Book Review: The Anatomy of Deconversion, by John Marriott

For many years, I have had a fascination for the reasons why people deconvert from the Christian faith. I have, without exaggeration, viewed many hundreds of deconversion testimonies on YouTube, purchased and read books by deconverts, followed the blogs of deconverts, and personally interacted with many who have either given up their Christian faith or are considering doing so. I was therefore interested to pick up The Anatomy of Deconversion: Keys to a Lifelong Faith in a Culture Abandoning Christianity, by John Marriott, a professor of philosophy at Biola University. [1] Marriott’s doctoral dissertation focused on the subject of deconversion, so he is certainly well qualified to speak about the issue at hand. In this book review, I will offer a summary of the research conducted by Marriott (outlined in the first ten chapters of the book) and then offer an appraisal of Marriott’s recommendations for action steps believers can take to instill in people a robust and lifelong confident faith (outlined in chapters eleven and twelve).

Summary of Marriott’s Research on Deconversion

The book attempts to offer the most comprehensive examination of the reasons why people abandon the Christian faith, and throughout the book Marriott reports on various interviews that he conducted with former Christians about their experiences, and reasons for, walking away from Christianity. He notes, “I conducted in-depth interviews with individuals that shed light on the nature of their deconversions. In doing so, I gained insight as to why they lost their faith, the process of losing their faith, strategies that they used to mitigate the negative consequences of deconversion, and the various contexts within which their deconversions took place,” (pp. 25-26).

Marriott rightly expresses that there is plenty of reason for Christians to be concerned about the phenomenon of deconversion. He cites an alarming statistic: “for every convert to Christianity, there are four deconverts from Christianity who identify as religious nones,” (p. 23). Marriott does a fine job explaining to his Christian readership the emotional experiences, and often-times personal sacrifice that accompanies deconversion. Indeed, he explains that “Deconverts generally do not choose to leave their faith but find themselves having lost their faith. When this happens, it is not often immediately accompanied by a sense of gain, but of deep loss, both personally and socially,” (p. 24).

Having completed an in-depth investigation into why people lose their faith, Marriott states, “I now have a better insight into the major reasons why people lose their faith, what the deconversion process is, what experiences set up believers for a crisis of faith, and what the impact of deconverting is,” (pp. 29-30).

Chapter one addresses the issue of eternal security, and the extent to which one’s view on this doctrine will impact what one takes away from the thesis of Marriott’s book. If true Christians cannot fall away (as is typically argued in Reformed circles) then is it not the case that “the research of this book wasn’t conducted on true believers, and the advice that comes from the research is misguided, wrong-headed, and ineffective. At best, it would only help keep Christianized but unregenerate persons in the church,” (pp. 44-45). Marriott concludes that the view that one takes should not impact the usefulness of his work, since – even on a Reformed reading of Paul, where God will ensure that the elect will be saved – “that did not diminish Paul’s sense of responsibility to do everything within the bounds of a faithful pragmatism to communicate the gospel in such a way that it was unfettered from unnecessary hindrances,” (p. 48).

In chapter three, Marriott surveys various reasons why people deconvert. For some, it is emotional reasons, perhaps because “they were hurt by other believers,” having been “let down by the shortcomings and outright failures of church leadership,” (p. 54). For others, the major contributing factor is “cognitive challenges to the truth of Christianity and the existence of God,” particularly “perceived problems with the Bible, Darwinian evolution, and the influence of atheists themselves,” (pp. 59-60).

