In the last few years there has been a handful of what might be called: celebrity Christian deconversion stories. These would include folks like Hillsong worship leader Marty Sampson, popular pastor and author Joshua Harris, and the YouTube entertainer Rhett McLaughlin (who I only know as one of the two “Bentley Brothers” from Phil Vischer’s excellent kids’ series What’s in the Bible? with Buck Denver).
As I did not grow up Evangelical Christian, my experience with childhood faith was probably very different from many of these “celebrities.” However, I did have a deconversion from my childhood Roman Catholic faith. That deconversion happened over an extended period of time starting roughly in high school, and culminated sometime after I graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1997. However, at the age of 34 I had a dramatic, religious conversion when I stepped foot into an Evangelical church for the first time in my life. I saw and heard Jesus that day, and since then I have gone on to do two Master’s Degrees in Christian Apologetics and Systematic Theology. As someone who lived an extended time both as a non-Christian, and now almost 11 years as a committed Evangelical, I resonate with adults like Sampson, and McLaughlin, but also struggle to see this as shocking a phenomena as many make it out to be.
But, what are we to make of these deconversions? Many of which are being used by skeptics as arguments against the Christian faith. Here are a few points to consider regarding this trend, if it can be called that.
1. Deconversions are not evidence against Christianity.
For every one adult deconversion story we could easily find an adult conversion story (I just related my own at 34). Thus the question poses itself: does the fact that some leave Christianity as adults outweigh the fact that some find Christianity as adults, and, if so, why? The answer to this is obviously no, since all kinds and types of people deconvert, and all kinds and types of people convert. Thus, it would be fallacious to think that those who deconvert are being more honest, or genuine, or are more intelligent about their beliefs than those that convert. There seem to be genuine, adult conversions and genuine adult deconversions. Some of those may be more intellectually informed and some less, but to try and measure the truth of Christian claims by this criteria of conversion is a hopeless endeavor.
It seems therefore that a “deconversion vs. conversion metric” will be useless to determining whether Christianity is true. That said, however, overall numbers can act as some evidence for the truthfulness of a worldview. The fact that there have been billions of Christians over an extended period of time, and throughout many cultures, can act as some evidence for the truth of its core claims. I would apply the same to Islam, Hinduism, and other world religions. There is at least something compellingly truthful about them, if they hold so much sway over so many different kinds of people over so many centuries of time.
2. However, celebrity Christian deconversions, or celebrity conversions, actually do matter.
In Book VIII, Chapter IV of Confessions, St. Augustine relates the conversion of a famed Roman rhetorician, Victorinus, whose public conversion caused great rejoicing. Augustine goes on to say that it is significant when someone of this stature converts to the Christian faith:
For when many rejoice together, the joy of each one is the fuller, in that they are incited and inflamed by one another. Again, because those that are known to many influence many towards salvation, and take the lead with many to follow them. And, therefore, do they also who preceded them much rejoice in regard to them, because they rejoice not in them alone. (Confessions, VIII.iv.9)
Augustine goes on to suggest that the Apostle Paul even took the name “Paul” based on the first of his converts, Sergius Paulus (see Schaff, fn. 7 in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, 120), an influential Roman pro-consul. Regarding Victorinus then, because he had been such a strong and celebrated opponent of Christianity, his conversion was that much more glorifying to the power of God unto salvation:
For the enemy is more overcome in one [Victorinus] of whom he hath more hold, and by whom he hath hold of more. But the proud hath he more hold of by reason of their nobility; and by them of more, by reason of their authority.By how much the more welcome, then, was the heart of Victorinus esteemed, which the devil had held as an unassailable retreat, and the tongue of Victorinus, with which mighty and cutting weapon he had slain many; so much the more abundantly should Thy sons rejoice, seeing that our King hath bound the strong man.”
In short, the conversion of Victorinus, a sort of Richard Dawkins of his time, did matter. Not in the sense of God’s estimation, for God is no respecter of persons in this sense, but in the estimation of the culture and the church of his time. This means that whether it be Rhett McLaughlin deconverting, or someone like Chuck Colson converting, people of influence will make a difference in the life of the church, and its surrounding culture. Their actions just will affect people, for better, or for worse.
3. Not being challenged early, and often, in one’s faith commitments seems to be worse for Christians than better.
It now seems almost trite to talk about the theoretical Evangelical kid who goes off to college only to have his faith smashed to bits by some biology or philosophy professor. We even have an entire series of movies (think God’s Not Dead) dedicated to trying to address that dynamic. However, it seems to be that McLaughlin’s story adds evidence to this pattern, as he admits in many places of his testimony that only as an adult was he first confronted with counter-arguments from both philosophy, science, and, most of all, biblical studies.
