Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A Look at a Deconversion Testimony

Coventry Cathedral 2002/ by Geoff W. Sutton

On a cold winter’s day Sarah sat across from me in the restaurant and declared, “I’m an atheist.” We were at a conference and her friends had left to go somewhere—I forget where. Sarah is a brilliant young woman with a bright future. I don’t know her well but she made some good points during a conference presentation. She knows I write about the psychology of religion so I’ve asked her about her opinions. Sarah was raised as an Evangelical Christian—a bit on the fundamentalist spectrum, I guess. She doesn’t like the Old Testament—too much murder, too many rules. I ask about the “Sermon on the Mount.” She thinks that’s ok. She likes Jesus’ moral teaching. She’s left of center politically and socially. She’s about to graduate from a Christian university. Somewhere along the line she lost her faith. She’s not come out as an atheist—except to a few people. She’s aware of the risks. She can’t doubt outloud. Her litany of complaints focus on beliefs that don’t make sense and certain views of morality she no longer holds as true.*

Peter Enns and The Sin of Certainty

My point in telling the “Sarah story” is that I was thinking of people like her when I read the first chapter of Peter Enns', The Sin of Certainty. I’ve been asked to lead off a study of Peter’s book. And Enns' first chapter describes his faith crisis. His chapter is instructive because it fits well with a recent uptrend in deconversion and conversion research in my field of interest, the Psychology of Religion. I previously summarized some research on deconversion and conversion. In this post, I provide a look at Enns', story from the perspective of deconversion and conversion. He claims not to have written an autobiography yet the lead story suggests his crisis provides the context for the book.


Peter Enns recalls a threatening moment listening to faith-challenging questions in a Disney movie, Bridge to Terabithia. Leslie and May Belle discuss God and the Bible. After a brief exchange about belief in the Bible and the consequences of disbelief, Leslie says, “I seriously do not think God goes around damming people to hell.” Here's the short video clip:

Enns' tells us of his spiritual and emotional discomfort and offers a larger life-context of leaving his teaching job at a Christian school (See Bailey, 2008) and losing some of his friends. He observes, “Watching certainty slide into uncertainty is frightening.” Faith provides a sense of meaning and organization. His faith has been seriously tested. After decades of education and teaching in Christian communities, he experienced some life-changing questions like: “Is there a God? What will you do now that God is far off, out of sight? (p. 13).”

In their summary of recent conversion and deconversion research, Raymond Paloutzian and his colleagues (2013) opine that both conversion and deconversion can be seen as part of a larger perspective on spiritual transformation. Here’s a quote about the concept of deconversion:

“Overall, deconversion is conceptualized as an intense biographical change that includes individual and social aspects: experiential, emotional, intellectual-ideological, social-environmental, moral, as well as changes or termination of group membership." (p. 409).

As a psychologist, I found myself drawn to Enn’s description of his feelings—the emotional experience he felt or reported that others with similar experiences shared. Here’s some examples of his language in chapter 1: "threatened, frightening, worried, Feeling judged and banished…” The experience is clearly emotional and specifically, about fear and anxiety.

As a psychology of religion researcher, I noted the social context and its impact on Enns. He reported a change at the school where he taught. The organizational climate became “tense and adversarial” (p. 12). His teaching and writing were examined. Eventually, he says he resigned. His description of the change sounds like a spiritual transformation.

“I recall those first few months of sweet freedom. I hadn’t felt that light and joyful in probably a decade. Pick your cliché: I felt alive, born again, as if I had been liberated from a prison camp, released from a dungeon, and had seen the sunshine and felt the cool breeze for the first time in ages.” (pp. 11-12)

The positive feelings did not last long. He soon found that “faith went dark” and he lacked the structure of faith provided by the community where “Thinking for myself wasn’t necessary…” (p. 12).

Enns concludes the first chapter by suggesting a “sacred journey” is possible for those who give up the quest for right belief and begin trusting God. The sin of certainty is a preoccupation with right belief to the point of making an idol out of belief and forcing God into our interpretation of the image we created.

