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What causes people to lose their faith?

01 March 2019

A combination of ingredients, preparation, and environment can lead to a crisis of faith, Ed Thornton reports


Jonathan Edwards competes in the triple jump final at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in 1996

Jonathan Edwards competes in the triple jump final at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in 1996

IN 1996, John Marriott, an aspiring young triple-jumper, was in Florida at a track-meet when he came across one of his sporting and spiritual heroes. Jonathan Edwards, a British athlete who held the world record for the triple jump, was putting in some last-minute training before the Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Edwards was not only one of the UK’s most famous sportspeople: he was also one of its highest-profile and vocal Christians — an Evangelical, who, early on in his career, did not compete on Sundays.

Marriott, also a Christian, was struggling with poor jumps, and his morale was low. He asked Edwards for advice on how to improve, and, to his pleasant surprise, received an invitation to have lunch.

“He told me about how, when he retired, he wanted to go to Dallas Theological Seminary and study the nation of Israel in a systematic way,” Marriott recalls. “We talked about his faith and the reason why he started competing on Sundays. We picked his wife up from a Bible study, and we went out for lunch. It was really encouraging to me.”

Marriott continued to follow Edwards’s career until he retired from competitive athletics in 2003. Several years later, curious to know what Edwards was up to, Marriott looked him up online. He was shocked at what he discovered: Edwards no longer believed in God.


WHAT causes somebody to move from being a committed Christian to a convinced non-believer? What is the impact on their friends and family? Is leaving faith behind a walk into bleakness and uncertainty, or a liberation, like a weight being lifted?

Marriott devoted doctoral studies to exploring such questions, and addresses them in a recent book: A Recipe for Disaster: Four ways churches and parents prepare individuals to lose their faith and how they can instill a faith that endures (Wipf & Stock). He now chairs the World Religions department at the Institute of Religious Studies at Missional University, and is an adjunct professor at Biola University.

“Every sort of deconversion story is like a recipe — it’s never simplistic, it’s never just one reason,” Dr Marriott says. “It’s usually a combination of ingredients, preparation, and environment.”

Dr Marriott says that his research shows that people who lose their faith tend to have certain personality traits, and underlying beliefs and values (the ingredients). These include having an above-average intelligence, and low tolerance for submitting to authority and for right-wing political ideas; valuing self-determination and being in control; and being open to experience.

“All of these kind of combine and set somebody up statistically to be more likely to have a crisis of faith and to eventually leave their faith,” he says.

But it is the way in which these ingredients are prepared which contributes significantly to whether a person will leave the faith — that is, “the way that individuals are socialised into the faith”.

“The more . . . stories that you read online of people who once were Christians and no longer are, you start to see themes develop in how they were raised, how they were discipled, what they were told Christianity was, how they were told they needed to live out their Christianity,” he says. “And that plays a huge role in their loss of faith.”

To continue the cooking metaphor: once the ingredients have been prepared, they are cooked somewhere. “All of us who are socialised into the Christian faith are kind of getting processed or baked in an environment that’s increasingly — at least in the West . . . much more secular and sceptical to religious faith than it historically has been. . .

“So when you combine those three things: the ingredients of someone who is maybe a little bit more inclined to be analytical and questioning and sceptical; you prepare them improperly in discipleship and socialisation; and then you send them out into a world that is not friendly to perspectives of faith — that is the recipe for disaster.”

missional universityDr John Marriott, author of Recipe for Disaster

THE book pays most attention to the preparation stage since, Dr Marriott says, the way adherents are taught and socialised into the faith is “the one thing we have control over as parents and church leaders”.

There are four ways, he argues, in which churches might set people up for a crisis of faith: over-preparing; under-preparing; ill-preparing; and painfully preparing.

“Over-preparation occurs when parents or churches mistakenly equate their unique take on Christianity with the essentials of Christianity itself,” he writes. “They then require those whom they are responsible to disciple to accept and maintain belief in the entire package to maintain an authentic Christian identity.”

This leads to what Dr Marriott describes as “the Tyranny of the Necessary”, whereby people are “required . . . to affirm and defend an excessive number of theological beliefs to maintain their identity as a genuine biblical Christian”.

Christians are under-prepared when they are not helped adequately to navigate life in a society that is predominantly secular. This results in what Dr Marriott terms “Spiritual Culture Shock”.

“I think that we don’t make connections between the world of the Bible that we talk about on Sunday and the world that we live in throughout the rest of the week, and we need to do a better job of that,” he says.

Ill-prepared Christians are those for whom “crucial theological concepts . . . are missing”. This results in a “half-baked” faith (in much the way that leaving out margarine or eggs will result in a half-baked cake). Christians tend to be most ill-prepared in relation to the Bible (not equipped to handle its complexity or human elements), and an “inadequate conception of God” (expecting rewards for good behaviour, for example).

