troubling issues. Perhaps they have but if not, they are in the tenuous position of having concluded that no good answers exist, while at the same time admitting they have not read the best responses available.

Have they read authors like Paul Copan,8 Michael Licona9, Gary Habermas,10 Craig Blomberg11, Christopher Wright12, Alister McGrath13, Alvin Plantinga14, William Lane Craig15, John Frame16 and others who have written helpful resources which target the very issues that have caused some to leave?

We should also point out just how difficult atheism is to defend. Bertrand Russell, one of history’s most respected atheists, made it clear that both atheists and theists claim to know something significant about the universe. Neither is it a default position.17

While neither position can be proven with logical certainty, atheism has an often over-looked difficulty since it involves a universal negative. It claims there is no God anywhere in or out of the universe, well beyond the things science observes. That’s a claim that is beyond the ability of any human to know.

At the very least, it is hard to see how this position is more tenable than theism which provides answers to some of life’s deepest questions: why do beings with consciousness, morality, and rationality exist? How did the universe become so finely tuned as most scientists of all stripes believe it is?18 Or more foundationally, why does anything at all exist in the first place?

  • Naturalism

Many who have left the faith have come to believe that an informed 21st century outlook requires a naturalist stance which rules out the possibility of miracles.19 Given how widespread naturalism is in western culture, this is not surprising but how can we engage such a person?

I suggest we simply ask how a naturalist can be sure that naturalism is true. Of course, if it is true, then Christianity collapses since it would undermine much of the New Testament record of Jesus’ life and teaching including the claim that he rose from the dead.

It turns out, however, that naturalism has a grave intrinsic weakness which British theologian and philosopher, Richard Swinburne, explains this way:

. . . it is at least logically possible that the way things behave depends on God (or some other supernatural agent) and he can alter this on an isolated occasion, while conserving the normal way things behave on other occasions. . . . That allows the logical possibility of a ‘transgression,’ or, as I shall call it, a violation of a ‘law of nature’ . . . ‘by a particular volition of the Deity. . .”

Swinburne’s insight here is that so long as God is even logically possible, miracles are also possible. This means that miracles can be ruled out only if one has an airtight argument for atheism and even many atheists admit that such an argument is hard to come by.

  • Guarding our attitudes

Let’s pray for those who find it in their hearts to walk away. We may be given opportunities to befriend or even engage them.

1 This formal debate took place at the annual convention of the Atheist Alliance International in Kamloops, British Columbia, on May 18, 2012.
2 This is part of Matt Dilahunty’s personal testimonial at http://www.atheist-experience.com/people/matt_dillahunty.
3 This was told to me in a personal conversation with Matt Dilahunty on May 18, 2012. New Atheist, Sam Harris, also develops this argument in The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005), p. 76.
4 https://www.ftsociety.org/ (Accessed April 23, 2018).
5 http://project-reason.org/index.html (Accessed April 23, 2018).
6 https://www.centerforinquiry.net/ (Accessed April 23, 2018).
7 Gilbert K. Chesterton, Heretics/Orthodoxy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000,) 279-80.
8 Matthew Flannagan and Paul Copan, Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2015.
9 Michael Licona, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We can Learn from Ancient Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
10 David Baggett, ed., Did The Resurrection Happen: A Conversation With Gary Habermas and Antony Flew (Downers Grove, Intervarsity press, 2009).
11 Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2016).
12 Christopher J. H. Wright, How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament For All It’s Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017).
13 Alister McGrath, Dawkins God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Lif. (Somerset: Wiley, 2013).
14 Alvin Plantinga, Knowledge and Christian Belief (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015).
15 William Lane Craig, God Over All: Divine Aseity and the Challenge of Platonism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.)
16 John M. Frame, Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief (Phillipsberg: P&R Publishing, 2015).
17 Robert E. Egner & Lester E. Denonn, eds., The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell (New York: Routledge, 2009), 557-58.
18 Leonard Susskind, Felix Bloch Professor of Physics, Stanford University, one of the pioneers of String theory, author of The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design, and an outspoken atheist, provides an exceptionally clear explanation of fine tuning at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2cT4zZIHR3s
19 The Clergy Project’s stated mission is to help and support Christians who no longer believe in the supernatural. http://clergyproject.org/our-mission-nonbelieving-religious-leaders/ For a more detailed argument against supernatural beliefs, see John Loftus, Why I Became an Atheist: a former preacher rejects Christianity (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2008), 125-126. A scholar who accepts only the miracle stories of Jesus for which he can come up with plausible naturalistic explanations is Maurice Casey, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myth? (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 6.

