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.


Touchstone said...

Excellent write-up, John. I will have to go get that book. The patterns you sketch from McKnight match the patterns I have come to see, as well.

Christianity -> Atheism: intellectual crisis
Atheism -> Christianity: moral crisis
Evangelical -> Catholic: authority crisis
Catholic -> Evangelical: authority crisis

Catholics and Protestants "exchanging particles", as it were, based on the competing claims of authority, church vs. do-it-yourself interpretations of scripture.

As for McKnight's suspicions about apostate's "real" motivations, I think that the drive for freedom and autonomy *is* a factor. But it's a Christian conceit to conclude a priori that this is the only or even primary factor. McKnight doesn't need any empirical evidence to understand that idea, beyond his own experience. Christians demonize the desire for personal freedom and autonomy, toward good and bad ends, as "the flesh". More than anything, the "secretly wants to do evil, and thus shirks moral obligations" is a means of assuaging the dissonance introduced by apostasy.

dazzo said...

"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.”"

Same old tired Christian response. If only we had the "right" kind of Christianity everything would have been ok. I think it was someone here at DC who said there is no such thing as Christianity, only endless interpretations of it

John, does he even acknowledge the intellectual legitimacy of our objections in his book?

Anonymous said...

I sent this link to Dr. McKnight and although he had a couple of quibbles with it, he said it was a "fair summary."


dazzo, no, but that wasn't his purpose. His purpose was to describe why we leave the faith for the most part.

Scot McKnight said...


I did not say this: "As for McKnight's suspicions about apostate's "real" motivations, I think that the drive for freedom and autonomy *is* a factor. But it's a Christian conceit to conclude a priori that this is the only or even primary factor."

Even a careful reading of John's summary recognizes that I say it is an "intuition." I do think autonomy is a big issue here, but I do not thereby say "autonomy" is refusal to submit to God, which would fit my theology, but I don't think that is my point. I'm trying to sketch why it is that some leave orthodox faith. If my theological convictions come into play, well, we're all influence by our beliefs, but I'm not trying to judge but to describe. I'd challenge you to read the chp in the book and tell me if you think I have overly judged or more properly described.

And by the way, dazzo, I do recognize the legitimacy -- whether from a worldview or on the basis of some simple historical, logical viewpoint -- of some of the critique and I'm essentially pleading with Christians to give fair hearing.

I quibble with some of what John has said, but he has been fair to me. I ask the same for what I have said.

Scot McKnight said...

Oh, and by the way, John: One "t" in "Scot."

Anonymous said...

Sorry Scot, corrected.

Ken Daniels said...

Thanks John and Scot--fascinating stuff. I'll have to get a hold of the book. I've always been curious about why some individuals change worldviews while others don't. I'll be interested to see whether and how this question is addressed in the book.

Thanks for interacting with us, Scot. Since John's review mentions science and hell as factors in our deconversion, I'd be curious to know whether you personally subscribe to a worldwide Noachian flood and to an eternal, inescapable, tormenting hell.

Minor player that I am, I count it an honor to have received mention in your book. Regarding your statement,

“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.”

I wonder whether you found these elements in my story. I'll readily acknowledge that intellectual stability was a factor, but I'm not sure the others even went through my mind. I am still committed to my believing wife and family after eight years of apostasy, and I even attended church for four years, quitting only after another church member suggested amicably that I not burden myself with church attendance any longer. My lifestyle has not changed, unless you count my shift to preferring secular music over Christian music.

Whether or not you've hit the nail on the head in every detail, it still looks like a very interesting book, so I'll be adding it to my list.

Edwardtbabinski said...

Hi Scot and John,

Ed Babinski here. A couple of comments.

1) Scot, I wish you had included a chapter on Christians who converted to Judaism, and Jewish converts to Christianity who later left the Christian fold and returned to Judaism. There are a number of book-length testimonies out there, including books by ex-"Jews for Jesus" members, even some forums I have seen in the past for ex-members of "Jews for Jesus." There are also a few Christian congregations who left the Evangelical fold en masse, rejecting trinitarian Christianity to become "Noahides/God-fearers," and to study with rabbis, rejecting Evangelical Christianity for a form of Jewish monotheism based on the commands given to Noah.

There are also Jewish "Billy Grahams" on the internet who seek to keep Jews from falling astray into groups like "Jews for Jesus," by pointing out the ways that New Testament authors misunderstood and stretched or misinterpreted Hebrew Biblical verses and teachings.

2) It's true that I found the "primeval history" portions of Genesis "simplistic." But I also began finding many things concerning conservative Evangelical, Catholic and Presbyterian interpretations of the Bible, including their views of human psychology, human history and the cosmos, "simplistic."

3) One of my topmost questions does not seem to have been mentioned in the book. While still an Evangelical I read books in which Christians examined their spiritual practices and ideals in the light of those by people of other religions. And I began to see a similar love and practice of goodness in people no matter whether they were Christian or not. Books like The Inner Eye of Love by a Catholic priest who dialogued with Amidha Buddhists in Japan; Thomas Merton's Eastern Journal; Dom Bede Griffith's experiences and encounters with Hindus & Buddhists at his Catholic-Hindu-Buddhist ashram in India (Griffith remained a life long friend and correspondent with C. S. Lewis, having converted to Christianity at nearly the same year and place Lewis did), Conrad Hyers's books on sprituality, divine humor and laughter in all the world's religions; wonderful spiritual tales or wisdom and spirituality told by Sufi's; Alan Watts's works on spirituality east and west, Meister Eckhart's sermons, the Creation-Spirituality of Matthew Fox, and Rudolf Otto's book on The Holy, the mysterium tremendum, to name some of the works I absorbed while still an Evangelical Christian.

