Walking with Someone through Deconstruction: John Marriott
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John MarriottJohn Marriott is the coordinator of the Biola University Center for Christian Thought and teaches in the department of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, and the Intercultural Studies Department at Biola University. He speaks at camps and churches throughout the United States and Canada addressing issues related to Christianity, culture, and religion. John is a leading expert of deconversion, having authored five books on the subject, including The Anatomy of Deconversion: Keys to Lifelong...more
Walking with someone through faith deconstruction? Dr. John Marriott helps you understand what’s going on, navigate wisely, and love deeply.
Walking with Someone through Deconstruction: John Marriott
John: When someone leaves the faith, they will always say they’re leaving because they no longer believe that’s it’s true; because they just came to the place where they don’t think that the Bible can be the Word of God. Unfortunately, in the church we have sort of set them up for that crisis of faith because we haven’t done a really great job of letting young people know, “This is where the New Testament came from; here’s why we think this person wrote it. Here’s how it was put together; this is why we think it’s reliable.” Then, they go to university, and they hear what would be the more skeptical, critical side of the history of the Bible, and they say, “What? Are you kidding me?”
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: We’ve already talked about, all the signs of the next generation in their Christian faith are sort of scary. There seems to be—they’re walking away! Now, we know that not everybody’s walking away. Our kids aren’t all walking away; but when you read the stats, you think, “Man! It’s an epidemic!”
Ann: Yes. I think as a parent, I’m thinking, “How can I avoid this? How can I keep my kids in the faith that is dynamic?”
Dave: Every parent listening right now is like, “Help me, help me, help me! This is my goal.”
Ann: Even parents with little kids!
Dave: Oh, especially!
Ann: As they’re raising kids in a culture where God isn’t a topic that we often discuss—as it used to be.
Dave: So, we have John Marriott back in the studio with us. Welcome back, John.
John: Good to be here again.
Dave: I called you last time “the expert” but why did you start—I mean, you’re a professor at Biola; you work with students every day.
Ann: An author.
Dave: Years ago, you decided, “I’m going to dig into this whole thing called “deconversion,” or “deconstruction” where our kids, our children, are walking away. What got you so interested in this? You were studying it before it’s a known entity in our culture.
John: Yes. There is one significant event that happened in my life that really motivated me. In 1996 I was at a Division I university on the east coast. I was on a track and field scholarship; my event was the triple jump. I had been there a year, and things had been going really poorly. I felt I was getting worse instead of better, and I really wanted to quit. I had a good conversation with my coach, and he said, “No, you’ve got to hang in there a little longer.”
Then, we went to Florida for the Florida State relays. The first morning there one of my teammates came up to me and said, “You’ll never guess who’s in the weight room?” I said, “I have no idea who’s in the weight room, and I have no interest in playing a guessing game.” I’m really discouraged at this point. He says, “Jonathan Edwards is in the weight room.” The year previous to that, Jonathan Edwards, out of the UK, had broken the record in the triple jump, and he had broken it three times.
Dave: The world record?
John: Yes. The world record in the triple jump. In that year he was the world champion. I guess he had decided to move to the United States to train, and he was at the Florida State University, where we were, and he was in the weight room. If there was one person, who I felt could have understood me, it would’ve been Jonathan Edwards because the UK press was more impressed with his personal life than they were with his amazing triple jumps.
He sacrificed, very much like Eric Liddell did in Chariots of Fire, and opportunity to go to the Olympics and the World Championships in previous years, because he didn’t want to compete on a Sunday. A deeply committed believer. So, you can imagine what I felt when I knew that Jonathan Edwards was in the weight room that day!
Ann: A hero!
John: He was my hero. Pictures of him were all over my dorm room wall.
John: I went into the weight room—there he was. I waited until he was done. I went over and told him my sad story—I told him that I was a Christian, and I knew that he was a believer, and I was really struggling, and could he help me? He said, “I’m not a great coach, but my coach can help you. Would you like to go for lunch?”
