Three Possible Paths for People Who Lose Traditional Faith
By Martin Thielen
February 1, 2023
Several years ago I read John Updike’s novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies. The story covers four generations of an American family during the twentieth century. Part 1 tells the story of Clarence Wilmot, a Presbyterian minister from New Jersey. In short, Reverend Wilmot loses his faith and quits the ministry, resulting in painful consequences for himself and his family. In one scene Reverend Wilmot confesses to his wife:
“My faith, my dear, seems to have fled. I not only no longer believe with an ideal fervor, I consciously disbelieve. My very voice rebelled, today, against my attempting to put some sort of good face on a doctrine that I intellectually detest. Ingersoll, Hume, Darwin, Renan, Nietzsche—it all rings true, when you’ve read enough to have it sink in; they have not just reason on their side but simple humanity and decency as well. Jehovah and His pet Israelites, that bloody tit-for-tat Atonement, the whole business of condemning poor fallible men and women to eternal Hell for a few mistakes in their little lifetimes, the notion in any case that our spirits can survive without eyes or brains or nerves. . . . [I]t’s been a fearful struggle, I’ve twisted my mind in loops to hold on to some sense in which these things are true enough to preach, but I’ve got to let go or go crazy.”
Stories of clergy losing faith don’t just exist in the realm of fiction. They also exist in real life. I know, because I talk to such clergy all the time. Many have retired. Some have found new careers. Others remain in ministry, struggling to navigate strained faith with Christian vocation.
Of course, clergy don’t have a monopoly on losing faith. Millions of laypersons experience similar faith struggles. For example, church membership in the United States is at its lowest level ever recorded, while religious “nones” (those with no religious affiliation) are the fastest growing “religious” group in America today. It’s no secret that large numbers of people are rapidly losing faith in traditional Christianity. For those who do, what are their options? Most of them land in one of the following three theological camps.
When people no longer resonate with traditional faith, especially conservative evangelicalism, many shift to “progressive Christianity.” There’s no set definition of progressive Christianity. However, the following characteristics are often found among those who hold this view:
- They believe science and faith are completely compatible.
- They are more interested in right behavior than right beliefs.
- Although they take the Bible seriously, they don’t always take it literally.
- They affirm full inclusion of LGBTQ people into the church.
- They affirm women’s rights including female leaders in the church.
- They care deeply about social justice.
- They are comfortable with theological ambiguity.
- Many of them lean toward panentheism rather than supernatural theism.
- They reject numerous traditional doctrines including blood atonement and a literal hell.
- They respect and value other religions.
If you want to learn more about Progressive Christianity, you can read Christianity for the Rest of Us by Diana Butler Bass, After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity by David Gushee, and my book, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? Although my faith has evolved since the writing of that book, it serves as a simple introduction to progressive faith. Another helpful resource for understanding this faith tradition is ProgressiveChristianity.org. Most of the articles on Doubter’s Parish reflect the progressive tradition, including Minority View: A Brief Introduction to Progressive Christianity, On Losing and Keeping Faith, and God Is No Longer a Working Number: Rethinking Christianity in the Twenty-First Century.
Progressive Christianity is a “big tent” group, leaving room for most believers in the centrist to liberal tradition. However, some people in this this camp eventually find it inadequate and leave. A good number of them shift to what I call “nontraditional” faith.
Nontraditional believers do not reject faith altogether. However, they no longer identify with historic Christianity. Instead, they affirm nonorthodox, nontraditional tenets of faith. Many would fit the category of “spiritual but not religious.”
People in this camp have abandoned faith in a personal, providential, supernatural, interventionalist theistic God. Instead, they affirm an evolutionary life-force/energy-force Spirit of the universe. Their understanding of God/Other/Divine/Higher Power includes a large helping of mystery and intentional ambiguity. I often refer to nontraditional faith as “Star Wars” religion, as in “May the Force be with you,” with no definitive explanation of the nature of that “Force.”
Although people in the nontraditional camp do not affirm faith in a divine Christ, many of them resonate with the human Jesus, especially his example and teachings. They admire Jesus’s love, service, compassion, inclusion, and call to justice, just as they admire other great religious leaders.
For further information about nontraditional faith, you can read books by Bishop John Shelby Spong including Unbelievable: Why neither Ancient Creeds nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today and Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Another good introduction to nontraditional faith is The God You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In by Jeffrey Frantz. You might also want to read my article, Orthodox No Longer,
Although they represent a minority in America, a growing number of people no longer identify with any faith tradition—traditional, progressive, or nontraditional. Some self-identify as agnostics or atheists. Others call themselves “humanists” or “secular humanists.”
Until recently, I’ve only known a limited number of people who hold no religious faith at all. However, since launching Doubter’s Parish two years ago, I’ve met many more of them. Although conservative believers often disparage this group, I generally find them to be fine human beings.
For example, most of them affirm the same “Christian” values I do, including love, mercy, integrity, honesty, character, compassion, responsibility, authenticity, generosity, tolerance, kindness, service, inclusion, and justice. However, they call them “human” values rather than religious values. These highly ethical nonbelievers clearly prove that people can be “good without God,” in spite of claims to the contrary by many religious leaders. They also experience meaningful and joyful life, countering the myth that only religious people can be happy and fulfilled.
This group of secularly minded people is rapidly growing in the Western world, including the United States. According to a recent poll by Pew Research Center, people with no faith could become the majority of the American public by the year 2070. Whatever you may think of this cohort of unbelievers, they are gaining ground and cannot be ignored anymore as a fringe group.
If you would like to learn more about people with no faith, you can read Farewell to God by Charles Templeton. Although somewhat dated, the book makes a strong yet respectful case for rejecting faith. Other examples include Divinity of Doubt: God and Atheism on Trial by Vincent Bugliosi, The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism by A. C. Grayling, and De-Converted: A Journey from Religion to Reason by Seth Andrews.
Although these three faith options (progressive faith, nontraditional faith, and no faith) exist in a broad-strokes kind of way, most people do not neatly fit into general generic categories. For example, I know many people who regularly move back and forth between progressive faith and nontraditional faith. I also know folks who relate to all three of these theological camps, in spite of their apparent contradictions. Interestingly, you can find people in each group (including the no faith camp) who attend church—and people in each camp who don’t. It should also be noted that some people who leave traditional Christianity connect with another faith tradition like Judaism, Islam, or Buddhism, but only a few. These kinds of rapidly shifting religious dynamics make spirituality in twenty-first-century America a most interesting journey indeed!
READER FEEDBACK: If you have lost traditional faith, what have you replaced it with (if anything)? Which one these three camps (progressive faith, nontraditional faith, no faith) do you most resonate with? Why? Do you see other viable faith options besides these three? If so, what are they? If you would like to share your thoughts on these matters, please email me at email@example.com. I would love to hear from you.
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