Leftward Drift: How Values Shift During Deconversion

By Joel Furches

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August 24, 2021

When it comes to leaving religion, there are two ways in which these exits have been cataloged. The first involves moving from a weak religious position to an irreligious position. In this context, “weak” means that the person was either only nominally religious or came from a church tradition which was only superficially religious and fundamentally secular. This is broadly categorized as apostacy. The second type of religious exit would involve a person from a strong religious position – a person who was a devoted practitioner of the most robust version of their religion – moving to an irreligious position. These are categorized as “Amazing Apostates,” and involves a very radical change in the person’s life.

In 2009, researcher Raoul J. Adam made the observation that Amazing Apostates come almost exclusively from Fundamentalist churches in his research paper titled “‘Leaving the Fold’: Apostasy from Fundamentalism and the Direction of Religious Development.” Adam defines Fundamentalism in terms of certainty or confidence in one’s position. Broadly speaking, under Adam’s definition, Fundamentalism is identical to Dogmatism. One may be dogmatic about any position, Right, Left, or Center; religious or irreligious.  However, in America, Fundamentalism is unambiguously associated with the extreme Right Wing, both doctrinally and politically.

There is a tie between the foundational thinking which grounds both religious and political approaches. On the Right Wing, these are called “conservation values,” which include things like stability, loyalty, and a resistance to change. On the Left Wing, conservation values are replaced with “self-expansion values” (including things like self-direction, achievement, and stimulation).

Deconversion researcher Heinz Streib (2021) has noted that one finds high levels of self-expansion values, and low levels of conservation values in deconverts, and other researchers, such as Saroglou, Karim, & Day (2020) have achieved results that suggest that conservation values decrease and self-expansion values increase across the process of deconversion such that deconverts begin from a baseline personality profile which matches their religious socialization, and end their journey with personality profiles that more closely resemble those atheists who were never socialized in a religious environment.

It is very evident from my own research and simple observation that deconverts universally exit religion with far more progressive or liberal values than those with which they began. The universality of this trend makes it difficult to suggest that these two transitions – religious and political – are in no way connected. So the question I had to face as a researcher is this: are the changes in political and personal values the cause or the result of the deconversion process?

The researchers I have cited suggest that the personality types which tend to be attracted to progressive or liberal values pre-exist the deconversion itself. And this may be true. But the difficulty with making this statement is that one cannot study the character and values of a deconvert prior to deconversion, for the obvious reason that one does not know that a person will deconvert until after they have. So any measurement of personality and values is necessarily going to occur after the effects of deconversion have already taken hold.

Instead of saying that deconversion causes value changes, or vice-versa, I suggest that it is a recursive process that I call “Leftward Drift.”

As a simple illustration of Leftward Drift, I will cite the case of a Christian musician from the 1980’s named “Ojo.” Ojo reached a point in his life where the concept of hell was distasteful and deeply problematic – which is a relatively common objection among deconverts. After considering several alternative approaches to hell, Ojo eventually rejected the concept entirely. But then, as he expressed: “Well shoot, if there’s no hell, what does that mean for the concept of sin? And what does that mean for the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross? And gosh, what about the afterlife? If there’s no hell, then what? And gosh, did Jesus rise from the dead?”

Note that Ojo’s first objection was resolved by relaxing his doctrine. But changing his doctrine necessarily led to a variety of other difficulties. One way he could have coped with these difficulties would be to find a religious tradition which rejected sin, explained Jesus’ crucifixion in terms of a “moral example,” and said that Jesus rose from the dead in a spiritual or metaphorical sense, rather than physically. Ojo’s initial step to the Left in rejecting hell simply raised more problems. To resolve these problems while remaining religious, Ojo would need to take further steps to the left. And this is exactly what one sees happening in the course of deconversion. In order to illustrate this, I offer two well-known examples: Bart Ehrman and Ryan Bell.

Ehrman

Ehrman describes his early religious life in these terms:

“For most of my life I was a devout Christian, believing in God, trusting in Christ for salvation, knowing that God was actively involved in this world. During my young adulthood, I was an evangelical, with a firm belief in the Bible as the inspired and inerrant word of God.”

After receiving degrees from various institutes, Ehrman pursued a doctorate in theology at Princeton. Up to this point in his biography, Ehrman remained a dedicated and very conservative Christian. As such, it was quite a struggle for him when he encountered an apparent contradiction in scripture. The contradiction involved the Gospel of Mark saying that Abiathar was the high priest, which contradicted records contemporary to the time.

As a diligent and conservative scholar, Ehrman labored to reconcile this error in showing that the scripture wasn’t wrong – just misunderstood.

As Ehrman took this difficulty to his professor, the professor responded in a way that shook the young scholar to the core. Said the professor: “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.”

As an inerrantist, this was a dawning light, as Ehrman was forced to the position that the scriptures might be wrong about things, undermining any trust one might place in them.

Despite the shock this was to Ehrman’s system, it was not the moment of his deconversion. Ehrman explains:

“It was not a matter of my being a fundamentalist, then finding a contradiction in the Bible and throwing up my hands in despair and saying “Oh no!  There *is* no God!!”

“It didn’t happen like that at all.  I didn’t go from being a fundamentalist to being an agnostic.  It was a many-year struggle in which I went from a rabid fundamentalist to becoming a slightly left of center evangelical to being for many years a liberal Christian active in the church and thinking as deeply as I could about the theological views that had long been established in my tradition.”

