Thursday, March 17, 2011

Friendly Evangelism: Why Unbelievers Talk About God

I know, I know - I said I'd be talking about good ways of presenting Christianity this time. The idea was to close this series of thoughts with that topic - ending on a high note, as it were - and that's still the plan. However, Grace has asked a couple of new-but-related questions which take us into some interesting territory that I'd like to cover first.

...It does feel to me that most people who share on the deconversion blogs have been deeply hurt, and disillusioned by their experience in the church, and they've found this identity and support together in "unbelief." Even if Christianity seemed true to them, they don't really want to be identified with "Christians" or with the church. Life actually seems better to them as unbelievers.

And, yet at the same time, spiritual concerns are very much on their hearts, else they would not bother really discussing these issues in depth at all. In truth, Michael, on Bruce's blog alone, he raises deeper issues for discussion than many people are thinking about God who attend the Episcopal church every Sunday..:)

Do you think I'm right in my sense of this?

There are two related questions here, and I'm going to try to tackle both of them. The first one is, more or less, "Why do unbelievers spend so much time discussing religion?" The second one is, "Why do people deconvert?" or perhaps, "How does deconversion happen?" I'm taking them in this order because I think the second topic is part (but only part) of the answer to the first.

So, why do former believers spend so much time discussing religion? There isn't a really clear-cut answer for this, because everyone has their own reasons. (And, of course, there are plenty of unbelievers who don't spend any significant time discussing religion - but if you run into them, you're unlikely to realize that they're unbelievers.) Having said that, I think most of the answers fall into one of three categories:

1. It's interesting. Let's start by dispensing with a common misconception: the idea that this continued discussion indicates that unbelievers still feel a need for religion, spirituality, or anything of the sort. This is often characterized as unbelievers having a "Jesus-shaped hole" in their hearts (a rather disturbing phrase if your imagination tends to be intensely visual). To be fair, there probably is somebody out there, somewhere, who fits that description... but I've never met them.

The folks who leave Christianity but still feel a need for religious belief do not tend to refer themselves as ex-Christians, former believers, atheists, or the like. Instead they say things like, "I'm spiritual but not religious," or "I love Jesus, but I don't like organized religion." Or, they drift into other denominations, or into other religions entirely.

The thing is, you don't have to believe something actually exists in order to enjoy talking about it. Dungeons and Dragons afficionados have been known to discuss such esoterica as whether a Wild Mage could cast Enlarge on a Bag of Holding, and make it big enough to capture the giant monster known as the Tarrasque. Similarly, there are elaborate and well-reasoned arguments about how the Empire (Star Wars) would fare against the Federation (Star Trek). I'm sure there's some equivalent in Fantasy Football, too. And I suspect, though I have no solid evidence, that the sort of people who enjoy playing with ideas to see where they lead are also the sort of people who tend to wind up all the way outside Christianity when they start questioning their beliefs.

Whether you believe in it or not, Christianity provides a wealth of topics for this sort of intellectual exercise. So one reason why unbelievers continue to discuss religion is the simple enjoyment of exploring an interesting idea. (In this light, you can characterize the Jesuits as the Medieval equivalent of gaming nerds, a comparison which amuses me more than it probably should.)

2. It's training in philosophical self-defense. Christianity is pretty ubiquitous, especially here in the United States, and Christian evangelism ranges from polite inquiry to some behaviors that I'd consider, frankly, bullying. If you're a non-Christian, sooner or later you're going to run into someone who's just sure that they can argue you into belief. That's a lot easier to deal with if you have some idea of what sort of arguments to expect, what the common objections are, and where you stand. "You're never at a loss for words if you know your own mind," to quote Roger Zelazny.

3. It has to do with the process of leaving behind deep-seated belief structures - breaking up is hard to do. This is where we come to our second topic: why do people deconvert, and/or how does it happen? On the one hand, that's a tremendously complicated question, because it's different for everybody. On the other hand, despite the variety of paths that people take through the process (and it is a process), the reason why people leave Christianity can be stated very simply: Christianity quit being a usable worldview for us.

The nature of that process goes a long way towards explaining why so many former Christians continue to discuss Christianity.

...And, wow, I'm going to have to expand on that point in another post. Sorry for the rather discombobulated progress through this topic. Also, I'd like to invite people (once again) to add their own thoughts in the comments; I'm sure there are things that I'm overlooking or neglecting or misstating.

Next: The Process of Deconversion | Previous: Whom Are You Talking To?


  1. I don't really think you're overlooking anything. Just to add my personal take on something Grace alluded to, though.

    "It does feel to me that most people who share on the deconversion blogs have been deeply hurt, and disillusioned by their experience in the church"

    That isn't an incorrect assessment. I would agree with Grace wholeheartedly on that. Many people have been hurt, though not all. What is overlooked, in my opinion, is that being hurt is just the start. That may be the catalyst to an individual beginning to question their faith, but it isn't the reason that they likely de-converted. They see that something is wrong with the system they've placed their trust in, and it forms a crack. The daylight starts to shine through and they begin chipping at that crack to get more light to shine through. Typically they are looking for the truth, not a way out. But once they start chipping at the crack it gets bigger and bigger until the whole wall is down.

    I'd say that's true with any major life change a person has. They begin to realize something is wrong with the way they've been "doing" their life, so they start to search for the right way. Does that make any sense?

  2. ...And now I'm just going to quote you for about the first half of what I was going to say next.

  3. GraceBecky is right about the emotional component. However,it is incorrect to suggest as some have, that emotions is the ONLY component. For me, at the end of the day I simply to not have the requisite faith to believe the Bible is truth.I have some doubts that Jesus even existed at all.

  4. Sorry for the typo's. Hate using iPad to leave comments. No scroll function.

    I hope the last commenter is talking to you?

  5. The last commenter is our Canadian friend, and per blog policy he has just been deleted. And no, he's not "talking" to anybody in any normal sense of the word.

  6. Yes, D'Ma,

    It makes sense. Thanks Michael, and Bruce.


  7. I was on vacation when this series was written. I'm catching up now and I see I missed some good discussions.

    I agree with D'Ma being hurt is why I began questioning and it did put a crack in my faith. Basically as D'Ma said light began to shine through and the wall fell and my faith was gone.


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