So, we went out for lunch, and he told me all about when he was done with track and field he was going to Dallas Theological Seminary. He was going to study Israelology—do a systematic study of the nation of Israel. He went on and won the gold medal in the Olympics. Then, he won the World Championships one more time, and then he retired. When he retired, he became the host of Songs of Praise, which is the BBC’s longest-running television show. It’s a Sunday morning praise television show. So, he was one of the most well-known Christians in the UK at the time.
In 2007 I googled him, and I thought, “I wonder what Jonathan Edwards is doing these days?” The first headline I see is “Olympic Triple Jumper Takes Leap out of Faith.”
John: Yes. I actually felt my stomach flip, and I clicked on that link, and I read how he no longer identifies as a Christian. What really bothered me was when he said, “I’m happier and more content without my faith than I was with it.” And I don’t think there’s any more reason to believe in the existence of God. I said, “How is that possible?”
The rest of that night I started looking into stories of people, like Jonathan Edwards. Probably many of us are familiar with famous Christian celebrities who have recently walked away from the faith. But for each one of those, there tens of thousands of other stories of people online who are not celebrities but say, “Yes, I used to be committed to this, but I don’t believe it anymore.” So, I said, “Why does that happen? What does the process look like? Is there anything we can do; is there anything that we’re doing that might be contributing to it?” That’s what started the research for my dissertation.
Everyone who leaves the faith has a different story. We can’t just broad-brush and say, “This is how it happens; this is what it looks like. Here are the specific reasons.” There are factors we can identify. There’s a general model that people kind of go through that we can identify. There are some triggers that we can identify. But everyone is unique, and everyone comes into faith on their own unique journey. And everyone who leaves the faith also has their own unique journey.
Ann: Yesterday you talked about a profile.
Ann: There’s a type of profile of people that are leaving?
Ann: Can you talk about that a little bit? We mentioned it yesterday.
John: Sure. I think it’s important to say that just because people fit the profile does not mean they’re going to walk away from the faith. One of my good friends read it and said, “Oh, I don’t think I’m going to be a Christian for very much longer. This identifies me!” [Laughter] He’s one of the most deeply committed believers that I know. What I’m saying is that this is just a generalization.
First of all, there’s a set of personality traits that people who deconvert typically have. One of them is being above average in intelligence.
Dave: Well, I guess we’re out, honey. [Laughter] We don’t have to worry about it!
John: There are number of studies done, and one of the most significant is a study of sixty-three different studies that show that people who either have left the faith, or some religious faith; or who don’t adopt a religious faith—they score higher in intelligence tests. So, there is sort of a connection between people of intelligence and people who say, “I don’t believe.”
People who are open to experience. Now this is one of the big five personality traits that psychologists say that we’re born with and it seems to be consistent throughout our life, and we’re either open or closed to varying degrees to new experiences. “Do you want to go skydiving?” “Yes!” “Do you want to go bungee jumping?” “Sure!” “Do you want to go hear a Buddhist speaker down at the student union?” “I’m open to hearing about new things.”
People who are more open to new experiences are significantly more likely than people who are a bit more closed off. That seems to make sense because you’re opening yourself up to new ideas, new ways of thinking. Whereas, if you don’t do that, then maybe you’re not going to be challenged as much in what you believe.
Those who have a low tolerance for authoritarian leadership—should not be surprising, right? Sometimes religious communities can be a bit overbearing, and if you come from one of those and you have a low tolerance for that, you’re going to maybe buck against that.
Then, there are some values that we have. There are about 12 basic values that everyone has, and we hold them to varying degrees. None of these are better or worse then the other. We all esteem some of them. But there are a set of values that, if you esteem them highly, you are more likely. These are actual predictors.
One is if you score high in the value of self-determination: doing what I want to do; my own freedom; my own autonomy. That’s one. Another one is if you score high in hedonism, which is pleasure is really important for you, and seeking pleasure—that would be another one.