Ehrman remained at the fringes of Christian belief for 20 years after this crisis. During that 20 years, Ehrman continued to teach and study theology and philosophy. He reckoned that he was becoming immensely sophisticated in his capacity to reason about God, theology, the Bible and faith. But there was one matter about which his reasoning became more and more muddied: the problem of suffering.

In his wide reading on the subject and his sophistication of scholarship, Ehrman believed he had found the answer:

“I came to believe that God himself is deeply concerned with suffering and intimately involved with it. The Christian message, for me, at the time, was that Jesus Christ is the revelation of God to us humans, and that in Jesus we can see how God deals with the world and relates to it. He relates to it, I thought, not by conquering it but by suffering for it. Jesus was not set on a throne in Jerusalem to rule over the Kingdom of God. He was crucified by the Romans, suffering a painful, excruciating, and humiliating death for us. What is God like? He is a God who suffers. The way he deals with suffering is by suffering both for us and alongside us.”

This is a view with which Ehrman is still impressed, even in his agnosticism. However, it was not enough to keep him from straying from Christianity altogether. Deep consideration of the massive amount of suffering and horror in the world chipped away at Ehrman for years. Eventually he realized he could no longer believe it. Much like his struggle to reconcile biblical errors with inerrancy, Ehrman realized he was simply creating justifications when, in fact, he could not buy in to the idea that God was an active, concerned, prayer-answering, and reconciling being. The universe did not support that view in all its cold, uncaring ruthlessness.

Bell

Ryan Bell was born into a Methodist church, but after some family struggles and crises, he moved in with his grandmother as a child and grew up in a Seventh-Day Adventist church.

Keeping within the movement, Bell attended Weimar Institute, which was a Seventh-Day Adventist private school and university.

After graduation, Bell moved to the Pennsylvania Conference where he took on full ministerial duties.

It was here that Bell began to undergo a change of heart. He realized that the ridged conservative notions in which he had been immersed were not worthy of the work he found himself confronted with.

Says Bell,

“my harsh ideology was bumping up against real life. I realized that God is not as much about ideas as he is about people. I knew that if I didn’t love people, then I couldn’t do my ministry.”

Bell had inherited a congregation which did not abide by the strict Seventh Day Adventist standards and rules. The women didn’t practice the strict modesty standards. Rather, they wore makeup and jewelry. His congregation wasn’t uptight about smoking or drinking or fowl language.

Bell realized he had the choice between cracking down on the behavior of his church body or loosening his own standards to adapt to the lifestyle of his congregation. Bell opted for the second choice.

As Bell began to relax some of the legalistic notions associated with the church, he decided to favor the needs and desires of the people over the laws and regulations of the church. He began to push for community service and support. He began advocating for social justice and opening the church up to make it more palatable to those who were not of the SDA community.

Despite his upbringing and long history with the church, Bell’s inclinations grew ever more progressive over the years.

Eventually he moved from the Pennsylvania Conference to the Hollywood Adventist Church, and his change in ideology continued to progress. He pushed his church to be a change in the community, caring for homeless, promoting interfaith dialogue and pushing for social change.

As he pushed for social change, he became deeply convicted about the way the church handled the LGBTQ population – excluding them from attendance, or at the very least, leadership. He had the same concern towards the way in which women were treated, how the church handled evangelism, and the overwrought focus on church growth.

As Bell’s teachings, ideas and actions grew further and further from the church’s core tenants, the leadership of the denomination asked him to step down. In addition to his social disagreements with the church, he had developed doctrinal disagreements. Those included the doctrine that the SDA were the “remnant church” chosen by God to prepare for the last days, and other teachings on eschatology.

Says Bell,

“the day came when I really didn’t fit within the church anymore. I had been an outspoken critic of the church’s approach to our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered members — that approach being exclusion or, at best, second class membership (“we won’t kick you out but you can’t participate in leadership”). Through the years, I had also been a critic of the church’s treatment of women, their approach to evangelism and their tunnel-vision approach to church growth… All of these things — things I was most proud of in my ministry — earned me rebuke and alienation from church administrators. I tried to maintain that I was a faithful critic — a critic from within — someone committed to the church and its future success but unwilling to go blindly along with things I felt were questionable, or even wrong.”

Not long after stepping down as a pastor, Bell was now floating in and out of the social justice community, wherein he spent most of his time, not with Christians, but with Humanists.

It was during this time that an Episcopalian minister friend of him mentioned a question she had received from an atheist: what difference does God make?

Ryan considered the question, and realized it was very valid. His atheist friends were living a life pursuing the same social justice goals as he, and were every bit as moral. Their lives looked no different than his, so what difference was God making?

It was after this that Bell embarked on a very public stunt he called “A Year Without God,” wherein he intended to live and think like an atheist for one year in order to see if it changed anything. He wrote guest articles for The Huffington Post, kept an updated blog on his experience, and spoke on several public shows during this time. At the end of the year, Bell considered himself fully atheist.

Leftward Drift

As illustrated by these two stories, the process of Leftward Drift goes like this:

  • Encounter a difficult objection to Christianity
  • Take a step to the theological and/or political Left to resolve objection
  • Because of new theological and political views, find more objections with religion
  • Take a further step to the Left to deal with new objections

And this cycle of stepping to the Left to resolve objections but, in fact, creating new objections continues until the person’s ultimate solution is to leave the church entirely.

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About the Author

By Joel Furches

Joel Furches is a researcher, writer, and behavior analyst currently pursuing his PhD in psychology. Joel has written and spoken on topics related to the psychology of religion for almost ten years, and his current area of research is religious deconversion, a topic upon which he intends to do his dissertation.