Readers will be familiar with the New Atheism movement, led by secularists like Richard Dawkins, author of The God delusion, and Christopher Hitchens, author of God is not great.
Neither of these men would claim ever to have been believers. But one aspect of the New Atheism that has not received the attention it deserves is the so-called ‘ex-Christian movement’.
A burgeoning number of websites, blogs, magazine articles and books are being devoted to the stories of people who claim to have been evangelical Christians, but who have now abandoned the faith they once professed.
A recent study led by Daniel Dennett, another prominent New Atheist, even drew attention to men that were continuing to work as church pastors after they had become unbelievers. One was a minister in the Southern Baptist denomination in the USA who said that he was now an atheist and would leave the ministry immediately if someone gave him $200,000.
Consider now the stories of three defectors from the Christian faith, who have come to prominence through their books and articles.
John Loftus is the author of Why I rejected Christianity: a former apologist explains. He tells the story of how he was converted to Christianity at the age of 18 at the height of the Jesus Movement.
He went on to study apologetics in order to be able to defend the Bible from attack, gaining three Master’s degrees and completing a year and a half of PhD work. His most famous tutor was William Lane Craig at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Loftus was ordained as a minister in the Churches of Christ, and established Operation Shelter (now called Turning Point), a Christian organisation offering help to the homeless in Angola, Indiana.
However, between 1991 and 1996, a series of events led him to abandon his faith and become an atheist. The crisis was precipitated by an extramarital affair with a colleague, which became public knowledge.
At about the same time, Loftus entered into correspondence about creation and evolution with his cousin who was studying biochemistry. This led him to have doubts concerning the historicity of Genesis. This was further compounded by his sense that the church community had not shown him the love and care they ought to have done during this crisis period.
Eventually, Loftus gave up Christianity altogether, divorced his wife and is now married to an unbeliever. Today he runs a popular blog which seeks to persuade Christians to follow his path into atheism.
Dan Barker was brought up by fundamentalist Christian parents who later joined the Charismatic Movement. As a child he had a ‘born again’ experience and by the age of 15 felt called into Christian ministry.
He became involved in the crusades of Kathryn Kuhlman, the faith healer and revivalist, and spent eight years as a full-time touring evangelist. His talents as a pianist led him to compose more than 200 songs and two children’s musicals with a Christian theme.
But in the late 1970s Barker became dissatisfied with the fundamentalism of his youth and began to read more widely. He found his views shifting in a liberal direction as he read such theologians as Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann.
By summer 1983 he realised that he had lost his faith altogether, although he continued to preach for some months. Eventually the internal conflict became too great and in January 1984 he circulated a letter to his Christian contacts informing them that he was now an atheist or agnostic.
Sadly, Barker’s parents and younger brother later followed him into atheism, although his older brother and ex-wife continue in the Christian faith. Barker today heads up the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is a prominent atheist campaigner, and regularly participates in formal debates with Christians.
His book, Godless: how an evangelical preacher became one of America’s leading atheists received glowing testimonials from a number of secularists, including Richard Dawkins, who wrote the foreword.
Robert Price’s story can be found summarised in an essay on the ‘Internet Infidels’ website. He describes his conversion at the age of 10 and how he became involved in witnessing on university campus.
From 1977-1978 he studied for a Master’s degree at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, but while there began to re-evaluate his faith. By the time he completed his PhD in theology at Drew University in 1981, he was a theological liberal and his changing views led to a bitter split in the church he was pastoring.
Subsequently, Price spent a number of years teaching and studying, as well as pastoring liberal churches. This culminated in the establishment of a Unitarian universalist gathering in his own home, before he finally abandoned the ministry altogether in 1994.
He currently serves as professor of theology and scriptural studies at the Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary and describes himself as a ‘Christian atheist’. He is a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar and has written several books that question whether we can even be sure that Jesus existed.
What lessons can we learn from these stories?
First, defections from the faith should not surprise us. Apostasy is not a new thing. It happened even in the early church. Indeed the apostle John, in his first letter, warned about those who would defect from the faith.
He wrote: ‘They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us’ (1 John 2:19).
The prime example of an apostate in the New Testament was Judas Iscariot. He gave the outward appearance of being a true disciple and perhaps even deceived himself into thinking he was one. But eventually his true nature revealed itself when he betrayed the Saviour. He was found to be the son of perdition (John 17:12).
Second, defections from the faith should not shake us. The Bible is clear. Christ will lose none of those that are truly his. Hear his words in John 10:27-29: 'My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.