“Painful preparation”, finally, is the phrase Dr Marriott uses for those who experience hurt at the hands of the Church, be it from leaders or fellow believers. In his research, he spoke to those who “attributed what they perceived as harsh treatment or hypocritical behaviour from their spiritual leaders as playing significant roles in their deconversion”.

THE factors that lead to “deconversion” are clearly complex and varied. But certain trends stand out. For example, Dr Marriott notes that the “number-one problem” that appears in academic literature on this subject relates to the Bible. Those schooled in a certain view of the inerrancy of scripture — one that states that, if the Bible contains even one error, it is no longer the word of God — can experience a crisis of faith when they find what they perceive to be errors.

The problem of inerrancy is most acutely experienced in relation to science, Dr Marriott says. “It is common for former believers to point out that, for a book that is supposedly inerrant, it is repeatedly in conflict with what we know to be true about the world from science,” he writes. One of the assumptions held is “an overly strict understanding of what it means for the Bible to speak truthfully . . . the impression that if the Bible is going to speak truthfully, it must speak literally.”

A common example of this is in relation to the early chapters of Genesis. “There is an assumption that has been planted in them that . . . it has to be a literal six-day, 24-hour creation or the Bible is simply not true — because it’s telling you a lie, it’s telling you something that is not accurate. There is very little nuance; there is very little appreciation for different interpretative methodology when it comes to these passages.”

Many of those who lose their faith have held incomplete or distorted views of what the Bible contains. Many have believed that “it’s a nice story about God’s love for the world,” he writes. But, when they read it in more detail, they are “shocked and disturbed”, encountering “parts of it that they never knew existed”.

leaving my father’s faithA screen-shot from the documentary Leaving my Father’s Faith, Bart Campolo talks to his father, Tony Campolo

IT IS interesting to apply some of Dr Marriott’s insights to the case of Jonathan Edwards. It could be argued that he was over-prepared, growing up in a conservative Christian environment and taught many rigid beliefs. His intellectual development was, by his own admission, stifled owing to his total focus on athletics. As he told The Times in an interview in 2007: “I never doubted my belief in God for a single moment until I retired from sport.”

The path away from Christianity appears to have started when Edwards, having retired from athletics, presented a television documentary on St Paul. “Some experts raised the possibility that his spectacular conversion on the road to Damascus might have been caused by an epileptic fit,” he said. “It made me realise that I had taken things for granted that were taught to me as a child without subjecting them to any kind of analysis.

“When you think about it rationally, it does seem incredibly improbable that there is a God.”

It would be too simplistic to attribute Edwards’s loss of faith solely to intellectual doubts that he could not resolve. Another significant factor was a change in life circumstances, namely his retirement from professional sport. “With one facet of my identity stripped away, I began to question the others and, from there, there was no stopping,” he told The Times. “The foundations of my world were slowly crumbling.”

Dr Marriott says that a “common pattern” in the stories of deconversion is that “an emotional/experiential shift” in a person’s life will often pave the way for an intellectual reappraisal of their beliefs.

Derek Webb, a singer-songwriter who was well-known in the United States’ Christian music scene, spoke recently on The Life After Podcast about his loss of faith, which occurred at around the same time as his marriage broke down.

“When you are going through a hard thing . . . there’s the opportunity to examine other things during that time,” he said. “It was around a time when I wasn’t finding a lot of comfort in my spirituality and I was being wholesale abandoned by my spiritual community. So, I was like, it’s probably not a bad time to take stock and see what this is about. It’s been a while since I’ve really examined this, to find out if it really rings true to me right now.”

For Bart Campolo, the son of the famous evangelist Tony Campolo, whose story of loss of faith is told in the documentary film Leaving my Father’s Faith, directed by John Wright, and in the book, co-written with his father, Why I Left, Why I Stayed (Features, 26 May 2017), the crunch-point came when he was involved in a serious bicycle accident.

Throughout his Christian life, he had harboured serious doubts about, for example, the efficacy of prayer and the existence of suffering. To try to resolve the tensions, he had made some adjustments to his theology.


Coming round to consciousness in his hospital bed, he says in Leaving my Father’s Faith: “For the first time in my life, it dawned on me that when I died, and my brain broke down, that I would be gone. And, at that moment, I realised that I no longer believed that there was anything beyond this life.”

He turned to his wife and said: “There’s nothing left. I don’t believe in God, I don’t believe in the supernatural. I don’t believe in spirits. I think this is all we have.”

