13 Fallacies Used to Discredit Ex-Christians
Many people reject Christianity after decades of whole-hearted devotion. Meanwhile, most Evangelicals are convinced this is impossible, so they argue against the stories of former believers in order to discredit them.
It makes sense that hearing about deconversion is triggering. From a Christian perspective, there’s a lot riding on faith: believing the right things about Jesus is what divides people into Heaven and Hell, and nothing could be more true or important, so they naturally resist contrary thinking. Also, churches can’t afford to have their members’ confidence shaken, so they’ve trained attendees to distrust and shun anyone who leaves the faith.
It’s not fair or reasonable, though, to make false assumptions about the personal history of people you don’t know. The 9th commandment says “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Sometimes the rabid defense of faith even leads Christians to make hurtful accusations against those they love most.
In this article, I want to reassure ex-Christians that everyone gets these kinds of reactions from Christians. It’s nothing to take personally — you’ll hear them your whole life, no matter how well you explain yourself.
I’d also like to help Christians have more productive, interesting conversations with ex-believers by avoiding these worn-out talking points.
Here are 13 erroneous claims commonly made about ex-believers.
1. You never really knew God
This one is the granddaddy of all the other arguments, as many of them are ways to imply that the ex-Christian was never fully, truly, actually Christian.
Christians tend to believe that nothing is sweeter than God’s love and that nothing rings truer than the Bible. If that’s true, any claim to have been fully Christian and then walked away from it makes no sense. How could someone experience the best thing and choose to abandon it? If they did, it implies that maybe there’s something better and truer out there, after all.
Since Christians will not adjust their views about God or the Bible, they insist on finding errors in whatever calls them into question. A common starting point is: “You must have never fully received Jesus.” That solves the problem — if someone was able to turn away from God, it’s taken as evidence that they never knew him to begin with.
Of course, this neglects the fact that many Ex-Christians did have strong “relationships” with God, and that many current Christians have never felt much love or conviction at all.
It’s also an example of a no true Scotsman fallacy: “No Christian would stop believing in God.” “Actually, I was a Christian, and I stopped believing.” “Well, no true Christian would stop believing in God.”
It’s frustrating to be on the receiving end of this invalidation. Rather than accept the direct evidence that Christianity is not always convincing for everyone who gives it a fair trial, they’d rather assume that you were lying about your past belief, or were too incompetent to understand it after years of prayer and study. Sometimes they’ll insist you’re a fraud even if you were close friends or family; now you’re collateral damage in their protection of belief.
The truth is that those who left Christianity usually believed as much as any other Christian. They probably took it seriously, paid attention through all the years, and thought that nothing could matter more. Many believed that life would be meaningless without God, and still deconverted, contrary to their lifelong expectations.
2. You were part of the wrong denomination
If someone grows up in a fundamentalist Baptist church, they will be raised with a certain perspective of what Christianity means, who God is, and how salvation works. When they reject Christianity, they’re rejecting the fundamentalist Baptist version of Christianity.
A liberal Christian might say: “Hey, I don’t believe in fundamentalism either, but I’m still a Christian; it’s a shame you grew up with all that crazy, fearful dogma, when God is pure love and he just wants to be in a relationship with you.”
A Catholic might say: “It’s too bad you have only known Protestantism. Your faith has been hard for you because you followed this divisive sect of Christianity that only branched off several hundred years ago and perverted the truth. There is a strong tradition, and intact theology, within the Catholic tradition.”
Others chime in with “Have you ever read the book of Mormon?” or “All your questions can be answered at watchtower.org”.
All of these denominations think the others are following heretical teachings. They have their own systems of apologetics to prove their positions directly from the Bible, and they’re sure that if someone could only hear this version, it would cure them of their doubts.
There are hundreds (if not thousands) of different sects of Christianity with widely varying theologies. No matter which branch you come from, most other Christians can claim you’re rejecting God based on false teachings and that you should give their denomination a try. It’s not a fair argument because nobody has the time or energy to investigate all versions of religion.
Using the same logic, I could argue that Christians don’t have a real basis for ruling out the truth of any other world religion until they’ve tried them and studied them. Yet my reasoning wouldn’t mean anything to them, because they have a deeper belief which already excludes other religions from being true.
What they’re missing is that most people don’t abandon theism based on the specific teachings of any sect, but something common to all of them, and to all religions everywhere — unverifiable claims of the supernatural, based on ancient traditions and holy books written by men. No theological modification will make up for this underlying issue with all religions.
