The Origin of Apostasy in the Breakdown of the Evangelical Mind

Evangelicals like to quote scary (to them) statistics about how many teenage Christians will “fall away” (Christian jargon for leaving the faith) on going to university, or how many student Christians will no longer be Christians 5 or 10 years later.

P Z Myers over at Pharyngula pointed to a recent press release from US evangelicals who were worried about their teenagers going astray, quoting surveys which said over 50% would fall away at university. It’s not clear who did the surveys, so atheists should probably find that out before joining Myers in jumping for joy. As one of the commenters at Pharyngula says, moral panic is a great way to raise funds for your organisation.

When I was a lad, CICCU liked to quote similarly hopeful surveys about the perseverance of their graduates. In an old post of mine you can see my notes from a leavers’ talk given by the students’ curate at my old church. She quoted a UCCF survey which gave an attrition rate of over 50% after 5 years. It turns out that UCCF have never heard of such a survey. The link to the UCCF web forum where they said this is now defunct (presumably as part of the UCCF’s goal of ruthlessly suppressing open discussion), but you can see what Dave Bish, one of their staff workers, has to say about it. As well as saying there is no such survery, he writes that Christians should be careful of the post-hoc fallacy if they are tempted to blame university Christian Unions for their apostates. After saying that, he replies to a comment saying that someone should get some real statistics (which must include appropriate controls for non-CU Christians, and non-Christians, I think) by saying that such statistics are irrelevant because God has already told us in the Bible what causes people to fall away. Phew! I’m glad we sorted that one out.

Back here in the reality-based community, though, I’d be very interested in the results of such a survey. I know lots of people like me, and another LJer has said that “to say that I keep stumbling upon people with similar experiences is an understatement”. But the plural of anecdote is not data. Such a survey wouldn’t prove anything about the truth or otherwise of Christianity, of course, but that’s not why it’s interesting.

The discussion on Pharyngula turned up something which struck a chord with me. In the past, when talking about other post-university ex-evangelicals, many of whom studied science, I’ve spoken about them as seeing evangelicalism as a spiritual analogue of science. Is it science students that fall into evangelicalism and then fall out again? Perhaps that’s a bit too simple. A commenter on Myer’s posting quotes The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer, a free book about the state of politics in the USA. Chapter 4 discusses evangelicalism. The author writes about ex-evangelical apostates, and completely nails it:

What then gnawed away so mercilessly at the apostates that they could no longer overpower doubt with faith?

Their families will say it was Satan. But we thought, after interviewing dozens of “amazing apostates,” that (most ironically) their religious training had made them leave. Their church had told them it was God’s true religion. That’s what made it so right, so much better than all the others. It had the truth, it spoke the truth, it was The Truth. But that emphasis can create in some people a tremendous valuing of truth per se, especially among highly intelligent youth who have been rewarded all their lives for getting “the right answer.” So if the religion itself begins making less and less sense, it fails by the very criterion that it set up to show its superiority.

Similarly, pretending to believe the unbelievable violated the integrity that had brought praise to the amazing apostates as children. Their consciences, thoroughly developed by their upbringing, made it hard for them to bear false witness. So again they were essentially trapped by their religious training. It had worked too well for them to stay in the home religion, given the problems they saw with it.

The truth will make you free, as someone once said.

10 Comments on "The Origin of Apostasy in the Breakdown of the Evangelical Mind"

  1. “…by saying that such statistics are irrelevant because God has already told us in the Bible what causes people to fall away. Phew! I’m glad we sorted that one out.

    Back here in the reality-based community, though…”
    Your posts need a warning. If I were drinking milk it would be everywhere now.


  2. Well, I fell into and quickly away from evangelicalism in the last two years of high school and first two of college, and I wasn’t a science student (except in the complicated way you might remember me discussing in a recent post).

    However I did it mostly as a social thing: in high school the only people who would talk to me were the new girl (who’d been homeschooled until then, with all that entails in the USian Midwest), and her few friends from her weirdo (i.e. evangelical; singing out loud and waving your hands, much less speaking in tongues, ins more than enough to get you called a weirdo amidst the taciturn Lutherans and Catholics) church, so I fell into their habits pretty easily.

    Something similar happened in college, where the first people who were nice to me were also the sort who went to Bible study and IVCF. I don’t know about the high school “friends” (I have no idea what happened to any of my class after leaving high school), but you just made me realize that the college ones were a math major, a chemistry major, and a biology major (who knows P.Z. Myers really well because he was her advisor! so I knew him a little, and am still surprised when people randomly mention him on the internet).

    Of course that doesn’t prove anything about science students and religion, but the biology major friend, especially, was very interested in the connections between science and religion (mostly Christianity), and so it happened just as you say here; she’s fallen away from it as surely as I have. (Though I think I just realized that the heathens were having more fun and I wanted to sleep in on Sundays.)


  3. It’s really odd that you can’t track down the statistics. I can’t say that I’m surprised, exactly, but… Could you contact the student curate and see if she can remember what she quoted? I dislike it when sources “disappear” in such a way, although I suppose it’s fair enough if the thing never existed in the first place!

    I’ve read your link on what he said, and although he jumps to bible, blah etc. he does seem to mention that it is change of circumstance/situation that might have something to do with falling away. That, however, is somewhat obvious!

    I think the Altemeyer quote sums things up well, concerning science students. I remember once attending a seminar at a CICCU house party (I only ever attended one, and it wasn’t joyful), in which an old(ish), female speaker (missionary I think) said that the current CICCU seemed to be science graduates, whereas in the 50s? 60s?, it was mainly humanities students. I’d be fascinated to know about that change, and what happened. Indeed, perhaps it occurred because evangelicalism changed, or evolved, from one thing into something else. I wonder if the role of “science” in society is somehow mirrored by evangelicalism, and evangelicalism’s general espousal of the bible as textbook.

    I do like the idea of believers trapped by their religious training into unbelief 🙂 It’s rather subversive.


    1. I’m not really in touch with StAG anymore 😉 The next time I hear any such survey mentioned, I’ll definitely ask for a source. The more I hear about it, the more I suspect it’s the sort of thing that this excellent essay talks about, but then I’m puzzled as to what the evangelical motivation for spreading the rumour is, since on the face of it it’s not what evangelicals want to hear. Maybe it plays to the evangelical siege mentality, and makes those who do persevere after university feel special. I don’t know.

      I don’t know what changed in CICCU. The official histories probably don’t have much to say about it. I wonder whether the makeup of the university as a whole also changed over that time, and CICCU’s makeup merely reflected that (which would in itself reflect the increasing importance of science and its seepage into religion that the quote in my next entry talks about). I don’t know enough about what was happening in humanities during that time, either. Perhaps their post-modernism became more antithetical to Christianity, too.

      Do you think I’m overplaying the controversies in the early church in this thread, by the way? I expect you know might more of the history than I do.


  4. Subject: apostates?
    Darn, I contradicted myself in a blogpost… that’ll never have happened before in the blogosphere. If the stats would help us care for people more then lets do the research… if there is a massive fallout between youth-group and student life the causes aren’t hard to work out anecodatally – plenty of church youth groups are populated by churched non-christians kids (i was one of those) combined with christians drifting away slowly away from the support of church/family etc. I don’t celebrate that, it’s something I weep over. The same phenomenon is likely to happen when students graduate. Anecdotally I’ve not really seen much of the latter drop off – those who stand firm as students seem to carry on the same way, but that shouldn’t be taken for granted by students, student workers or churches… just as I shouldn’t presume that I’ll persevere and so become passive in my christianity…

    why do some evangelicals love the statistics approach… discipleship by fear or shock? pessimism… their own anecdotes about friends… why do any of us do what we do… maybe you could research it 🙂


    1. Subject: Re: apostates?
      I can only speak with the experience of the CU I belonged to and the ones I was involved in, but the vast majority of people in those CUs (like 90-95%) were Christians.

      I don’t believe your suggested explanation holds water.


    2. Subject: Re: apostates?
      I don’t think you contradicted yourself, you just said something I didn’t agree with (that there wasn’t much point in a survey because Christians know from the Bible what they should do to avoid falling away). That’s a consistent viewpoint, but I don’t think it’s right. That might be because I’m interested in post-university fall-away as a cultural phenomenon rather than in helping people to stay Christian after university, but I’d’ve thought evangelicals could learn something from such a survey, too (especially if it asked why as well as whether someone had fallen away).

      The upshot of the anecdotal evidence is that lots of student Christians stay Christians, but there are a significant (and perhaps vocal 🙂 minority who leave the church altogether.


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