Chapter four concerns the deconversion process itself. Marriott offers a “model of deconversion that emerged from the interviews and narratives that [he] analyzed,” being comprised of “seven stages that move from Christian commitment to the consequences of identifying as an atheist” – each of which “featured prominently in the majority of the cases” Marriott examined (p. 76). The first stage is the framing context: In particular, “A disproportionate number of deconversions…exhibit aspects of fundamentalism,” (p. 76). Indeed, Marriott explains, it is typical for deconverts to describe their former Christian experience with words such as strict, narrow-minded, legalistic and fundamentalist. The second stage is a crisis of faith, which Marriott classifies under three broad categories: “bad experiences with other Christians, exposure to virtuous non-Christians, and confronting intellectual challenges to the faith,” (p. 77). The third stage is seeking means by which their crises can be resolved. The fourth stage is “attempting to retain their faith in the face of growing doubts,” (p. 81). The fifth stage is the recognition that retaining theistic belief is no longer feasible, and hence “some choose to identify as agnostics before they become atheists,” (p. 82). The sixth stage is “moving from agnosticism to atheism,” though “the definition of atheism adopted by the vast majority [of former Christians interviewed by Marriott] is functionally no different from agnosticism,” (p. 83). The final stage is their coming out as an unbeliever, a costly decision that can result in the severing of “most, if not all, of an individual’s friendships, leaving them feeling alone and alienated,” (p. 83).

At the end of chapter four, Marriott suggests that, from his “listening to and reading deconversion narratives, a point of no return can be identified, if only tentatively so,” (p. 84). He suggests that “When believers begin to harbor or express anger and moral criticism toward their faith, they have reached a dangerous place in the deconversion process,” (p. 84).  Indeed, “if individuals feel deceived or betrayed to such an extent that their anger prohibits them from engaging in a therapeutic dialogue intended to overcome the feelings of hurt and betrayal and restore a sense of trust in God, then apostasy is an almost inevitable result,” (p. 85).

In chapter five, Marriott discusses how it is very common for former Christians to come out of a very rigid fundamentalist background that commends what Marriott calls “a house-of-cards faith – that is, “a belief system that’s inflexible, fragile, and always in danger of collapse due to the nature of its construction,” (p. 91). In a house-of-cards faith, “every card…is necessary for the tower to stand. Pull out just one card, and the entire structure collapses. It doesn’t matter what card it is – pull it out and down goes the house,” (p. 91). This sort of faith is undergirded by four assumptions. First, “‘real’ Christians believe and submit to everything the Bible teaches,” (p. 91). Second, “unless one is a ‘real’ Christian, then they are not Christian at all,” (p. 91). Third, “fundamentalists assume that they have been taught simply what the Bible teaches. They are largely unaware that what they have been taught is a take, or an interpretation of what the Bible teaches,” (pp. 91-92). Finally, “they assume that if the Bible has an error, it cannot be the Word of God. Unsurprisingly, when they become convinced of a claim that’s at odds with their literal interpretation of the Bible, they’re left with no other conclusion than the Bible is errant. And if the Bible is errant, it cannot be the Word of God,” (p. 92). Another environmental factor that contributes to a loss of faith are church communities that “discouraged the asking of challenging questions and critical thinking,” (p. 93). Marriott concludes, “What can be said, with confidence, is that what I discovered in my conversations with former believers is consistent with what repeatedly appears in online and print deconversion narratives, which is that fundamentalist church environments are breeding grounds for deconverts,” (p. 103).

Chapter six was the most troubling in the entire book – since it outlined the alarming ways in which deconverts have been treated by family members, friends, and spouses, often-times being shunned by their communities. Interestingly, “ex-Christians’ relationships with their mothers have suffered more than any other family relationship. The relationship between faithful mothers and unbelieving children was often greatly strained, and a mother was more likely to attempt to reconvert the deconvert than any other family member,” (p. 107). When it comes to fathers, “their responses ranged from mild disappointment to moderate support,” and “only in one case was there a serious attempt from a father to reconvert his child,” (p. 110). When it comes to siblings, the loss of faith generally resulted “in a sense of distance and/or tension in the relationships,” (p. 112). One relationship to be significantly impacted by deconversion is, as one might imagine, spouses. Though “a few marriages have successfully managed to live with the tension that inherently exists in a marriage between a committed believer and an atheist,” there were two cases in which “the marriage could not endure the tension, and they were dissolved,” (p. 115). Friendships with those remaining committed believers also proved difficult to maintain. Indeed, “When they left the faith, many reported the severing of friendships with Christians. In all cases, it was the Christians who ended the relationships,” (p. 117). Deconverts also lost “the camaraderie and solidarity that their faith communities provided,” which “numerous deconverts identified as a negative experience,” (p. 120). 