Dave: That’s not everybody? [Laughter]
John: That’s everybody, but to varying degrees, right? Everybody does want to be independent. Everyone wants their freedom. Everybody wants pleasure, but people for whom this is a really high, important, prioritized value—that’s the difference.
Dave: Some college.
John: Some college. Yes, yes. Going off to college is significant. One of the reasons why it’s significant is not just because maybe college is some bastion of liberalism. I think that that’s a problem, and that that can be the seeds of doubt for a lot of people. But it’s also the time when young people leave home, and they’re outside of their family environment where they maybe feel a bit more free to think about things and question.
They encounter new people, especially people from new faith traditions, or no faith tradition, and they say, “I like these people. They’re nice people. They’re not people who I thought were wicked and evil and bad. Some of them might even be a bit more moral than I am. That makes me question my own beliefs about things.”
It’s also a time when young people begin to figure out who their true self is. It’s really easy, certainly if you’re a first born and you’re a pleaser—you grow up and you adopt all the values and beliefs that your family has placed into you. And you think that’s really who you are, but at some point, you say, “I don’t think I really do line up with that political party. Or I don’t really feel that this really is as important as my parents feel.”
Dave: When your kid goes to college, it’s a wonderful moment, but you’re also scared to death because all those temptations are right there, and they’re not in your home anymore. Yet, at the other side of it, it can be a great opportunity for God to meet—it’s where I met Him. It was like, all those things were the end; they were empty.
But I had to walk through that to know that, and then I turned to Christ. So, is it something we should be scared of? Probably not.
John: The ingredients can sound very determinative. If my son or daughter checks off these boxes, then they’re eventually going to leave the faith—which is just clearly not the case. My son is a first born; he’s intelligent; he is sort of a pleaser, a people pleaser, but he wants to do the right thing. He does identify as a Christian; he believes that it’s true. He wanted to get baptized, and then before he got baptized, he said to me, “I’ve got one question, though.” I said, “What is it?” He said, “How do we know this is all true?” I said, “Ok. Maybe we need to step back from getting baptized and go through this. We need to start providing you with some reasons why we think that it’s true.”
So, we started watching a series of videos on the resurrection and on the existence of God. I was fortunate enough, because of my background and my education and my experience I could pause those videos and say, “I agree with what this guy on the screen is saying, but I want you to hear me present the argument against that so that you know that this is not a slam dunk case. But there is reason to believe. Faith is a matter of trust that goes a bit beyond the reasons.”
I want him to hear that from me so in a way it inoculates him so that when he gets to university and one of the classic things that happens in the intro to philosophy class is they say, “Here are the traditional arguments for the existence of God.” Right? And if you’d just been given the existence of God arguments from the Christian side, you’re going to walk into that class and think, “Of course God exists. Are you kidding me? These arguments are foolproof.” Then you hear the professor say, “Well, this one doesn’t seem to work. Here’s a premise here that seems to fail. This doesn’t necessarily follow.” You walk out with maybe a shaken faith!
But if you can introduce some of those challenges and say, “Look. These are the two competing views.” You need to listen and then say, “Is there enough reason here that you have a hope worth acting on?” That’s sort of how I cash it out with my kids.
Ann: Some parents are thinking, “I don’t think I could give the other side.” It’s a good thing you wrote some good books, [Laughter] and they’re so much tougher than some other books out there.
John: There are some really great books that can do that, that will say, “Here’s the argument from the Christian side. Now here’s what the other side will say. Here’s why we think we have good responses to that so that your faith is grounded in something rather than just a blind leap.”
Ann: I remember that in college. I took a religion class, and this guy was probably an atheist that was my professor. I was like, “What?!!” I thought, “I’m going to take this religion class; it’ll be all about Jesus and why it’s so important and how it defends our faith.” I was like, “This is crazy!” But, yes, you’re right. When you get to college, all of your faith is challenged.
John: Yes, not just on the existence of God. One of the really big ones is the reliability of the Bible. This is the number one intellectual reason that people give for why they walk away from their faith. I think there’s always more going on in deconversions—as there is in conversions. There’s lots more because we’re not just thinking things, right? We’re feeling things, and evaluating things, and worshipping things, and loving things.
