Scot McKnight and Conversion Theory: Why Apostates Leave the Church

Evangelical New Testament scholar Dr. Scot McKnight has written a very interesting book on conversion theory, called Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy (with Hauna Ondrey, one of his “finest students”). Here is my review of it:

In this book the authors have written four detailed chapter length studies of people who have converted: 1) away from the church to agnosticism/atheism; 2) away from the synagogue to the church, 3) away from the Catholic church to evangelicalism; and 4) away from evangelicalism to Catholicism.

McKnight argues that all conversions go through the same process, and even if none of them are identical, they fall into similar patterns. (p.1). His goal is to describe the conversion process with hopes that the patterns that emerge can be used to explain them, with the further goal that scholars and pastors “will work out the implications of conversion theory in the pastoral context.” (pp. 231-236). He writes: "If mapping conversion theory shows anything…it shows the need for grace, humility, and openness to one another as we listen to and learn from one another’s stories. The sincerity of each convert’s (often opposite) experience underscores the need to learn from one’s another’s experience rather than denounce the other’s experience.” (p. 236)

While most of us here at DC describe our leaving the faith as a “deconversion,” (which is the usual nomenclature) McKnight argues instead that leaving the Christian faith follows the same pattern of conversion itself. Deconversion stories are about "leaving from," instead of "coming to," but a deconversion follows the same process as a conversion. He writes: “All conversions are apostasies and all apostasies are therefore conversions."

McKnight quotes approvingly of John Barbour in his book, Versions of Deconversion, that there are four lenses with which people see their own conversion stories:
"they doubt or deny the truth of the previous system of beliefs; they criticize the morality of the former life; they express emotional upheaval upon leaving a former faith; and they speak of being rejected by their former community.” (pp. 1-2)
Since he deals with several of the Bloggers here at DC (with some notable exceptions in Dr. Hector Avalos, Joe Holman, and Valerie Tarico) let me focus on this particular chapter of his as an example of what he does in the rest of the book (pp. 7-61).

In his first chapter he provides an “anatomy of apostasy,” and he includes most of the recognized apostates and debunkers, including me (who’s story he highlights), Ed Babinski, Ken Daniels, Harry McCall, Charles Templeton, Robert M. Price, Dan Barker, Farrell Till, and many others.

McKnight observes there is almost always some sort of crisis for the person. “Each, for a variety of reasons, encountered issues and ideas and experiences that simply shook the faith beyond stability.” “Guilt,” for instance, “drove Christine Wicker, a journalist, who covers the religious scene in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from the faith (seen in her well-written memoir, God Knows My Heart). For us apostates there was also a crisis of “unnerving intellectual incoherence to the Christian faith," and he quotes me as saying: “I am now an atheist. One major reason why I have become an atheist is because I could not answer the questions I was encountering.”

There are five major elements that are combined to cause the adherent to question the viability of his or her faith, McKnight claims.

One) Scripture became part of the problem for us. McKnight writes of Kenneth Daniels that “while on the mission field, he became convinced the Bible could not be inerrant or infallible, walked away from the mission field and became an agnostic.” Of Farrell Till, he “became a skeptic and at the heart of his departure from orthodoxy was a critical approach to Scripture.” Of Ed Babinski, whom he said is “an indefatigable recorder of those who have left fundamentalism,” his problem “was the Bible’s record of Jesus’ predictions and Paul’s own expectations that he think did not come true that undid the truthfulness of the Bible. He pursued every angle he thought necessary to support his faith but his doubts could not be satisfied. ‘I became,’ he confesses, ‘disenchanted with Christianity in toto, and became an agnostic with theistic leanings.’”

McKnight, who is a conservative himself, seems to lay blame for our rejection of the Bible because we held to “a rigid view of Scripture.” When we “encounter the empirical evidence of the sciences, particularly concerning evolution and the origins as well as development of life as we now know it, a rigid view of Scripture collapses….For some the whole ship sinks.”

Two) The empirical realities of science also demolish our faith, he notes. Ed Babinski was “completely devoted to a six-day creation theory” but eventually “became disillusioned with Christianity and the Bible because of the lack of evidence for what was considered so central to the faith – the scientific accuracy of a simplistic theory of creation.” McKnight opines that “a simplistic theory of origins, along with special pleading theories that are designed to explain away that evidence, when combined then with knowledge of the ancient Near East parallels to both the creation accounts and the story of Noah’s flood not infrequently are the collision point for many who leave the orthodox Christian faith.”

Three) The behavior of Christians is another factor in our apostacy. McKnight: “For many, the failure of Christians to be transformed by the claimed grace of God and the indwelling power of the Spirit obliterates the truthfulness of the Christian claim.” Robert Price gained an insight while attending a lecture by Harvey Cox, McKnight pens. Price is quoted as saying: “As I looked at the secular students gathered there, I suddenly thought, ‘Listen, is there really that much difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’?’ I had always accepted the qualitative difference between the ‘saved’ and the ‘unsaved.’ Until that moment … Then, in a flash, we were all just people.”

Four) The traditional Christian doctrine of hell is another factor. McKnight points out that “belief in hell has led some to contend the Christian faith is inherently unjust and morally repugnant,” such that his judgment leads him to think the Christian doctrine of hell is “far more fundamental to those who leave the faith than is normally recognized.” Then he quotes me as saying: “The whole notion of a punishment after we die is sick and barbaric. The whole concept of hell developed among superstitious and barbaric peoples, and tells us nothing about life after death.”

Five) Apostates also reject the God we actually find in the Bible, who is vindictive, hateful, racist, and barbaric--my words.

