1200 People Were Asked Why They Left Christianity: Here is what they said

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By Dan Foster

When it comes to articles that completely miss the mark, you can’t go past Josh Butler’s piece on the Gospel Coalition website, where he attempts to explain why former Christians walk away from their faith.

The article, entitled “4 Causes of Deconstruction,” likens faith deconstruction to a disease, and makes out that those who walk away from the church are not really interested in finding the truth but just want an excuse to sin. Moreover, he describes deconstructing Christians as weak, compromising, and merely chasing street cred. Apparently, they all want to be exvangelical podcasters, TikTok stars, and bloggers, making their fortune bashing the church.

By the time you arrive at the end of Butler’s article (if you manage to read that far), you are forced to conclude that every single one of Butler’s “4 Causes of Deconstruction” lays blame at the feet of the person who left Christianity behind. In fact, worse than that — it shames them.

In Butler’s world, the church has no case to answer. His message is clear: “The church has it right, and those who walk away have it wrong.” It’s about as tone-deaf as tone-deafness gets.

But if people like Butler and the version of Christianity he represents would stop and listen for a moment, they would discover the real reasons that more than 3000 people are walking away from the US church every day.

And a lot of it has to do with the attitudes and behaviors of so-called believers and, in particular, the leaders of the movement that is supposed to represent the pre-eminent teacher of grace, love, and compassion: Jesus Christ.

Why are people REALLY leaving?

Unlike Butler’s mindless rhetoric, I found a piece of writing based on actual research. Brandon Flanery, a writer on the Baptist Global News site, decided to try and find out why people are leaving Christianity behind. Reaching out through varying social media platforms, Flanery received 1,200 responses to a survey that asked several questions of people who had left Christianity behind, including:

  1. What initiated the change (the first instance where things began to shift)?
  2. What was the final reason you made the change (the straw that broke the camel’s back)?
  3. What does your current existential framework offer you that your previous one did not?

The results of his research are genuinely fascinating and should provide a wake-up call to the church — if the church will have ears to hear. Here are the top reasons people gave for abandoning Christianity:

Reason 1

Flanery’s research revealed that the number one reason people walk away from Christianity is the church’s behavior and attitudes toward the LGBTQ+ community. One in four respondents listed this as their final reason for abandoning Christianity. Here are some quotes from those who responded:

  • “I couldn’t continue to ignore the treatment of LGBTQ and other marginalized people.”
  • I started doubting because of “how the church treated people of the LGBTQ community and anyone who didn’t dress/think/act/look like them.”
  • “I couldn’t understand why God would create LGBTQ people in a form my church claimed he hated.”
  • “The first thing that challenged my viewpoint directly was meeting LGBTQ people and seeing that they were kind, thoughtful and deserving of respect.”
  • “The first thing was noticing how what Christians preached/practiced didn’t seem to align with that I knew to be the character of God, including views on the LGBTQ community, immigration, adoption, mental health issues, ‘mission work,’ and just general treatment of others.”
Image by nadia_bormotova on iStock

Reason 2

The second-most common reason that people gave for walking away from Christianity was “The behavior of believers.” Isn’t that a sad indictment on the church? Beyond the issue of LGBTQ inclusion, many people, is seems, object to the behavior of Christians.

Of course, this is not something new. Mahatma Gandhi once famously said of the Christian faith: “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Gandhi’s scathing assessment was that far too often, Christians don’t represent Christ. They are nothing like Christ. They don’t do Christ justice. They actually repel people from Christ.

Was Gandhi onto something?

When writing a letter to C.S. Lewis about potentially converting to Christianity, author Sheldon Vanauken wrestled with this exact thing in his book A Severe Mercy:

The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians — when they are somber and joyless, self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.

One thing remains consistent — the conduct of Christians can pose both a significant obstacle for individuals considering the faith and a significant factor for those considering walking away.

Reason 3

The third most common response in Flanery’s research was the uncomfortable relationship that seems to exist between church and politics. Many of the respondents specifically mentioned the election of Donald Trump and the support he received from the evangelical church community. In fact, the name “Trump” was mentioned 81 times in survey responses. Here are some examples from the comments that were received:

  • “A culmination of events over the course of a few months starting in the summer of 2020. I had a fight with my father-in-law over the Confederate flag being a symbol of racism, he stopped speaking to me for months, and it became a whole thing. The rise in glorifying Trump and fascism disguised as democracy.”
  • “Seeing so many friends and family that claim to love and follow Jesus pledge their allegiance to nationalism and Trump.”
  • “The 2016 election. I wanted nothing to do with a group that supported Trump and his insane ideology under the pretense of faith.”
  • “Trump was the last straw for me. Seeing a person who should be the opposite of what Christians are called to be, being supported by evangelicals everywhere, really woke me up to some harsh American/conservative realities and how we’ve bastardized Christianity like others before to push not love or Christ but instead Republican dogma steeped in racism, sexism and greed with the Bible as a manipulation tool to get people to conform to these particular ideals that have nothing to do with the Gospels.”

The best of the rest

Rounding out the top ten most common reasons people gave for leaving Christianity were: issues with church leadership, things not making sense on an intellectual level (an example of this would be: if God is so good, why do bad things happen?), the church’s handling of mental health issues, a desire for independence, the treatment of women in the church, problems with the Bible, and the church’s disinterest in civil rights and social justice.

Here is a complete graph of Flanery’s findings:

Source: Baptist News Global

What people are finding on the other side

Josh Butler couldn’t have gotten it more wrong. People are not leaving Christianity because they want an excuse to sin. They aren’t “spiritually sick” compromisers who just want street cred in the world.

They are actually leaving because although Christianity boasts that it is a religion all about love, people are not seeing it, and they’re walking out the door. They feel that they are more free to love without the “conditions” that the church seems to attach to the giving and receiving of love: Don’t sin (publicly), believe the right things, and be a “nice person.”

So, when Flanery asked his group of former Christians what their new existential framework offered that Christianity did not, the answers were even more damning for the church.

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2 replies

  1. Well, I am a bit surprised at the reasons. I would have thought just plain ‘common sense’ should be the main reason. There are many teachings of the church which in fact no one believes, not even the priests. For instance the teachings of the ‘inherited sin’. If a child dies before being ‘christened’ it would go to hell, due to the inherited sin. Who believes that? and another 1000 examples…

  2. I’m surprised at these replies. I would feel the exact same way if I were with any other religion (just saying).

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