In my own experience, I also went through a tremendous time of intellectual struggle. However, this was after my adult conversion, while I was doing my MA in Christian Apologetics. I was at that time forced to engage with counters to our traditional Christian claims. For example, I nearly lost my mind when I had to write my first research paper on the Historical Jesus. In needing to defend the historicity of Jesus’ existence, I had to engage with scholars like G.A. Wells, who argued rather carefully that Jesus was a mythological figure. These were men who had done far more historical research than I, so how could I be so arrogant as to reject their learned conclusions?
Yet, pressing forward in my studies, I realized that certainty is simply never the case, either way. And, scholarship also rests on the shifting sands of culture, and the broader philosophical movements that shape it. Thus, while McLaughlin is right to question some of his preconceptions about Christianity, it also seems from his testimony that maybe he has yet to really go deep enough to get a grip on the bigger problem of epistemic certainty about anything. The reality is there just isn’t that kind of certainty for any worldview, and, it may be the case that Christianity still wins out in the end (I think it clearly does). Thus, I hope for McLaughlin’s sake, and for the sake of those he influences, he doesn’t quit in his pursuit of truth. I think he will still find in the end that Christianity is not only the most attractive view available to us, but the most truthful, just as I came to realize that Wells’ view was shaky at best, and now believe with little doubt that Jesus was a real guy.
That said, it seems that if this kind of epistemic crises first occurs in one’s adult life, that the psychological toll will be much greater for the individual. Thus, we might consider how to challenge our own children early on, all the while realizing that we cannot engineer faith in anyone. Still, it seems that there can be some ways to increase the epistemic resilience in our children by not allowing them to go unchallenged for so long.
4. It is pretty obvious that intelligence has little to do with whether or not one converts as an adult, or deconverts.
Skeptics may want to claim that the more intelligent person is the one who deconverts, and the more gullible person the one who converts. But, there is no evidence this is the case. We can come up with examples of very intelligent people who have converted to Christianity from skepticism (e.g. Ed Feser, or Alasdair MacIntyre), and ones who have deconverted to skepticism from Christianity (e.g. Bart Ehrman, or Anthony Kenny). And, we could find examples of people less intelligent, as well as the vast majority in the middle.
Intelligence, critical thinking, and even access to data, are not what ultimately decides which direction one goes. Of course, theologically speaking, we have other explanations for how personal faith may work, to include this aspect of perseverance. Still, from a sociological standpoint, the determining factors in deconversion, or conversion, are probably manifold, and not reducible to just intellectual capacity, or any other single factor. They are too complex to discern, and we probably shouldn’t matter about it too much, unless we are in personal contact with someone who has deconverted. But, even there, who can really know the heart of another? We are utterly complex beings, and our intellect is only one small part of that human complex.
5. A handful of well-known deconversions does not a movement make.
Skeptics might again try and jump on these deconversion stories, most of which take place in the US & Canada, to try and draw a conclusion far too big to fit the data. On the whole, while we should take the deconversion of individuals seriously, when we look at the bigger numbers at the macro-level, things are going quite well for Christianity in the world. Scholar and Church Historian Mark Noll points this out:
“Changes in world Protestantism from 1910-2010 have been breathtaking. By 2010, of the world’s approximately 875 million Protestant or Protestant-type adherents, less than 12% lived in Europe. Another 15% lived in the United States. In former European colonies like South Africa and New Zealand, the numbers of Protestants have burgeoned, but mostly in non-white churches. By the 21st century, Protestantism had become a primarily non-Western religion. in 1910, 79% of the world’s Anglicans lived in Britain….By contrast, in 2010, 59% of the world’s Anglicans were found in Africa. Also in 2010, more Protestants lived in India than in Germany or Britain combined. About as many lived in each of Nigeria and China as in all of Europe. Much more than ever before, the Protestant world has become co-extensive with the world itself.” (Noll, Protestantism: A Short Introduction, 9).
In other words, the world is becoming not only more Christian, but more Protestant Christian, and that regardless of the western decline.
6. Finally, we probably shouldn’t assume that deconversions are “the end of the story” for the deconverted.
We only see people at particular moments in time over the course of an entire life. Although there is a theological discussion to be had here about perseverance, there clearly have been times in the lives of many saints (even Mother Theresa had them), where it looked to be the case as if that person had totally lost their faith. There are times, often long times, of spiritual darkness and drought; there are “dark nights of the soul” that are real. For biblical proof of this, read Psalm 88 (and see Tim Keller’s amazing sermon on it).
Thus a deconversion “moment” does not necessarily mean that someone is not still saved, and may not return to the faith in a very real, and perhaps more substantive way. Our life of faith is not a perfectly linear movement, it has deep drops, sharp turns, and rough edges. It would be premature, and almost faithless, to make any statement about where any of these folks may be when their time comes to give an account before God.
This, after all, is my own testimony.
Anthony Costello is a US Army veteran (82D ABN DIV 3/73 CAV) with a BA from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN and two Masters Degrees from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University in Christian Apologetics and Theology. Anthony's areas of focus are Apologetics and Systematic Theology. He has published in both academic journals and magazines and co-authored two chapters in Evidence that Demands a Verdict, edited by Josh and Sean McDowell.