Chapter seven was also moving to read, as it summarizes the personal cost to ex-Christians, incurred by the loss of their former faith, in terms of their emotional well-being, often resulting in a loss of a concept of ultimate meaning for human existence, and a loss of comfort and hope. In particular, former believers struggle with a loss of confidence that there is life beyond the grave, and that “when their loved ones die, they cease to exist, and the hope and comfort of seeing them again is gone,” (p. 133). Former Christians also lost a sense of direction: “No longer did deconverts feel that their lives were being guided by God,” (p. 133). Citing a study by Karen Ross on the psychological effects of leaving Christianity, Marriott notes that “Many former believers describe their deconversion as akin to losing a close confidant and intimate friend,” (p. 124). 

Chapter eight highlights the strategies employed by former believers for coping with the impact of their apostasy – particularly, in relation to how they chose to reveal to others their new identity as non-believers; how they lived out their lives practically as non-believers; and how they engaged with others who were still believers. When it came to revealing their identities to others, one strategy adopted by some former believers was to seek to “avoid negative pushback, and they cautiously revealed their atheist identities to trusted friends and family,” (p. 137). Others adopted a more open approach, choosing instead “to deal with the impacts of their deconversions by facing them head-on, come what may,” (p. 139). Such individuals “wanted people to know about the changes in their lives and were more than happy to declare them openly in different forums,” (pp. 139-140). When it came to how they decided to live out their lives practically, there were also two different approaches. One approach was diplomatic. Though, for such individuals, “atheism is an important part of who they are, it’s not something they feel should cause strife if it can be avoided,” (pp. 141-142). Instead, although being committed to their non-belief, “they let the battles come to them and do not seek them,” (p. 142). The other approach is to “seek change”, with a willingness “to engage in activities to that end, even if it angers others,” (p. 144). It is common among such individuals to believe that religion is not only false but harmful, and to be concerned about the public perception of atheists. In terms of interaction with individuals in their lives who are still believers, a popular approach, when met with criticism, “was to go on the offensive and turn the tables on believers,” highlighting purported problems with the Christian Scriptures (p. 148).

Chapter nine describes positive outcomes experienced by ex-Christians following their deconversion, including a sense of emotional freedom and happiness. Chapter ten offers a discussion of positive intellectual impacts and ethical improvements reported by people who have left the faith. Particular moral issues that former believers changed their minds on following their loss of faith include abortion and sexual ethics (especially relating to homosexuality and same-sex marriage). Individuals interviewed by Marriott also reported intellectual improvements following their loss of faith, particularly on three fronts: “First, they felt freer in the sense that they were more open-minded. Second, they now based their beliefs on evidence, not faith. Third, science, not the Bible, had become their criterion of truth,” (p. 181).

Critical Appraisal

The first ten chapters of the book provide an excellent survey of the range of experiences that accompany deconversion. I was particularly moved by the discussion in chapter six of the — very often unhelpful — reactions of family members and friends to people falling away from the faith. The book will undoubtedly serve to educate the Christian community about the dynamics of deconversion and clarify popular misconceptions, such as that the primary or even only reason people deconvert is because they want to live a lifestyle prohibited by Christianity.

Chapters eleven through twelve offer recommendations for application to foster an environment that is most conducive to believers retaining a lifelong faith. Much of the content in this section was very helpful and valuable. For example, Marriott highlights the decision of the Jerusalem church in Acts 15 to not place upon gentile believers a burden of adopting practices not essential to the faith: “They discerned that the faith of the gentile believers might buckle under the weight of numerous or onerous non-essential requirements…Therefore, since it was not necessary for being saved, they instructed the church at Antioch that the gentiles did not need to keep the Mosaic law. In doing so, they, no doubt, prevented gentile believers from leaving the faith,” (p. 193). Marriott notes that “There is a lesson here for parents and church leaders,” (p. 193). In particular, it is important not to overburden Christian believers with requirements that are not strictly essential to the Christian faith. For example, churches that make adherence to inerrancy, Calvinism, or young earth creationism an essential aspect of authentic Christianity may in fact inadvertently set people up to lose their faith. The naïve insistence that either the Bible in the original autograph is completely without any form of error or Christianity is false sets a very low bar for the skeptic to persuade someone out of their faith. It instils in people a brittle and fragile faith that, like a precariously balanced Jenga tower, may collapse upon very minimal stress. Nonessential and debatable doctrines should thus be held with a loose grip.