3. You wanted to live in sin
It is commonly suggested that people leave their faith because they want to have fun sinning instead. Since we’re fallen creatures, we gravitate toward depravity. Sex and drugs and the party lifestyle are more alluring than boring religion, so young adults throw God aside and chase the chemical release.
Sure, it can happen; there are people who never took religion very seriously, and who are impulsive, whose main reason for quitting church is because they want to indulge without being judged for it.
That’s not the case for most of us. When you grow up indoctrinated with the idea that hell is real, that it is torture, and that it’s waiting for anyone who doesn’t accept Jesus, your salvation isn’t something you take lightly. It’s nonsense to insist that someone gave up their core beliefs just for fun.
Even if someone leaves because religion is restrictive and they want to have fun instead, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Imagine telling someone they shouldn’t leave an oppressive cult that removes the freedom and joy from their lives. From the outside, that’s how Christianity looks too.
4. Satan led you astray
Satan, the adversary, is supposedly roaming the earth seeking whom he may devour, like a roaring lion. If you aren’t careful, if you stray from the herd, or if you get unlucky, maybe Satan will get to you — maybe you will lose control of your mind and heart and turn away from your savior.
From my perspective now, that’s about as sensible as worrying that Voldemort is trying to take us over to the evil side of magic. I think Satan is as fictional as God.
Of course, Christians think that that’s how Satan works best — by convincing us that he doesn’t exist. It’s suspicious, though, isn’t it, if the best evidence for Satan is the complete lack of evidence? I could claim that any imaginary being is real if I also claim it specializes in never being detected, like elves, ghosts, or the toys in Toy Story.
Is Satan God’s equal, so that their struggle for your soul is an even fight — one that God is actually losing, if you look at the number of Christians in world history? God is supposed to be far superior, so why would he tolerate Satan snatching Christians out of his flock against their will? Maybe he’s not such a good shepherd after all. Or, maybe it’s all imaginary.
5. You were too young to make an informed decision
People hear this one if they left religion in their teens or twenties; I was 21. The idea is that our decisions at that age aren’t valid because we’re still going through the turmoil of youth, our brains are still forming, and it’s hard to think straight at that time.
Of course, it is true that young people sometimes come to hasty conclusions which prove to be wrong. As we age, we need to constantly reanalyze the information we’ve gained in our lives and see if our perspectives still hold true.
Indeed, I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things since I was 21. My life at 32 is almost unrecognizable compared to what it was before. But that doesn’t mean everything I concluded at age 21 was wrong. Some of my ideas from that age have withstood many tests and re-examinations, and that is why I still hold them today.
If 21 is too young to leave your faith, isn’t it also too young to accept faith? If my deconversion story is invalid because I was incompetent at 21, doesn’t that also invalidate the conversion stories of teenagers who answered the altar call, crying and begging to God, after an emotional sermon? I’d like to see some consistency, one way or another.
If there is a church that doesn’t allow people to join until they’re 25+ and investigates their personal life so they can be sure that their brains are fully formed and they’re making a well-informed choice, I would accept their critique of young age. It’s hypocritical coming from anyone else.
6. You never studied hard enough to understand the truth of Biblical teachings
This usually comes in the form of: “I found answers through apologetics that fully convinced me, and since you’re not convinced, you must not have learned what I learned.” The assumption is that if someone doesn’t accept the same conclusion, they must have received the wrong information, or must have misunderstood.
This doesn’t take into account the fact that two people can be exposed to the same information and draw different conclusions. Some people study the Bible extensively and hear all the explanations yet still end up more convinced by secular explanations of reality.
Although I’ve spent thousands of hours learning about Christianity, I’m not a Bible scholar. I don’t have a degree from a seminary. I’m not claiming to be an expert in religious studies. But I know people who are, and who were pastors for decades, and still came to the same conclusions I did. I don’t need to devote any more years of my life to this study to know that I don’t believe in it — for the same reason Christians don’t need to be experts in Greek mythology to disbelieve in Zeus.
If the expectation is that people should study the Bible until they believe, then no amount of study will ever be enough for an ex-Christian to be seen as adequately knowledgeable. It’s an impossible standard.