‘My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand’. God’s plans for his people cannot be thwarted by unbelief or defections. He is sovereign in all things, salvation included.
And in some mysterious manner that we do not fully comprehend, God is working out his purposes even in the lives of those who apostatise and reject him. Scripture assures us that even the wrath of rebellious man will praise the Lord (Psalm 76:10).
Third, defections from the faith should not fail to stir us. It is clear to me from browsing the ‘testimonies’ on ‘ex-Christian’ websites that many of the deconverted showed no real evidence of conversion in the first place. There was only the most superficial allegiance to Christ and no real signs of spiritual rebirth.
But there are also more troubling stories in which the individual demonstrated an apparently more credible profession before falling away. And often these defectors are more zealous in their unbelief than those who never professed faith in the first place.
This is a fearful situation to be in according to the Bible. The writer to the Hebrews warns us with these sobering words: ‘For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to open shame’ (Hebrews 6:4-6; cf. Hebrews 10:26-31).
The truth is that no matter how real a profession of faith appears to be, its genuineness is finally revealed by perseverance to the end (Matthew 24:11-13). The best Christians may stumble (e.g. Peter in Mark 14:66-72), but no one who is truly born again will persist incorrigibly in denial of God.
Surely stories of defection should spur us on to make our own calling and election sure, to examine ourselves that we be in the faith and take heed lest we ourselves also fall (2 Peter 1:10; 1 Corinthians 10:12).
There can be few Christians who have not struggled with doubt and perplexity at some time in their lives. The question is how we handle it. Here are a few pointers:
We should be honest about our doubts. Sometimes we hide them away, perhaps ashamed that our faith is not stronger. But it is usually best to bring our doubts into the light, to share them with others and seek prayer.
The Christian life is one of fellowship, community and mutual encouragement, things we all need to maintain our spiritual vibrancy.
We should seek sound biblical ministry in a good church. I haven’t done any kind of statistical analysis, but it seems that many of the ‘ex-Christians’ came from churches where the emphasis was on experiences and lively worship rather than on doctrine and sound teaching.
Relatively few of the deconverted were from solidly biblical churches. Good biblical teaching will surely minimise defections, and so it seems sensible to seek out faithful ministry for our own spiritual health.
We should make good use of apologetics resources. There are some excellent books and websites around that can help us. Some people struggle with honest intellectual doubts and can find their faith strengthened by reading good literature.
We should also make uplifting devotional material an integral part of our diet. As we read, we should pray like the father of the demon-possessed boy in Mark 9:24, ‘Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief’.
We should be aware that our doubts may not be intellectual in origin. Quite often there is another underlying reason for our struggles. Are we reading the Bible and praying regularly? Are we being faithful in meeting with other believers? Are we harbouring sin in our lives?
Apostates marshal many intellectual arguments to explain why they chose to defect from the faith, but one suspects that these often mask spiritual or moral rebellion. Although he denies that his ethics dictated his viewpoint, John Loftus acknowledges that one of the things that precipitated his crisis of faith was his extramarital affair.
Resting on Christ
We should rest upon Christ and not upon human reason. Apologetics has its place and we certainly do not despise evidences, but ultimately we do not rely upon them. Our faith is in Christ and his Word, not in our ability to construct a persuasive argument.
C. S. Lewis, one of the greatest Christian apologists of the twentieth century once wrote, ‘No doctrine of [the] Faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate. For a moment, you see, it has seemed to rest on oneself: as a result, when you go away from that debate, it seems no stronger than that weak pillar’.
Lewis gave the excellent advice that we ‘can be saved only by falling back continually from the web of our own arguments, as from our intellectual counters, into the Reality - from Christian apologetics into Christ himself’.
Readers wanting more on these issues are recommended to read: Ruth A. Tucker, Walking away from faith: unravelling the mystery of belief and unbelief (IVP, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2002).
This article first appeared in Evangelical Times, April 2011, pp19, 29, and is reproduced here by kind permission.
- D. C. Dennett and L. LaScola, ‘Preachers who are not believers’, Tufts University, 15 March 2010.
- Published: Trafford Publishing, 2007.
- A Christian movement within the hippie counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
- Published: Ulysses Press, 2008.
- R. M. Price, ‘From Fundamentalist to Humanist’, 1997, http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/testimonials/price.html
- E.g. The incredible shrinking Son of Man, Prometheus Books, 2004.
- C. S. Lewis. ‘Christian apologetics’, God in the dock, edited W. Hooper, Eerdmans, 1970 , p.103.