Another helpful piece of advice offered by Marriott that we should inoculate people against doubt by exposing them at an early stage to the best objections to the Bible. Indeed, “Believers should be exposed to Old Testament ‘terror texts,’ the problems raised by historical criticism, and various textual discrepancies of the Bible by other believers before they are acquainted with them by unbelievers,” (p. 199). This avoids the situation where believers are caught off-guard by objections to the Bible and left wondering why nobody in their Christian community informed them of these matters.

I also really appreciated Marriott’s discussion of credibility-enhancing displays as a contributor to faith retention in children. Marriott cites literature that reveals that “a strong correlation exists between children expressing belief in intangible entities, such as God, when important adults in their life behave in accordance with that belief. For example, praying to God, attending church, and telling children to pray indicate to children that adults actually believe in God,” (pp. 119-120). Conversely, “individuals lose their faith in God at younger ages when their religious parents talk the talk but don’t walk the walk,” (pp. 220-221).

If the book had concluded at page 202, I would have been able to give it a wholehearted and unreserved endorsement as an excellent survey – the most comprehensive in publication that I am aware of – of why people deconvert and what we can do to create an environment most conducive to a lifelong confident faith. Unfortunately, from page 203 until 214 (spanning sections of chapters eleven and twelve), the book takes a turn into territory with which I must strongly disagree, beginning with a misguided assault on evidentialism. Marriott observes that an “assumption that is evident in the stories of nearly all former Christians is that they are thoroughgoing evidentialists,” which he defines as “the dictum that it’s only rational to believe that for which there is adequate evidence,” (p. 203). This definition of course reflects the concept of epistemological evidentialism put forward by William Kingdon Clifford, who famously advanced the dictum that “it is wrong, everywhere, always, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” [2]  Alvin Plantinga criticizes this view, arguing that it is “self-referentially incoherent” since it “lays down a standard for justified belief that it doesn’t itself meet.” [3] The problem Plantinga envisages, however, can be circumvented by instead adopting the slightly modified dictum that “It is always a mistake to repose more confidence in a contingent proposition than is justified by the evidence one possesses.” I would argue that epistemology is an a priori discipline. That is to say, true epistemic claims are necessarily true. Therefore, since this statement is not a contingent proposition, it does not fall within its own scope, and there is no self-reference problem. I would thus nuance the concept of evidentialism slightly differently from Marriot’s proposed definition.

Marriott cites various authors (including Plantinga) who assert that evidentialism cannot justify the belief in other minds. Indeed, Plantinga asks, “since we can’t perceive the thoughts and feelings of other people, do we know and how do we know they really have thoughts and feelings? More poignantly, how do we know that what we take to be persons (beings with thoughts, feelings, and intentions) really are persons and not, for example, cunningly constructed robots?” [4] However, even if it were granted that evidentialism renders us incapable of justifying other minds, this is not in itself a defeater for evidentialism. Indeed, it may well be an unjustified belief. We ought not assume that other minds exist as an a priori matter. This is an example of Plantinga assuming which beliefs are warranted in advance, and then attempting to tell a story which will allow him to justifiably hold those beliefs. However, this is to beg the question.

