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Book review: (Un)Certain by Olivia Jackson

07 July 2023

Robin Gill on research into those whose steps were far from heedless

YOUNG people often have strong “certainties” that change over time. Today, being vegan, gender-fluid, and extinction-convinced are popular youth certainties, whereas my certainties when young (held much against the tide of the 1960s) were being teetotal, a radical pacifist, refraining from sexual intercourse outside marriage, and worshipping each Sunday.

I soon moved away from the first (just too unsociable) and then the second more reluctantly (having thought more carefully about how on earth to stop a genocidal Hitler, Stalin, or, now, Putin); but the other two persist.

This powerful little book reflects on conservative Evangelical “certainties” and is based on extensive online interviews with those who have moved away from them. It belongs to a social-science genre of studies of those who are, say, disaffected Mormons, Scientologists, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or (as shown in the excellent research of Professor Stephen Bullivant) the disaffected children of traditional Roman Catholics.

The psychological concept of cognitive dissonance is often deployed loosely within this genre, as it is in this book, together with reports of remorse and loss of belonging among the disaffected. Conservative Evangelical certainties are depicted as a comfort blanket that pressure from secular peers and a growing awareness of religious exploitation fret away at.

As a pious teenager who read the Bible from cover-to-cover twice and even went to a Billy Graham rally, I could never understand why others had not noticed the chronological and moral inconsistencies within the former and the obvious manipulation of the latter. On the evidence of this book, I was spared. It reports multiple instances of young people brought up in Evangelical families who gradually questioned the “black and white” biblical teaching they received, the sexual “purity” imposed upon them, along with patriarchy and homophobia, and with threats of hell if they disaffected.

Such complaints, of course, bypass the views of those who have remained Evangelicals (or, indeed Mormons, etc.). Evangelical disaffection narratives form a trope, just as stylised conversion narratives do in the opposite direction, both, ironically, having a similar, disingenuous conviction (to paraphrase John Newton): “I once was naïve, but now I’m not.”

The disaffected in any area may not be the most impartial or reliable of guides. Yet, there is still something in these interviews which is worrying for the Church at large. Evangelical congregations are the most obvious point of growth — or, at least, of less decline — in the Church of England today. Manifestly, they attract more young people than most other congregations. Yet, it seems likely, on the basis of these interviews, that quite a number of young Evangelicals today will, over time, disaffect. Some will move to a less dogmatic faith, but others will drift to detached agnosticism and, others still, to the “certainty” of atheism.

Our Jewish and Muslim cousins in Britain today are, no doubt, discovering something very similar. It is difficult for young people in Britain today to remain apart from our religiously indifferent society.

This is an accessible, albeit highly anecdotal, book that refrains from being overly didactic. It may, indeed, bring comfort to those of us who remain nostalgic, and grateful, for the certainties of our youth which have variously shaped us.


Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent, and Editor of Theology.


Olivia Jackson
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.99

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