I’ve read the book. Enns ends by telling us of his current congregation on page 192. We see his transformation, played out in Christian media, as an example of that type of deconversion from a fundamentalist-like evangelical Christianity. After what sounds like a wilderness experience, he finds a different sort of Christian community. As I read his words I see evidence of a changed spirituality, a de-emphasis on beliefs, but still a desire for meaning and relationship, “I need to be a part of something bigger than myself…”


Peter Enns' tale is a story for our time. I suspect doubters have been around since the first religious ideas were spoken. But in western cultures, it has become safer to express those doubts and concerns. There’s still a risk as Peter indicates—people can’t really be honest about their doubts in some faith communities and expect to keep their job or their old friendships.

Like Sarah, more and more young people are questioning the statements of belief promulgated by conservative religious groups. They doubt the truthfulness of certain claims. And when they get answers to difficult questions, they don’t find the answers very convincing.

There are different types of deconversions. Some occur gradually but may come to a critical point. These sound a lot like the reverse of conversion experiences. Some exit faith altogether. Some keep quiet and carry on—agnostic. Others exit a faith community (disaffiliation) and find a better fit.

Anxiety makes sense. The transition from childhood to adulthood can be smoother for those who remain in a spiritual family even when leaving their parent's home. We form attachments to parents as infants. The nature of attachment changes as we age. When children are removed from their attachment figures for various reasons like going to school or a parent going away, the event is marked by anxiety. In severe cases, children experience separation anxiety. Anxiety can occur at different points in life. A spiritual family mitigates against such anxiety unless the child is cast out.

I'm not seeing anger in Enns' chapter one account. I will resist the attempt to analyze his presentation. But I will hypothesize that many will feel a great deal of anger. Anxiety and anger can produce the emotional turmoil that motivates action. Action may lead one to redouble efforts to re-attach to secure relationships like the old ones left behind or find a new family altogether different. Emotions can function like catalysts to activate belief-behavior connections.

In the research literature, some emerge from their emotional turmoil with a new sense of autonomy and a feeling of personal growth. As Paloutzian and others write of some deconverts who leave a religious community, “...there are also gains in a sense of connectedness for the lucky ones who immediately find a new community and a new identity with a self-identification as ‘spiritual person,’ also a key characteristic of deconversion.” (p. 414)

Peter Enns offers a path forward for those troubled by restrictive interpretations of Christian belief statements—encourage trust in God (in my language, don’t sweat the details of belief).

Here's what I’d like to know as I take these ideas to class:

What elements of Enns' story make sense in terms of other stories you have heard or read?

What Christian beliefs, if any, must be held as true and certain to continue a sacred journey as a Christian?

How does your church or Christian organization create a safe place for people with doubts like those questions Enns reported?

How can Christians be helpful to people like Sarah who wish to talk—explore their thoughts about faith?

How do people handle family relationships where some Christians consider others as unsaved, lost, heretics, agnostics, or atheists?


Read more about Christian cultures in A House Divided available on AMAZON from the publisher, Pickwick and in the Apple bookstore on Apple devices.

*(Sarah is not a particular person but a composite of bright young people who reject the conservative faith of their youth).

Bailey, S. P. (April, 2008). Westminster theological suspension. Christianity Today. Retrieved from http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2008/april/114-24.0.html This article tells of Enn’s suspension and provides links to related stories.
Enns, P. (2016). The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs. San Francisco: Harper One.
Paloutzian, R.F., Murken, S., Streib, H. & Rößler-Namini, S. (2013. Conversion, deconversion, and spiritual transformation: A multidisciplinary view. In. R. F. Paloutzian and C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, (2nd Ed., pp. 399-421). New York: Guilford.

Sutton, G. W. (2016). [Review of the book The sin of certainty: Why God desires “our” trust more than “our” correct beliefs by Peter Enns]. Encounter, 13. You can find my academic review of his book online at Academia and ResearchGate.

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