7. You relied too much on emotions and should have been more logical
When I explain that I never had any tangible sense of God being present with me, living in my heart, speaking to me, listening to prayers, or anything else that would indicate a loving relationship, some people tell me that I relied too much on my feelings — that God never promised to give me specific emotions, and instead I should focus on the theology.
I understand the basic premise: if someone gets it in their head that God should make them feel a certain way, and then becomes upset when it doesn’t happen, maybe they’ve got unreasonable expectations, which is hardly God’s fault. Our emotions aren’t always the best indicators of truth.
However, I’d argue that it’s not unreasonable to expect some kind of God-experience as a Christian. If I’m to believe that the Holy Spirit came to live inside of me, and that this direct relationship with the creator is what sets Christianity apart from the formulaic rules and traditions of other religions, it’s perfectly fair to expect that promise to bear fruit in some way. It’s one of the main selling points of the religion.
Others would argue that despite seeking a relationship with God for the first 21 years of my life, I must have done something wrong to miss out on it, because the Bible promises that if you seek God you will find him. I’d tell them about how earnest my search was, and that the promise is simply not true, but it’s my word against theirs at this point. I appreciate it when strangers don’t presume to know the depths of my internal spiritual life.
In any case, the idea that someone can seek God for that many years and still not be saved is absurd coming from churches that promise the Holy Spirit will live in your heart forever after repeating a 30 second, call-and-response prayer from a pastor.
Also, the advice of “don’t worry about the evidence of personal experience” can be used by all religions that fail to deliver on their supernatural promises.
8. You relied too much on logic and should have been more emotional
When I talk about the issues with prophetic interpretation, the conflation of obvious mythology with literal truth, contradictions in the Bible, fallacies in basic Christian doctrine, and the reasons why I see Christianity as yet another world religion that evolved out of the religions that came before it, some people tell me that I’m worrying too much about finding a logical understanding. They point out that God is far beyond what we can comprehend, that there are certain things we will never know, and instead we need to focus on God’s love and our relationship with Jesus.
This interpretation makes sense if Christianity is an emotional tool and a guideline, a way to anchor yourself to some idea of love, meaning, and belonging. Maybe it doesn’t need to be factual or consistent to have value. Some people accept it as a helpful fiction. From my perspective, they’re only accessing the love that’s already inside themselves, but hey, if it works, it works.
…And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Some people try hard for years to have faith and to feel God’s love. When it never happens, the struggle actually becomes detrimental to mental and emotional health. And at that point — when both logic and emotions point to it being less than literally true — why continue to believe?
9. You relied on works instead of faith
Some churches teach that salvation is not something you can earn or strive for. You only need to ask for it, and you will receive it as a free gift. They stress that many people miss the point by focusing on avoiding sin and doing good works to please God, a legalistic approach to Christianity. They say salvation isn’t about building up enough credit to be acceptable to God, it’s about a relationship.
So, when ex-Christians describe their devotion to the church, missions work, bible study, leadership, prayer, or evangelism, sometimes people assume they misunderstood the gospel and were trying to earn their way to heaven, and that’s why they were never saved.
The problem is, ex-believers are dismissed either way. If they leave it at “yes, I believed in Jesus”, it’s not very convincing; it comes across like they were shallow Christians, like they never got involved or took it seriously. To counter that, they might provide some examples to demonstrate their commitment and to help people understand that they were true believers. But then, they’re discounted as having worked too hard and missed the point.
It feels like Christians are so comitted to the idea that “no true Christian would ever leave” that there is no possible way to communicate that we did in fact truly believe. At that point, the conversation breaks down.
10. Human expectations don’t apply to God
This usually comes from people who want to dismiss all questions with one wave of the hand. They say that because God is infinitely beyond us, there is no way we can understand why he works the way he does. Everything he is and does defines what makes sense, and because of this, we can’t hold him accountable for seeming contradictions in his character.
This argument conveniently dismisses problems like God’s questionable morality, his lack of intervention in a hellish world, and why he would have sent his most crucial message in a cruel, cryptic book: whether we’re using our minds or our hearts to evaluate him, we’re projecting our lowly human logic onto a vastly superior being.
I accept that a supremely advanced being would be incomprehensible to us. I’m even open to the possibility of some kind of pantheistic consciousness that arises from our complex universe and makes us look dumb as bricks. Who knows! It would certainly be silly to think that humans have a full understanding of the possible scale of consciousness.