Paul Chamberlain

Paul Chamberlain, PhD, is a professor of Ethics, Philosophy of Religion, Leadership and Apologetics, and Director of the Institute of Christian Apologetics at Trinity Western University.

He is the author of Why People Stop Believing (Wipf and Stock, 2018) and four other books including Why People Don’t Believe: Confronting Seven Challenges to the Christian Faith (Baker Books, 2011).

This article is re-posted by permission.

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2 comments for “Why people stop believing

  1. Myself being one of the formerly devout Christians whom Dr. Chamberlain addresses, I would like to say that, while I agree that the reasons he cites for why people choose to leave the faith are, on the surface, accurate, I do not believe Chamberlain is fairly characterizing the objections that atheists tend to have.

    Certainly there are aspects of some Christian communities that drive people away by how they react to sincere questioning and disagreements with church doctrine; Chamberlain does well to emphasize the need for encouraging questioning and showing love to those we disagree with.

    However, more importantly than the way Christians might treat them, those who are leaving the faith are doing so because of the failings of Christianity itself as a relevant worldview. The apologetics that Christians rely upon to defend their faith have serious flaws which have not been adequately addressed. The answers that people are finding outside the faith are increasingly more convincing to those in the modern era who have access to a wider array of perspectives and information than ever before. The role of critical thinking in education has never been more important as young people are forming their worldviews with less reliance upon established authorities of knowledge, seeking out alternative perspectives and synthesizing their own understandings rather than taking those authorities at face value.

    Competing alternatives to a Christian sin-based ethical framework, such as those found in secular humanism, are undermining not just the legitimacy of scriptural ethics, but the narrative of salvation and the moral character of the Christian God himself. Once people can reason their own way to an understanding of ethics that does not require God as a moral authority, they can realize that they can be good without a god and that the moral standards required of them by the Christian God are not only ambiguous, but arbitrarily divorced from notions of harm and human well-being while needlessly punitive in their consequences.

    People are no longer willing to simply obey moral dictates from supposed authorities. And they’re no longer willing to restrict the freedoms of others without very good reasons. They want a solid understanding of the foundations of ethics, which they can derive from human empathy towards our shared physical and social needs, without the supposed revelation of a divine lawgiver.

    Ethical understandings of justice, human rights, property, sexuality, gender roles, consent and theories of systemic oppression and wealth inequality have progressed much since the time the Bible was written and Christianity has been too rigid to adapt. Scripture can only be re-interpreted so much before it loses credibility as a reliable source of moral teachings.

    If we cannot admit that scriptural ethics are a product of a particular culture and time period, it is extremely difficult to progress in our understanding of how to use ethics to further the goal of creating just human societies and to leave behind past understandings that are counterproductive to that goal.

    Furthermore, and perhaps more fundamentally, Christianity rests upon a very precarious epistemology which does not equip its believers to understand how knowledge and evidence work. Christianity is not only perceived to restrict honest inquiry, it is designed to do so. At its core, despite the ad-hoc rationalizations that Christian apologists offer, is a poor understanding of how to think critically about truth claims, how to exercise appropriate skepticism and apply standards of evidence to establish a burden of proof.

    Rational thinking isn’t about being particularly intelligent or well-read. There are plenty of intelligent Christians which Chamberlain cites. The issue is that we need to take steps to remove our biases as much as possible when we reason. Cognitive biases restrict our ability to freely interpret evidence. When our intuitions and assumptions are withheld from the realm of criticism, we can no longer honestly struggle with the possibility that we might be wrong, even about the most fundamental of our beliefs.

    This is why skeptics view religions like Christianity as restrictive in a way that atheism and naturalism are not. They presuppose that they have a special insight into knowledge that circumvents the need to be skeptical about the very extraordinary claims they have accepted. And once these beliefs are invested into, it is very difficult to shake people from them, to get them to apply skepticism to those beliefs in the same way as they do for other truth claims that are not held sacred. These biases are not to be dismissed lightly, for they can cause us to use our intellects to rationalize away any problems that may arise when our beliefs do not appear to conform to reality.

    More people are applying this kind of skepticism to their beliefs and are realizing that they don’t have good reasons to accept the kinds of claims that Christianity makes, claims which require a very heavy burden of proof that has not been met. Naturalism is more appealing when we realize that we face serious limitations on the knowledge we have access to and we must therefore rely on robust, empirical methods to investigate the world around us.

    Science is a collection of such methods, which operates within a naturalistic framework when attempting to explain observable phenomena, not because supernatural causation is not possible, but because we do not seem to be able to test and falsify these kinds of explanations, and therefore cannot investigate whether they are possible explanations, let alone likely ones. When we encounter phenomena which we don’t have sufficient explanations for yet, until we can investigate and determine which of the possible candidate explanations might be inferred as the best explanation based on the available evidence, the only justifiable conclusion is that we don’t know.