In Campolo’s case, then, it was not so much that a traumatic event precipitated an intellectual reappraisal of his beliefs: more that the doubts that he had long harboured could no longer be rationalised or wished away.


A LOSS of faith is often seen by members of the Church as a disaster. Losing belief in divine purpose and hope beyond death must, it is thought, entail a painful loss of meaning and hope. It is as if someone has moved from light back to darkness, from life to death.

Dr Marriott notes that many who cease to believe experience, at least initially, “an existential problem . . . where they feel a sense of emptiness and kind of a meaninglessness now, maybe a bit of a despair”.

The impact on day-to-day circumstances can also be painful. “Some people have had strained family relationships now because of their loss of faith that have never been reconciled,” Dr Marriott says. “There are people I have talked to whose families have disowned them because they no longer are Christians. There are marital problems. There are divorces I can think of that have come as a result of one person becoming an unbeliever.”

Deconverting can also put a strain on friendships. “If you’re a committed Christian and your friends are Christians and you’re involved in your church, and then you step out of that, then you have to find something to replace that.”

Yet, in the midst of these difficulties, Dr Marriott reports that “the vast majority of deconverts” whom he has interviewed “felt that a weight had been lifted off them and that they were now free”. They spoke of being “set free” and “liberated” — language that is usually associated with conversion stories, not their reverse.


Dr Marriott says: “If they were set free and liberated, what were they liberated and set free from? Because it doesn’t seem like the way of Jesus that is abundant life, that is a way of peace. . . It doesn’t seem like that’s what they were bound by.

“It seems as if it was something else that bound them, and it almost always ends up being some version of Christianity that is very fundamental and legalistic, that they have interpreted for what, for lack of a better word, real Christianity would be.”

HOW should churches respond pastorally to people who are on the precipice of renouncing their faith, or have already done so?

Dr Marriott cautions against the urge “to jump in and fix things and provide lots of apologetic answers”.

“What I will try and do if someone is in that situation is I will try and listen well, because I want to hear what it is that they’re doubting and I want to hear what it is that they’re rejecting, and I want to make sure that it’s an essential, and that it’s not some sort of Christian scheme or take or spin on Christianity that they have bought into. . .

“I would probably assume that lots of what’s going on has to do with problems with the Bible. And I would want to maybe try and investigate some of what those objections are; and gently point out that some of the problems with the Bible are based in assumptions and expectations that the Bible was never intended to meet.”

It might also be appropriate to probe the beliefs that a former believer now holds, he says. “I would maybe try and point out that there are maybe some values and assumptions and expectations that this person holds that are a result of living in a 21st-century, modern world that aren’t necessarily indicative of just some sort of pure rationality. They are also part of a construct. . . And maybe they should ask themselves some questions about some of their underlying assumptions and some of the values that they think are very important.”

In Leaving my Father’s Faith, Tony Campolo adopts such an approach, listening carefully and respectfully to his son’s objections to faith.

But Campolo Snr also poses some searching questions about Bart’s new-found humanism. A sociologist by profession, Dr Campolo acknowledges that his son “got into the Christian faith via a sociological process — you joined a group, you affiliated with that group, and therefore took on the consciousness of that group. That made the Christian faith — as absurd as it may be to the secular, rational, empirical mind — plausible.”

But then he turns the tables: “What I am suggesting is that it is a sociological process that got you out of the Christian faith. That the reason why you lost your faith was not so much an intellectual process as it was a matter of leaving a fellowship, a community of fellow believers. Leaving the Christian faith is the result of disengaging from that plausibility structure and getting sucked into the dominant culture, which is secular.”

At times, Campolo Snr does appear deeply troubled by the path that his son has taken. But, towards the end of the film, he speaks candidly of his own struggles with doubt. “To say that doubts do not intersperse themselves in the midst of my faith is to lie to you. . . The winds of doubt flow.”

Those who still identify as Christian believers are not immune to doubt, after all. As the Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith argues in his book How Not to be Secular (Eerdmans): “Even as faith endures in our age believing doesn’t come easy. Faith is fraught; confession is haunted by an inescapable sense of its contestability. We don’t believe instead of doubting. We believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now.”

Campolo Snr says to his son, towards the end of the film: “I’m a believer who has times of doubt. . . I would hope and pray that you’re a doubter who, from time to time, says ‘Maybe these things are true. Maybe my father’s right after all.’”

A Recipe for Disaster by John Marriott is published by Wipf & Stock

Leaving my Father’s Faith is available to stream on Amazon and Vimeo: campolofilm.com.

Dr Marriott talks about the book on the latest episode of the Church Times Podcast, available at www.churchtimes.co.uk/podcast and on multiple podcast platforms.

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