That being said, I would argue (as a staunch defender of evidentialism) that we can in fact be justified in believing in the existence of other minds. Based on my insider knowledge of my own experience – including my thoughts, feelings and intentions – my observation of other beings that very much resemble myself (both anatomically and in the ability to communicate thoughts and feelings) provides evidence that is more probable on the supposition that there are other minds besides my own than it would have been otherwise. This, then, provides justification for the belief in other minds. Of course, one can construct an alternative scenario that explains the same data (the hypothesis that they are cunningly constructed robots, for example). However, such a hypothesis would require additional auxiliary hypotheses (such as that there is some entity that has a desire to deceive us into believing that there are other minds). However, in the absence of independent reason to subscribe to this auxiliary hypothesis, the simplest account of the data (and therefore the one we should prefer) is that there are in fact other minds.

Marriott commends reformed epistemology as a viable alternative to evidentialism. He remarks, “if an individual is troubled by the fact that they find none of the evidential arguments for God’s existence persuasive, they may still be able to rationally maintain their belief in God based on other factors… [T]hey may recognize that it is eminently rational to take the claim that God exists as a properly basic belief grounded in immediate experience alone,” (p. 204). However, I do not believe it to be the normative experience for Christians to have a veridical experience of God that provides sufficient warrant for belief in Christianity. I personally do not have such experience to speak of, and I know plenty of Christians who would say the same thing. Reformed epistemology, therefore, has the potential to give the believer unrealistic expectations of having some sort of veridical internal experience. This in itself can be damaging to one’s confidence in the faith when such expectations are unmet. Furthermore, it is also not at all clear to me how one would reliably distinguish a mystical inner-witness of the Holy Spirit from the testimony of the Mormon who says that God has “shown” them that the book of Mormon is Scripture because they experienced the infamous burning in the bosom. Though it is common for Christians to speak of an inner witness of the Holy Spirit, I think often-times Christians can confuse an implicit rational justification for belief in Scripture (which is based on public evidence) with some sort of mystical inner-witness. For example, one may have an inarticulate sense of the power of the whole case for Christianity without realizing that it is, in fact, a rational response to a cumulative case argument.

Chapter twelve continues the downward trend with an explicit endorsement of presuppositionalism, including a citation of Cornelius Van Til and Greg Bahnsen as an influence on Marriott’s thinking (chapter thirteen, footnote three). Marriott contends that “to argue at all, we must assume the truth of something, and that something must be taken as self-evident. It must be a truth that we do not and cannot appeal to any other higher criterion of authority in order to justify it. If we do, then whatever that is becomes our authority,” (pp. 212-213). Furthermore, Marriott argues, “there is a degree of circularity here, but it’s circularity that’s inescapable. Those who appeal to reason as their ultimate criterion justify doing so by using reason. But if they appealed to anything else to justify reason, reason would not be their ultimate criterion. Therefore, every final authority is self-attesting,” (p. 213). 

However, this argument equivocates between two sorts of presuppositions. Consider the statement that “all bachelors are unmarried.” This is an analytic statement that is true by definition. One does not need to go out and investigate whether or not it is true that all bachelors are unmarried. It is true by virtue of what we mean by “bachelor” and what we mean by “unmarried.” Likewise, the laws of logic, that is, the law of non-contradiction, the law of identity, and the law of the excluded middle are true by definition. It is true by definition that “a” cannot be “non-a” in the same sense at the same time. Likewise, mathematical propositions such as the statement that “2+2 = 4” are true by definition, by virtue simply of what we mean by the constituent terms “2”, “+”, “=”, and “4”. However, statements that have actual content are not true by definition. For example, the consider the statement that “all bachelors are unhappy.” That might be true, but it also might be false. That is to say, it is a contingent statement. We cannot find out the answer simply by analysis of the constituent terms. It is not an analytic statement. To discover whether it is true or false, we need to gather evidence. The statement that God exists and has revealed Himself through the Jesus Christ and communicated to mankind through the Bible is not a statement that is analytically true. It is a statement that is closer in nature to the statement that “all bachelors are unhappy” than to the statement that “all bachelors are unmarried.” The Bible, therefore, cannot simply be presupposed or asserted to be true by “the impossibility of the contrary” as Greg Bahnsen so often liked to put it. The only way to adjudicate the truth or falsehood of Christianity is to examine the evidence.

