Surprising Signs of Life

For the last year, I’ve been swimming in a sea of doubt. Not my own doubt—I’ve been immersed in the doubt of others.

I suppose the experience became unavoidable the moment I set out to write a book about the disturbing numbers of young adults exiting the Christian faith. Of course understanding the trend meant reading up on the relevant scholarship. Yet the literature on deconversion—which is shockingly sparse—only takes you so far. Its surreal, detached tone is an odd fit for such an intimate issue. Scholars describe young people leaving the faith as if observing caribou migrate across the Alaskan tundra.

On the ground the phenomenon of deconversion is heartbreakingly human—a torrent of emotional pain, broken relationships, and identity crises. I knew I had to talk with real “leavers.” But after dozens of interviews, it seemed almost more than I could handle. It wasn’t a test of my faith, but it did tax my resolve. The interviews were heart-numbing.

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An Evening with Atheists

Christians love talking about atheists. Generally, however, we’re less excited about talking to them. 

Well, one night last winter I set out to change that, at least in my own life. I attended an atheist gathering in my neighborhood.

But first I had to go online and join their “meet-up” group.

I remember my hand freezing on my computer mouse, unable to click the “join us” invitation. For a moment the cursor hovered over the button. Did I really want to do this?

I had already interviewed dozens of atheists for the book project I was working on, but most of my interviews had been conducted over the phone or via email. Somehow the prospect of sitting face to face with them was more intimidating. I wasn’t afraid of an intellectual assault. Yes, there would be plenty of God-bashing in these meetings, but I wasn’t likely to hear anything new. Thanks to my peculiar habit of reading reams of atheist literature, I’d heard most of the arguments against Christianity before, and all from the movement’s most eloquent spokespeople.  
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Ex-Christians 101

"Why are young people leaving the faith?"

Since I began writing a book on the topic of reaching young ex-Christians, I’ve faced this question repeatedly. The embarrassing truth is that I can’t answer it. At least not simply.

Ask most Christians the question, though, and the answer is easy: they leave because of moral compromise. A teenage girl goes off to college and starts to party. A young man moves in with his girlfriend. Soon the conflict between their beliefs and behavior becomes unbearable, and they drop their faith commitment. They may cite intellectual skepticism or disappointments with the church, but don’t be fooled. These are just excuses, smokescreens designed to hide their real reason for going astray. “They change their creed to match their conduct,” as my parents would say.

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