Such works (and others) led me to see goodness in people who were not Christians, a genuine goodness that I had not fully acknowledged nor appreciated before as a conservative Evangelical Christian. Waking to that recognition seems to have been in my case THE major factor that burst my Evangelical bubble. Many of the questions that began arising were intellectual. But this question in particular was one in which I felt the ground of my Evangelical cosmos begin to quake and crumble beneath my feet. And I recall waking to this recognition on a singular night, much as Robert Price woke to the realization that everyone was similar, was just "people." But my recognition of similarity with others was based on acknowledging genuine goodness in others.

Today I could add to the list of books above, books such as Karen Armstrong's excellent, A Short History of Myth, and, The Great Transformation (both of which mention the religious transformation that took place during the "Axial Age"). (There are some wonderful audio editions of both works that I listened to recently).

4) Lastly, Scot, I haven't read your book, but does it deal with the fact that all conservative Christian seminaries over time have grown more moderate/liberal? Usually the process takes about 200 years or less after the seminary has grown and continued to attract bright professors and students who have interacted with a widening circle of biblical scholarship, interpretations and questions of their day (rather than simply interacting with rival conservative theologies).

After such seminaries grow more moderate/liberal, some conservatives get so ruffled by the widening barage of questions they set out to found new seminaries with a smaller bunch of conservative professors who believe like they do and who favor the same flavor of inerrancy the do. But that only starts the process once again they eventually leads toward moderation and liberalism at that particular institution.

Today even the word "inerrancy" is continuing to be stretched by Evangelicals to incorporate more diversity of opinion than ever before -- from the creation account to Revelation and many matters inbetween from Calvinism to Arminianism and Open Theology.

In a Darwinian sense Christianity has continued to diversify since its founding and since the west's recognition of the liberal ideals of individual freedom of conscience and individual freedom of religion.

T said...

He missed to obvious points on conversion from Christianity to agnosticism/atheism:

1. The demonstrated powerlessness of prayer, especially when compared to the promises of the Bible.

2. No empirical evidence for anything supernatural.


Touchstone said...

Hi Scot,

Thanks for the response. I think I understand your distinction here, but with John's write-up, and your comments here, I think that's a good recommendation to just go buy the book and read it.

I understand your intution to be a "given" -- you intuit the longing for autonomy, rather than reasoning to it. It's just there. That's why I say that's a priori to any other analysis. If that doesn't fit with your ideas of how intuition works, I'm happy to revise my statement to read something like:

But it's a Christian conceit to rely on the intuition that this is the only or even primary factor.


As I said, I do think (and also intuit) that the inclination toward autonomy -- antinomianism -- *is* an ingredient. I think we agree that far. I'll be interested to see how your analysis plays out in the book (and I think it's a question you're looking at that doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves), but as you might guess, I and other apostates are regularly questioned as to what evils and depravities were the ones that enticed us to atheism, when in the cases I'm personally aware of, the rejection of Christianity was driven by the drive for honesty and well-grounded ethics.

I can only report what I see in my experience, of course, but given the feedback I get from many other Christians, I suggest the tempation to chalk apostasy up to moral laxity is a cop-out, self-serving explanations on the cheap. I'm sure there are those who *do* decide God isn't there so they can proceed without thinking God is watching over their shoulder as they abandon their wives and families or whatever, but that answer as the baseline pushes you far from the real answers and descriptions you seek, rather than pulls you closer.

In any case, thanks for the challenge. I've been a reader of yours at for a long time now, and have appreciated your thoughtful theism, and especially your committment to fairness and honesty, proven well in the "Emergent wars" of the past few years. I often use the "five streams" view of ECM in discussing it with others. Your work at commends the book to me. I plan on reading it.


Ken Daniels said...

Dr. McKnight, I'd like to expand on my above comment by assuming that you don't subscribe to a worldwide Noachian flood or to the traditional Protestant view of hell. I asked the question so that I could follow up with another, more fundamental question: If you have come to the conclusion that the scriptures are not to be taken as literally as your more conservative brethren, how is it that you have gained this insight? Is it a result of greater intelligence or piety on your part, or to the role of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised would lead his followers to all truth? This is not simply a rhetorical question; I'm genuinely interested in your response.

Do you believe that those who accept a worldwide Noachian flood on the basis of such a clear passage as Genesis 7:17-23 are in some way culpable before God for taking his word at face value? If you have employed your reason to conclude that it is not to be taken literally, can we who abandon the faith altogether be blamed for using our reason and going a step further to conclude that the entire Bible is human through and through?

T said...

Okay, so I too will be the book to give you a fair shake Scot. Perhaps your hypotheses are encompassing of what I too am hypothesizing.

For me personally though, I believe the scriptures to be outright lying when it says that prayer can accomplish supernatural acts. I did not decide to quit believing because of personal crisis, rejection of others, or desire to live any different morally. So, my primary reason for deconversion (conversion to agnosticism) in my mind is primarily due to the demonstrable untruthfulness of the Bible. So, in a since you could say that it is a result or science, since it is the acquisition of knowledge, but that's a bit too broad for me.

Anyway, I look forward to reading the book.