When someone leaves the faith, they will always say that they’re leaving because they no longer believe that it’s true. One of the reasons why they don’t believe it’s true anymore is they just came to a place where they don’t think that the Bible, especially the New Testament, can be the Word of God.
Unfortunately, in the church we have sort of set them up for that crisis of faith because we haven’t done a really great job of letting young people know, “This is where the New Testament came from; here’s why we think this person wrote it. Here’s how it was put together; this is why we think it’s reliable.” It’s just something that’s been there and part of their life, and they’ve never really questioned where it came from.
Then, they go to university, and they hear what would be the more skeptical, critical side of the history of the Bible, and they say, “What? Are you kidding me? I’ve never heard any of this!” I’ve interviewed a handful of people who got angry and said, “My parents and the church lied to me about all this stuff.”
Dave: I remember a guy came up to me at the church I pastored for 30 years after a sermon, and he said, “Hey. You don’t need to tell us who wrote the book; what Ephesians is (a church in Ephesus); what was going on. We know that stuff! You don’t need to say that! You took so much time to explain that. And then you got into it.”
I go, “Uh, I’m not talking to you.” He goes, “What do you mean?” I go, “I hope you brought your neighbor. That’s what we say all the time. They don’t know any of that. They need to know that because they don’t know who Paul is. They don’t know—they don’t even know this is a letter!” I grew up around the church; I didn’t even know that an epistle is a letter—until I was in college. So, that kind of thing is really critical.
John: It is.
Dave: And so, I knew in the last ten or fifteen years when you’re standing on a stage in a conference or preaching—the people in the audience have this in their hand.
Ann: Which is a phone.
Dave: Anything you say, they can check in real time.
Dave: And they will. Twenty years ago, you could make an easy reliability of the Bible statement, and let it go. Now you can’t. You cannot just say it. They’re going to go, “What he just said—it’s been refuted by this scholar, this scholar, this scholar.” [Laughter]
John: That’s right.
Dave: It’s a world that people have access to information that nobody ever had before—only us highly-scholared pastors and teachers did. So, it’s a thinking world, right?
John: Yes. And one of the biggest influences in why people leave the faith is without question the internet. Without question the internet. I grew up in a town of about 75,000 people. There were three Christian radio stations I could pick up when the sound skipped across Lake Superior, [Laughter] and I could get it on a clear Saturday night.
Dave: Hopefully, you got FamilyLife Today on there.
John: It might have been FamilyLife Today. There were no atheist radio programs; no atheist radio networks. To come across and encounter counter arguments to all the good apologetics I had encountered—was almost impossible! But the internet has levelled the playing field and has allowed 1,000 atheist apologists to bloom.
When all you hear is the positive side of the Christian arguments for the truth of the Bible, the existence of God, the truth of the resurrection, you can be incredibly confident! But when you encounter those counter arguments, you say, “Wait a minute. I never heard any of this stuff before. Is there an answer to this?” The internet has allowed people to encounter those, where before they had no access to it.
Ann: So, what should a parent do? As you’re talking about this—and their kids are scrolling and they’re on the internet constantly reading the rebuttals to their faith—what’s the next step for them?
John: Sure. One of the things I would say is that we have to be careful that we don’t become all or nothing people where we say, “Look. You might encounter some bad stuff on the internet so we’re never going to use the internet.” There’s a ton of good things on the internet. But I think setting a framework for the usefulness of the internet is helpful.
One of those is to say, “You’re going to come across some things, because there are arguments that people make against the Christian faith, and they can sound fairly persuasive. So, here’s what I want you to do. When you come across those, I want you to suspend your judgement. I want you to hear what they have to say. Recognize that this is an internet website that may not be reliable, that may not be written by someone who really knows what they’re talking about. This is a YouTube video made by someone you don’t really know. You don’t really know how well-educated they are.”
