It’s pretty much a given that whenever someone leaves the church, Christians look for reasons why, often finding ways to blame or discredit that person, much like the tendency to say that atheists believe in God really, they’re just rebelling against Him. That’s bad in itself – in fact, it’s shocking – but I’ve been thinking about this and anticipating the sort of things people will say to/about me, and I suddenly realised something.
If you leave the church in difficult circumstances, like a bereavement or hardship, it’s common for people to say that you’re blaming God for your troubles. Maybe that’s fair enough, although given that it’s intended as a criticism it would be better if the people saying it had a decent answer to the problem of evil, but what about the alternatives?
When I was a young, enthusiastic evangelical at university, it was very common to talk of people rejecting God because they were comfortable, well-off and had no need of Him, maybe because it’s something students rarely have to worry about. That made perfect sense to me, just as it made sense to say that people rejected God because of loss, suffering or some other difficulty. But I never connected those beliefs or noticed anything wrong with them.
You’ll have noticed that it’s possible to disregard anyone by this method. As with Morton’s Fork, you’re damned either way, literally in this case. Either you’re acting like a spoilt child because you didn’t get your own way, or you’re running away in case God (it’s never just the church’s own idiosyncratic opinion) tells you to live a less comfortable life. If necessary, you can safely be dismissed as having selfish personal reasons, whatever your situation.
That’s just a single issue, and there are other things which are said (often quietly, in sorrow, or for prayer) about people who leave the faith, possibly to maintain the fiction that anyone who examines the evidence objectively will obviously be a Christian. But I find the contrast between the extremes and the similarity of the reaction particularly revealing in this case.
It would be nice if the church showed an interest in why people really leave, instead of searching for reasons why their departure is a reflection on them rather than the church. Some do, including my current (ex?) church, but not all that many. I was never an extremist or fundamentalist, but not so long ago, I’d have gladly criticised people leaving the church for one or other of these reasons.
I can’t imagine it’s easy when someone you know and like leaves the church, but from either a Christian or simply a human perspective, I don’t like the way understandable disappointment and possible confusion can be turned into personal criticism.
So when someone criticises an ex-church member, ask yourself why the criticism was necessary, and whether it has any validity. I suspect that in many cases, it’s a reflex action to look for reasons why someone left the church as a sort of defence mechanism against things that have the capacity to cause doubts.
Photo by L.Marie, used under Attribution License