There are other reasons, McKnight admits. There is the problem of religious diversity in which it’s hard to dispute that “one’s faith is more shaped by one’s social location than by one’s personal choice.” Then there is the problem of evil which causes many to leave the faith. Of course, I’m surprised that these last two reasons are not highlighted as reasons in their own right, especially since I highlight them in my book. But at least he mentioned them.

Another suggested reason for our defection from the Christian faith comes out of nowhere, with no evidence for it at all, and guided more by McKnight’s theological persuasions than anything else. His next suggestion is not helpful to a scientific investigation of conversion theory, which I take it, is one of his aims—to merely describe the conversion process. His next suggestion is based, not on anything he’s read, but on his “own intuition,” and even admits he “did not find anyone speak in this way.” He furthermore does not find this a factor in any other conversion stories in his other three chapters, which shows his theological biases. He suggests that “the demand put on one’s life by Jesus, by the orthodox faith and by a local church’s expectations can provoke a crisis on the part of the person who wants to go her or his own way. I am suggesting that behind some of the stories is a desire to live as one wants, to break certain moral codes that are experienced as confining, and that were either forgotten when telling the story or were an unacknowledged dimension of the experience.” Indeed, “one might summarize the entire process of leaving the faith as the quest for personal autonomy, freedom and intellectual stability. These factors seem present at some level in nearly all the stories I have studied.”

Christian professor Ruth A. Tucker who wrote the book Walking Away From Faith: Unraveling the Mystery of Belief disagrees with this. In a talk to a Grand Rapids, MI, Freethought group (which I have also spoken for) Professor Tucker listed five myths about people who have abandoned their faith (note # 4):
1) "They are angry and rebellious." She found virtually no evidence for this. Rather, people felt sorrow, initially. They experienced pain, not anger. 2) "They can be argued back into faith." Because the person leaving his/her faith has carefully and painstakingly dissected the reasons behind this major worldview change, the Christian who proffers apologetics is more likely to convert into non-belief in such an exchange. 3) "Doubters can find help at Christian colleges and seminaries." This is not seen to be the case. 4) "They abandon their faith so that they can go out and sin freely." Tucker pointed out that too many people who profess faith sin more often than non-believers and that this argument was not a motivational issue in de-converting from faith. 5) "They were never sincere Christians to begin with." She has come across example after example of the most earnest and devout of evangelical, fundamentalist believers who became non-theists. Dan Barker was mentioned as just one of these erstwhile believers.
McKnight goes on to discuss the “advocates,” meaning those who go on to debunk the faith they left. He finds in us an “animus” in the “constant diatribes” of ours, from Charles Templeton’s “white-hot prose” to my whole book, to Harry McCall resorting “to caricature,” or even to Dan Barker, whom he claims has much “less rancor but still finding a need to tell that story in Losing Faith in Faith.” “The ‘anti-rhetoric,’ or the rhetoric that is so negatively against what they formerly believed, is both a characteristic of all kinds of conversion but especially those whose ‘conversion’ is leaving orthodox Christianity. Not all, however, are as white-hot in their antipathy to orthodoxy.” Of course, if he actually read my book, or my posts on DC, he should know I have no rancor towards Christians and that I treat my opponents respectfully. I suspect he feels the sting of our arguments rather than those other conversions he details in the other three chapters because he is simply a Christian believer, and we argue against his faith.

McKnight does acknowledge people should not minimize the anguish we apostates have when going through our crisis of faith. It is not an easy process. It is agonizing. Quoting Dan Barker he writes: “It was like tearing my whole frame of reality to pieces, ripping to shreds the fabric of meaning and hope, betraying the values of existence. And it hurt bad. It was like spitting on my mother, or like throwing one of my children out a window. It was sacrilege. All of my bases for thinking and values had to be restructured. Add to that inner conflict the outer conflict of reputation and you have a destabilizing war.”

McKnight also sees an interrelationship between us. Ed Babinski’s “fine collection of stories of those who have left the faith demonstrates an interlocking relationship at times – Babinski himself was influenced by William Bagley and by Robert Price while others were influenced by Dan Barker. There is presently, then, a connection for those who are reconsidering their faith, a connection that is filled with folks who have already traveled that path, know its rocks and its cliffs and who can guide the pilgrim away from faith.”

The internet is also an important facilitator in our apostasy, McKnight understands. While doubts are not to be expressed publicly in the churches, the internet is another matter entirely…”many find their way to the multitude of sites, like Positive Atheism or Debunking Christianity, where one can hear arguments against the orthodox faith and apologies for alternative systems of thought and meaning."

In the end, those of us who walk away from our faith find a sense of relief and independence when we finally decide to leave it all behind us. McKnight tells us that at some point we just had to decide, and sometimes it meant giving up our positions in life to gain the needed relief. He writes: “Harry McCall, a biblical scholar who voluntarily chose to leave Bob Jones University…chose to abandon his faith because ‘Jesus is so obviously a product of human imagination coupled with arbitrary faith that I chose to simply acknowledge the obvious rather than remain religious.”’ Robert M Price is an example of someone who found his relief akin to being “born again”: “I had to swallow hard after twelve years as an evangelical, but almost immediately life began to open up in an exciting way. I felt like a college freshman, thinking through important questions for the first time. The anxiety of doubt had passed into the adventure of discovery. It was like being born again.”

McKnight finally recommends Lewis Rambo’s book Understanding Religious Conversion as “required reading for every minister and theologian.”

This is a good, well researched book. I liked it very much. In one way it shows that those of us who have converted away from Christianity are not alone when we factor in the many other people who are also being converted to different theological positions. People change their minds, that’s all, and many of us do it.