    Naturalism is more defensible because it is a kind of default position, whereas supernaturalism is not. Naturalists admit their epistemic limitations, that the natural world is all they are able to investigate and construct their knowledge from. Supernaturalists are jumping to conclusions when the evidence is indeterminate, claiming explanations that suit their preconceptions, which is epistemically irresponsible. We simply do not have any means more reliable than empirical science when we are attempting to explain our reality. It is unfortunate that a god, were it to exist, has made itself undetectable to us, and appears to expect us to believe in it without adequate evidence, for it would certainly not violate our free will to grant us this much.

    So it is inaccurate to say that naturalism categorically rejects the supernatural, as it is to say that atheism categorically denies the existence of a god. Atheists are not convinced that the burden of proof has been met for the existence of a superlative being that we cannot detect through the best means available. We cannot investigate its truth besides taking the word of an ancient document which, despite our efforts to corroborate it, bears more resemblance to cultural myth than accurate history. Nor can we trust that our intuitions about reality are immune to error, as science has already shown.

    Faith supersedes critical thinking because it is based on intuition, not observation. Faith can be entirely discarded in our search for truth and the result will be an understanding that is closer to reality and one that is capable of adapting when the evidence points away from even our most cherished beliefs, despite how invested we may be in their being true.

    Christianity treats belief as an ethical choice when in fact reasonable people are convinced by the evidence and have little choice but to believe what they are convinced is most likely to be true. When we think for ourselves it means that despite what an authority of knowledge tells us, we allow ourselves to criticize that authority and come to our own conclusions.

    Skepticism is a tool for defending our beliefs from our biases. When we do not have sufficient evidence to believe something, the most reasonable answer is to admit that we don’t know, and that further evidence is needed to come to a conclusion, not to claim knowledge when it is not justified, and not to believe authorities of knowledge when they are likewise not justified. We can never be absolutely certain of anything. The best we can do is approximate our reality and protect against our biases by seeking out as much independent confirmation as possible.

    Many atheists are well aware of the best responses from Christian writers and are very knowledgeable about biblical teachings, especially those like myself who studied these ideas when they used to be Christians, as well as during the process of deconversion. It may be hard to understand why those so acquainted with the scriptures and the gospel message turn their backs on this supposed revelation. But it is, in part, because these former Christians have taken their Bibles so seriously that they eventually leave the faith.

    Christianity, on its surface, provides an emotionally compelling narrative about life’s deepest questions. But when we apply skepticism towards that narrative and ask ourselves how we might discover if it were wrong, the holes become apparent and it no longer forms the neat, cohesive narrative that Christians are taught to believe in. Cognitive dissonance eventually reaches a breaking point and these former believers can no longer accept the Christian narrative on faith when competing perspectives on ethics and epistemology are not only more intellectually defensible, but more true to our lived experiences in an amoral world of suffering and death that does not care about our ideals and values.

    In such a world, it is up to us to defy the seemingly absurd, to find meaning for ourselves in this one life, to remedy the injustice that exists, and to cooperate with each other to create, here on earth, the heaven that we long for. We need not despair when we let go of our god belief. We can embrace reality with much of the hope and love and joy and goodness that we desired as Christians left intact because we find those qualities in each other when we build authentic communities.

    We aren’t alone in this world, even when we are no longer convinced that there is a god watching over us. And we don’t have to sacrifice our values on the altar on nihilism. We just have to come to terms with a new narrative that we create together everyday, in which life is precious because it is fragile, and in which we exercise forgiveness ourselves for the mistakes we make and the harms we cause each other, without the threat of divine punishment.

    Many people find this approach to life much more preferable to living in deference to a divine authority which has not justified itself – neither its existence, nor its moral character – bearing the hallmarks of an authority created in the image of the best and worst of humanity, motivated both by fear and by love, but far from perfect, and certainly not worthy of our worship.

  2. I have walked away from formal religion, but not from God. God is the problem that will not be ignored. Once known to us He cannot walk away, but must make an issue of His ownership of us. My relationship with God has not always been a happy one. But then, the idea of walking away is unthinkable. It is not at all inappropriate for me to remember that I belong to Him, and not to myself alone.

    What happens to people who turn their back on Christianity is, that a kind of narcissism fills the void. We were created in God’s image and not in an image of ourselves. Formal religion has become its own worst enemy, because of politicization and a “forced orthodoxy.”

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