Two Surprising Reasons That People Leave the Faith

Atheism seems to be making a small comeback. Beginning with Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, the movement has spread to talk show hosts and cultural icons alike. At the core of this “New Atheism” is the idea that evolution has mitigated any need for God and that those who still believe in God are harming society. More than ever, it seems to be in to throw God out.

But statistics show that despite the apparent progress of atheism, it’s actually far more popular in our culture to throw belief out. Since the 1990s, the number of people surveyed who chose “None” for their religious affiliation has more than tripled. Interestingly, most of these people don’t identify as atheists; they’re simply put off by religious confession. Most of them would say, “If there is a God, I’m not sure we can really know that much about him.” Their fundamental belief is unbelief.

So what’s behind the surge in unbelief? Why do we have such a hard time believing what God says is true?

There are intellectual reasons (and in the coming weeks, I plan to discuss a few of them.) But I’m convinced that we’ll never understand the “Nones” of our current society by focusing on arguments alone. Our belief problems always stick in the mind, but they don’t always start in the mind.

In the beginning of his letter to the Romans, Paul identifies the main cause of our unbelief. He writes, “For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them” (Romans 1:18-19, emphasis added).

According to Paul, the problem isn’t that our evidence for God is insufficient. The problem is that our sinful hearts don’t want to believe in God. Our belief problems are not primarily intellectual problems. Instead, our belief problems are mainly heart problems.

We throw off belief in God because our hearts crave two things that belief in God won’t offer us:

Our hearts crave self-exaltation

I was once listening to Dr. Bart Ehrman, the famous skeptic professor at UNC, answer a question from a student: “Is there anything that would cause you to regain your faith?”

In response, Ehrman said, “I think that if, in fact, God Almighty appeared to me and gave me an explanation [for all the evil in the world], and the explanation was so overpowering that I actually could understand, then I’d be the first to fall on my knees in humble submission and adoration.”

Look at the italicized portion of that again. Ehrman’s response shows a common (but faulty) line of logic: If God did have a purpose for evil, then Ehrman would be smart enough to immediately perceive it. And if he can’t immediately perceive an answer from God, then there’s no purpose for evil.

He’s assuming that the God who created the heavens and the earth and sustains the universe by his power would only act in ways that he can understand. Is that a fair assumption? Do we really think that we can immediately perceive every purpose of an all-wise God? It’s rather ridiculous when you think about it: We imagine a God of omnipotent power but with a brain no bigger than ours—a God with huge, universe-moving muscles … and a teeny-tiny head.

The problem with skeptics like Ehrman is that they have exalted themselves and their own wisdom, diminishing the wisdom of God along the way. They aren’t alone. We, too, seek our own exaltation when we try to shrink God down to our level and stack our wisdom up against his.

Our hearts crave self-gratification

A pastor I know used to employ a rather stark approach to confrontational discipleship with some of his college students. Whenever one of them would come home back from college, newly questioning his Christian upbringing, this pastor would listen patiently to him. The student would go on and on about his newfound doubts about the Bible, all of the contradictions in it, and the usual laundry list of problems with religion more generally. And then this pastor would ask, “So, how long have you been sleeping with your girlfriend?

It’s not an approach I’d recommend. But there’s some wisdom behind that. The pastor was showing that the student, more often than not, didn’t first run into an intellectual problem. He indulged in a moral problem that developed into an intellectual problem. Finding himself in an environment where he could be sexually “free,” he was forced to shift his moral compass to accommodate his lifestyle.

It’s usually the heart that guides the mind, not the mind the heart. We first crave the gratification of our sinful desires, and then we seek justification for why those desires aren’t so bad after all.

That’s why Paul wrote that people suppress the truth “by their unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18). Our hearts are so disposed to self-gratification that we resist anything that challenges that, making us blind to clear and compelling evidence for our Creator. Because we think God is an obstacle to our gratification, we get him out of the way through unbelief.

Our belief problem is a heart problem. While it’s helpful to seek intellectual answers for our doubts, what we need more than anything is an answer for our heart. We need someone to take our sin of exalting ourselves and show us that we were made for God’s glory. We need someone to take our sin of gratifying our sinful desires and show us that in God’s presence there is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore. We need the Savior who chose humiliation over self-exaltation, who chose to die rather than gratify his desires. More than anything else, we need Jesus.