A deconversion story FROM Christianity is a relatively recent phenomenon although deconversion itself is not. It’s odd that secular news sites who would ordinarily approach other facets of religious news with some level of cautiousness or outright bias (whether they know it or not) seize upon them pretty readily.
Of course, I had read a few before, but the recent one from Hawk Nelson lead singer Jon Steingard hit me deep. Not because the deconversion process or the questions asked therein was different in any substantial way from the others I’ve read – it wasn’t, and I’ll get into that later – but because Hawk Nelson’s song ‘Drops In The Ocean’ ranks among my favorite Christian songs.
I’ll attempt to summarize Jon’s story, dangerous as that can be, here. He grew up in a deeply Christian family (his dad was, and is, a pastor), and so the faith was all around him from childhood. He did youth groups, conferences, ministry, and of course became the lead singer for a Christian music group. Jon confesses that even before Hawk Nelson, certain things rubbed him the wrong way, especially speaking about prayer and the Holy Spirit. But since everyone around him accepted the things he had problems with, he quietly shelved his doubts and continued, even eventually pushing for Hawk Nelson to be MORE Christian, not less.
The doubts didn’t simply go away, though – they rarely do when not directly addressed. The problem of evil weighed on his mind, and going to the Bible brought him more questions such as God in the Old Testament. So then Jon arrives at the moment his deconversion really started – when his belief in the Bible as the Word of God began to fall as a result of these questions. Fast forward a bit, and Jon has used the current band inactivity (brought on in part by the Coronavirus making live concerts impossible and the focus on other work more necessary) to announce his doubt, deconstruction, and current agnosticism (“I’m open to the idea that God is there. I’d prefer it if he was. I suspect if he is there, he is very different than what I was taught”). To him, going to church, reading the bible, praying, and etc. all felt like a list of tasks and obligations that he is now free from.
Now I’ll take a couple steps back and say that this is very similar to other stories that have made the rounds. The focal point of this deconversion process usually is the loss of belief in the Bible as the true word of God. If you have serious doubts with one portion or concept of the Bible, you may choose to disregard it. But if you do that, then the rest is suddenly in doubt, because if one part is false according to you, then what proof do you have for the rest still being true? One thing leads to another, and then the Bible as a whole gets discarded. But if you do THAT, then what’s really left if you still want to hang on to Christianity? The morals you still like and you were going to adhere to anyway?
If the person in question still wants to believe in God, then it tends to be a muted God without judgment, with reduced power and/or interest in the world. “But he loves us!” God is reduced to a feel-good tool that doesn’t significantly impact our day to day except when we really want Him to.
I believe such a way of thinking about God is lacking in depth. If God (as defined in any of the three major monotheistic religions, that is Christianity, Judaism, or Islam) exists, we ignore Him at our peril. If he is the creator of the world, the definition of right and wrong, and our final judgment when we reach the inevitable end of our time on Earth. There’s no real room for ‘comfortable’ agnosticism, that is, agnosticism without big nagging questions about the very nature of the world and those within it.
It seems pretty normal for someone to go through a critical period of examination of the beliefs that they grew up with when they reach high school or college (especially if they move out of the house for college and enter the marketplace of ideas that the world is). This is, in a sense, a good thing – some people believe they’re Christians while going to church and bible study but don’t actually have a life-changing relationship with Jesus. The term for that is cultural Christianity. The period of examination tends to weed out some of these cultural Christians because their examination could force them to adopt new views one way or another – to either get most/all of their personal questions answered sufficiently, fully embrace the Christian worldview and make Jesus their savior, or else to drop the pretense of holding onto practices they no longer believe in. The result largely depends on a person’s environment during this time – where they look, what answers are available, how seriously his or her answers are taken, etc.
Near the end of college, I was fortunate to be in a solid Christian group that could support my own growth towards the first result, with the additional help of many books and websites such as those found on the TRTD resources page. I would highly recommend any person with such questions become part of a church community and get their questions answered that way. A Christian pastor worth his salt should:
A) Heartily welcome any such questioner, and
B) Be available to answer questions, or be able to set you up with someone trusted who is available.
As Christianity becomes less and less obviously prevalent in the US and Europe especially, we can expect deconversion stories like Jon’s to continue. Christians need to ensure their faith is based on Jesus rather than mimicking what the people around them do. Doing so helps them answer the question of why they believe more robustly, and also preserves the integrity of the faith.