Marriott attempts to justify engaging in circular reasoning by beginning with the authority of Scripture. He asserts that “the Bible provides the precondition for the intelligibility of the laws of logic, morality, maintaining our identity over time, the existence of universals, the uniformity of nature (which science requires), freedom, and dignity, to name just a few.” He concludes, that “the Bible is the best explanation compared to other options available. Some have gone so far as to argue that no other presupposed, ultimate authority possesses the resources to serve as the precondition for intelligibility – not empiricism, not rationalism, and not any other religious revelation – only the Bible,” (pp. 213-214). However, this is just pious sounding nonsense. Indeed, there is no possible world in which the laws of logic could have been different. It is not at all clear to me why the Bible serves as a precondition for the laws of logic or the existence of universals. This is merely asserted without argument. Furthermore, what doctrines need to be accepted before one can give an adequate account of the laws of logic? What Biblical books or doctrines, if they were to be removed from our canon or creeds would throw us into absurdity? I have never seen those questions adequately addressed. 

A related challenge to presuppositionalism, often overlooked, is what I call the problem of progressive revelation. To appreciate this problem, imagine that you are a first century Jew, living while the New Testament was first being written. How would you know that the New Testament was a valid continuation of what you already had in the Hebrew Bible? It seems to me that the presuppositionalist strategy would not be very helpful in this situation. Indeed, the only way by which you could know that the revelation concerning Jesus Christ in the New Testament was a legitimate continuation of the Hebrew Bible would be to look at the available public evidence (with a view towards discerning whether Jesus of Nazareth really did fulfil the ancient prophecies concerning the Messiah; or whether he did in fact rise from the dead).

Marriott claims that “Only the Bible, because it’s a revelation from God, can be trusted to play the role as the ultimate authority because it originates from God and, as such, is wholly true,” (p. 214). But Marriott does not elaborate on how he came to conclude that the Bible is in fact revelation from God, which is the very point at issue, or how this may be determined without consulting the public evidence. Marriott’s explicit endorsement of circular reasoning is very disappointing.

Interestingly, Marriott later goes on to argue that “to believe is not to have certainty or necessarily a high degree of psychological confidence. Instead, it is to be persuaded enough that the claims of Christ are true that one adopts the Christian story as their own and lives under the lordship of Christ. This does not require certainty,” (p. 223). He further suggests that “Apologetics can provide reasons that can, in turn, instill confidence that Christianity is true. But it can never demonstrate that it is beyond all doubt,” (p. 223-224). On this point, Marriott and I agree. However, this seems to be at odds with Marriot’s expressed presuppositionalism, which – as Marriott himself articulated – argues that Scripture is our highest epistemic authority, indeed a precondition of logic and rationality itself. This would imply that the Bible be held with certainty – and, indeed, most presuppositionalists would strongly criticize anyone who suggested that we affirm the Bible with anything less than certainty. This is an entailment of their methodology (supposing their assertion of the Bible being a precondition of logic to be true).

In conclusion, Marriott provides us with an excellent, and very welcome, survey of the reasons people have for deconverting from the faith, together with an insightful discussion of the experiences that accompany loss of faith. However, the discussion of presuppositionalist apologetics towards the end of the book contains fatal flaws that do not take much insight to see through. I worry that presentation of the ideas of Cornelius Van Til and Greg Bahnsen will not have the desired effect of stabilizing peoples’ faith and preventing a crisis, but will do more to drive people away from the faith.

Footnotes

[1] John Marriott, The Anatomy of Deconversion — Keys to a Lifelong Faith in a Culture Abandoning Christianity (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2021).

[2] William Kingdon Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief,” in An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism, ed. Gordon Stein (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1980), 282. 

[3] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford University Press, 2000), 93.

[4] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford University Press, 2000), 69.

1 thought on “Book Review: The Anatomy of Deconversion, by John Marriott”

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Anatomy of Deconversion – Biblical Scholarship

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Share

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin