Deconversion Is Not as Countercultural as You Think

In recent years, the “Instagram deconversion announcement” has become a well-established genre. The formula is pronounced: a former evangelical author, pastor, CCM star, or simply “raised in the church” 20-something posts a self-portrait looking ponderous and solemn, yet free.

Maybe they’re seen from behind, looking out at some beautiful lake or mountain scene. Perhaps they carefully select a “this is me, warts and all” selfie with perfectly imperfect styling. The post’s accompanying text usually begins with some variation of “I never thought I would say this” or “It’s terrifying to post this,” followed by a lengthy narrative involving some combination of words such as “evolving,” “journey,” “fear,” “discovery,” “honesty,” “authentic,” “free,” and “hopeful.” 

I don’t mean to diminish the sincere agonizing and legitimate trepidation that accompanies an individual’s decision to make a deconversion “Instagram official.” I’m just observing that this has become a genre—a predictable, commonplace, and not-at-all surprising artifact of a “find yourself” age. 

Far from renegade, edgy, and brave, the announcement of a person’s conscious uncoupling from institutional religion is simply going with the flow of a culture that mainstreamed such behavior decades ago. Rather than going against the grain of Western culture, abandoning received doctrine and institutional faith—in favor of a self-styled, follow-your-heart spirituality—is quite smoothly “with the grain.”

To declare one’s spiritual autonomy, one’s unshackling from Christianity’s “constraints” and old-fashioned ideas about sin and morality, is simply to nod along with Oprah and her vast tribe of suburban moms. To disown a God of limitations, boundaries, and wrath—in favor of a God who only wants to fund your “best life” dreams and promote John Lennon–style “love” and good vibes—is to join the ranks of frat boys obsessed with Joe Rogan, “name it and claim it” prosperity preachers, and the vast majority of bestselling authors in “religion, spirituality, and faith” of the last 20 years. 

So before you file divorce papers from the Christianity of your youth, know that doing so is in no way countercultural. Like marital divorce, it’s thoroughly acceptable and common. I want to suggest that the far more radical—and truly countercultural—choice isn’t to abandon Christian faith because it is maddening, difficult, and out of step with the contemporary zeitgeist.

The radical choice is to keep the faith.

Have You Tried True Christianity?

When I say keeping the faith is radical, I’m talking about Christian faith in the true, biblical sense. I’m not talking about an American cultural Christianity in which doctrinal literacy is low but concern for gun rights and a border wall is high. Nor am I talking about a progressive Christianity that selectively invokes Scripture for justice campaigns but ignores its personal moral demands. “Deconstructing” comfortable forms of Christianity is good. To keep the faith of these distorted forms of Christianity is in no way radical.

But I would encourage you, if you’re considering a break from Christianity, to make sure you’ve given real Christianity a try. This Christianity doesn’t fit neatly with your politics and preferences but constantly presses you on different fronts, refusing to be boxed in or manipulated into what you want it to be. This Christianity doesn’t simply affirm you as you are but relentlessly pushes you to become more like Jesus.

The far more radical—and truly countercultural—choice isn’t to abandon Christian faith. The radical choice is to keep the faith.

This Christianity invites—rather than shuns—the intellectual wrestling that naturally comes when we try to wrap our minds around an infinite, triune God whose existence and work in the world will always be a bit mysterious. Many who deconstruct their faith believe Christianity is a religion for intellectual simpletons, in which everything is explainable and all tensions must be resolved (out of fear that they’ll discredit the whole thing). If that’s your experience of Christianity, I’m sorry. I understand why you’d want to leave it behind. But that’s not true Christianity; it’s simply another mutation of the faith—an attempt to domesticate God and shoehorn him into our comfortable paradigms. True Christianity always challenges our paradigms and assaults our comfort. It’s rewarding for sure, but also costly. 

One of its costs is intellectual—the taxing burden of lingering questions, knotty paradoxes, and “mirror dimly” faith (1 Cor. 13:12) without empirical proof. But that’s what true faith is. It requires a humble willingness to be content with not comprehending everything. 

The late theologian J. I. Packer once expressed it this way:

It is not for us to stop believing because we lack understanding, or to postpone believing till we can get understanding, but to believe in order that we may understand; as Augustine said, “unless you believe, you will not understand.” Faith first, sight afterwards, is God’s order, not vice versa; and the proof of the sincerity of our faith is our willingness to have it so.

If this is what Christian faith actually requires—a willingness to have “faith first, sight afterwards”—then I’d suggest that to keep believing in this faith is a braver and costlier choice than abandoning it because you can’t fully wrap your mind around its thornier components.

Bespoke Spirituality’s Loneliness

Chances are, if you’re considering deconstructing institutional religion, you’re not moving immediately to full-on atheism. Instead, you’re likely planning to forge a more intuitional, bespoke spirituality that perhaps retains some aspects of Christianity but is more fluid, incorporating bits and pieces of other philosophies, rituals, and spiritualities as they fit your mood and needs. This is what religion columnist Tara Isabella Burton chronicles in Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World

A religion of emotive intuition, of aestheticized and commodified experience, of self-creation and self-improvement and, yes, selfies. . . . A religion decoupled from institutions, creeds, from metaphysical truth-claims about God or the universe or the Way Things Are, but that still seeks—in various and varying ways—to provide us with the pillars of what religion always has: meaning, purpose, community, ritual.

This “mix and match” religion might include a few parts of traditional religion (Shabbat, Christmas carols, Catholic prayer candles), a smattering of “wellness” practices (yoga, meditation, SoulCycle), a dash of New Age magic (burning sage, Tarot cards, astrology), and a deeply moral zealotry for social justice or LGBT+ rights. 

While this sort of remixed, bespoke spirituality might sound radical, in reality it’s simply a bourgeois iteration of mainstream consumerism. Capitalism loves it, because it means more products and experiences to sell to ever-hungrier consumers looking for meaning outside the walls of religious institutions. But far from a countercultural protest, to choose this sort of build-your-own religion is simply to fall in line with the “have it your way” Burger King brand of faith. In our intensely consumeristic world, the person who resists the urge to curate a bespoke spirituality—and instead sticks with a consistent, established religious tradition even when it doesn’t fit personal preferences—is the true radical.

It’s also worth noting that bespoke spirituality is something typically only chosen by the privileged—those with the comfort, means, and social status suitable for an (often quite expensive) adventure in à la carte spirituality. The privileged can detach from institutions and meander on their intuitional paths with little concern for the possible dangers of a “go it alone” spirituality. Less privileged people recognize the necessity—not just for survival, but for flourishing—of embeddedness within social fabrics, institutions, and traditions. It’s perhaps not surprising that atheism and agnosticism are uncommon among lower-income classes and in developing nations. You have to live a pretty comfortable life to be a religious “none.”

To ditch religion in favor of bespoke spirituality (or no spirituality) is thus a bourgeois choice fully in keeping with comfortable consumerism. Not only does it not make you a renegade, but it also makes you lonely. Because when you depart Christianity, you aren’t opening yourself up to a new, more spacious freedom. Quite the opposite. You’re narrowing your freedom and horizons of possibility to the confines of one person: you. While it sounds great—and again, is totally the way of our consumerist iWorld—this me-driven spirituality eventually becomes claustrophobic and lonely.

By freeing yourself from the constraints of community, the demands of external authority, and the accountability of institutional formation, it may seem at first like you’re choosing an open-road, idyllic freedom. But freedom isn’t the absence of constraints. Jesus didn’t say “total, limitless autonomy will set you free.” He said the truth will set you free (John 8:32). Not your truth; the truth, in a true-for-everyone sense. And that sort of freeing truth isn’t easily found by looking within, trusting your gut, and going it alone.

Radical Cost of True Christianity

In a post-Christian and rapidly secularizing culture, deconstructing isn’t a radical act. It’s just a normal thing that more and more people do. And it makes sense! Historic Christianity is an ever stranger, ever more fringe, ever more unwelcome thing in today’s world. Consider all the ways it subverts current norms in Western culture:

In a post-Christian and rapidly secularizing culture, deconstructing isn’t a radical act. It’s just a normal thing that more and more people do.

  • In a “believe in yourself” world, Christianity calls you to deny yourself (Matt. 16:24) and take up your cross (Luke 14:27). 
  • In a “you do you” world that emphasizes expressive individualism, authenticity, and nonconformity, Christianity is about conforming to the likeness of Jesus (Rom. 8:29) and being imitators of God (Eph. 5:1).
  • In a consumerist and greedy culture, Christianity calls you to costly generosity (Luke 21:1–4) and a willingness to give up material possessions (Matt. 19:21Luke 14:33). 
  • In a self-oriented world of self-promotion, self-help, and selfies, Christianity calls you to be an others-focused servant (Phil. 2:3–4Gal. 6:2Matt. 20:26–28). 
  • In a world that says you should be free to do with your body whatever you wish, Christianity says you ought to glorify God with your body (1 Cor. 6:20). 
  • In a sexually progressive culture that sanctions pretty much anything in the bedroom, as long as it’s consensual, Christianity says sex is intended for the covenantal union of one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24Matt. 19:3–61 Cor. 7:2). 
  • In a world that privileges power, “winning,” and “best life” success, Christianity calls you to value weakness (2 Cor. 12:9–10).
  • In a partisan world in which thinking the worst of your enemies and trying to “own” them on social media is a way of life, Christianity calls you to the radical challenge of loving them (Matt. 5:44).
  • In a world that has normalized the discarding of unborn lives and the dehumanizing of others through racism, sexism, and xenophobia, Christianity insists all humans bear the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and are worthy of dignity and protection.
  • In a world fraught with division and tribal fragmentation, in which it’s easier than ever before to part ways with someone who differs from you, Christianity calls you to be reconciled (Eph. 2:11–22).
  • In a pluralistic world with a diversity of beliefs—in which “all roads lead to heaven” is a comforting thought—Christianity calls you to believe there is only one path to heaven: trusting in Jesus Christ (John 14:6).
  • In a world steeped in scientific rationalism, Christianity requires belief in the supernatural (a virgin conceiving a child, bodies resurrecting from the dead, people being miraculously healed, among many other examples). 

None of this is easy to practice or believe. And the list could be much longer. There’s nothing comfortable about truly following Jesus. Those who say otherwise—or whose version of Christianity is conveniently custom-fit to their personal comfort (whether politics, music preferences, or sexual proclivities)—are deceiving themselves and harming the cause of Christ. 

Do you really want to be countercultural? Then don’t abandon Christianity. Stick with it.

The reality is, to accept all the costs of true Christianity, to believe all it asserts, to go against the grain of the culture so dramatically—is incredibly difficult and a little weird. If Christians are labeled “freaks” for what they believe and practice in today’s world, it’s for good reason. We should not be surprised that few follow this narrow path (Matt. 7:13–14). We shouldn’t be shocked that deconversion announcements on Instagram are common.

Do you really want to be countercultural? Then don’t abandon Christianity. Stick with it.

Written by: BRETT MCCRACKEN

First published 16.03.21: Deconversion Is Not as Countercultural as You Think (thegospelcoalition.org)

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