Then to say, “Alright. Now I’ve heard the other side. Are there answers to these questions? Is there helpful responses to that?” As a parent with your child, you can say, “Let’s dig into this. Let’s look together to find out if Christians have responded to this.” Sometimes what you find is, “Wow! Christians responded to this thousands of years ago. The early Church Fathers addressed this question, and this guy on the internet is a Johnny-come-lately to this discussion because he’s raising stuff that’s been addressed a long time ago, but it’s new to you.”
I think that being involved with our kids, talking with our kids, staying on top of what they’re looking at—we have a program on our internet Wi-Fi at home that tells us every website that our kids go to. We know what they’re looking at. We feel that that’s our responsibility as parents. They’re not ever going to come across anything that’s going to shock us or surprise us. Sometimes we can say, “Hey, I saw you were on that website. What did you think of that?”
Ann: That’s a great question—“What did you think of that?” Not, “Why are you on that website? You shouldn’t be on that website! They’re just telling lies!” They’ll still look at it; they just won’t tell you the next time.
John: One of the underlying assumptions, I think that really has a negative impact when people come across this literature or this information on the internet, and when we respond to it—is if there is a young person who says, “I am seeking the truth, and I want to know the truth about this.” They know that us parents—we’re fully invested in this. We have complete skin in the game. We have lots of reasons why we want this to be true and why we want them to be Christians.
So, they’re maybe hearing us as saying, “Yes, they’re seeing all of this stuff, but that’s because they really want it to be true. But you know what? These people who have left the faith—they’re not trying to defend some kind of position and keep me in it; they’re just seeking the truth.
I think we have to address that and say, “What you also need to know is, just as Christian apologists believe that Christianity is true, and they’re making an argument because they want to convince you that it’s true—don’t think the other side is completely neutral and unbiased. Because if Christianity is right, then there’s a brokenness and hardness of heart and a spiritual component there that also sees the evidence from a particular perspective.” I think helping people recognize that can go a long way as well.
Dave: It would be really interesting if your son or daughter at whatever age—I’m guessing middle school or high school—starts to really question what you as a parent have handed down their whole life. My vision is, wouldn’t it be cool if the parent went on the journey with the son or daughter. Most of us, as parents, don’t know, all the ins and outs of why we believe what we believe. As a pastor I saw that every week. It’s like, “Most of our congregation doesn’t even read the Bible.” If you asked them to defend it, they would not know the first thing.
Ann: Or even how the Bible was assembled.
Dave: It’s just where they are. It isn’t what they’ve done. So, when their child starts to question that, they can’t answer their questions because they don’t know, either.
What if they went on a journey together? Say, “Man, you’re asking some tough questions, Son. I do not know, but I’ll go on this journey with you. Let’s find out the reliability, the truth, and let’s live on it.”
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with John Marriott on FamilyLife Today. John’s book is called Before You Go: Uncovering Hidden Factors in Faith Loss. You can pick up a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com and honestly, dive deeper into what we’ve been talking about today.
As John has been discussing with Dave and Ann today, there are so many people who are walking away from the faith. We at FamilyLife want to be part of the solution. We don’t want to just sit back and watch that happen. We want to ask you if you would help us become part of that solution. This is important now more than ever.
Would you consider partnering with us here at FamilyLife? When you give us any amount this week, we want to send you a copy of John Marriott’s other book called Recipe for Disaster: Four Ways Churches and Parents Prepare Individuals to Lose Their Faith and How They Can Instill a Faith that Endures. That book is going to be our gift to you as a way to say thank you for any gift you give at FamilyLifeToday.com.
If you’re wondering how you can get started in partnership with us, you can go online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Or you can give us a call with your donation at 800-358-6329. That can be a one-time gift or a recurring monthly gift. Again, the number is 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word “TODAY.”
Tomorrow, you’ll hear Dave and Ann talk again with John Marriott on uncovering more factors in child faith loss and what you as parents can do about it. Maybe it’s more than what we say that keeps them believing. That’s tomorrow. We hope you can join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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