The problem is, it’s circular logic: you have to accept that it is true, in order for it to convince you that it is true. It’s effective for keeping believers in line, but once someone is outside of the system, this is not a convincing reason to think Christianity is truer than any other religion.
It’s also selective logic. If human minds are too insubstantial to cast doubt on God, they’re clearly not strong enough to prove him, either. It’s inconsistent to be agnostic about the questions that cast doubt on God yet completely confident in the human logic used to prove his existence.
Leaders from any religion can argue that the reason their deity makes no sense is because it’s so far beyond our logic that we can’t understand it at all. And yet, somehow they know this being well enough to be an authority on exactly what it needs us to do (and it wants us to give them money, of course).
11. You relied too much on other Christians, who failed you because they’re human
This is commonly heard by people whose deconversion was initiated by bad experiences with Christians. Personally, I never had a major problem with other believers and this wasn’t why I left.
To some extent, the logic does make sense: if I had bad experiences with a few members of a certain political party, ethnicity, or gender, it would be unreasonable to hold a grudge against all of them, or to invalidate everything they believe in. The same goes for religious groups.
However, Christianity makes a specific claim that believers are different from other people. They’re the only ones who have the Holy Spirit, which enables the development of “fruit of the spirit” in them and frees them from hatred and sin. If that’s true, it’s reasonable to expect a marked difference between Christians and everyone else. If you consistently observe that Christians are just as messed up as everyone else, that’s a pretty good sign that the Holy Spirit isn’t working as advertised.
Especially in the case of abuse, it’s totally fair to avoid church environments that trigger PTSD. Also, just because someone’s traumatic experience with Christians pushed them over the edge doesn’t mean they don’t have other valid reasons for leaving.
12. You gave up when things got hard
Some have told me: “Of course you felt a sense of relief when you abandoned your faith — this isn’t because you found the truth, it’s because being a Christian is difficult. Jesus is the narrow path, and the rest of the world is the broad, easy road. It’s much easier to go the way of the world.”
The idea is that since God loves us, he puts us through tests in order to help us grow. These trials can last for years and be very painful — but we are to endure them to the end, every time, trusting that God knows what’s best for us. Walking away when things get hard is a natural response, but the faithful will endure.
Imagine meeting a Muslim who has struggled with their religion for years, who finds it empty, oppressive, and deep down is skeptical of its truth. Yet, they are bound by familial and societal expectations. Would you encourage them to stick with it no matter how much it hurts them, or to listen to their intuition? What do you think an imam would say?
If I had been lazy or afraid to do hard things, that would have been a reason to stay complacent inside Christianity and bury my doubts rather than open myself up to ideas that initially scared me. Losing your faith is disorienting, and it goes against everything that’s been ingrained in you. I had to do a lot of work to figure out who I was in the absence of belief; it shook up my whole life.
What really happened is that I wanted the truth more than I wanted to be comfortable, safe, or happy. These days, I’m grateful and relieved to be an atheist, but it sure wasn’t pleasant at the time I was transitioning.
13. You’re just going through a phase — you’ll be back
What reason is there for telling someone this, other than to comfort yourself? Leaving religion is a one-way street for many people.
Time will tell, won’t it? Christians are free to think this if they want, but by insisting on it they might as well say “I know you better than you know yourself.” That kind of attitude is sure to push people away.
Most of these accusations are only leveled at ex-Christians, even if Christians do the same things. Among church-goers, these traits are easily overlooked as personality quirks or individual challenges, or perhaps even taken as signs of their faithfulness; but as soon as you stop believing, they become damning evidence of your fatal flaws.
How many believers in a typical congregation:
- lean heavily on emotion rather than logic, or the other way around?
- became Christians when they were young and impressionable?
- regularly succumb to sin?
- fail to feel God’s presence?
- rely on their fellow Christians to show them God’s love?
- project their own logic about God onto their theology?
And how many are practical atheists, just going to church to keep up appearances?
If those traits are enough to invalidate the faith of ex-Christians, don’t they also invalidate the faith of many who are still in church? If they eventually leave, and it means that they never believed, isn’t it weird to think that many of your Christian friends might not be saved right now? Can you tell them apart in the crowd?
On a basic level, it’s easy to understand why believers get upset about fellow Christians leaving the faith. Any of us might feel disoriented and frustrated when someone rejects our core values; I might be tempted to react the same way if I saw an atheist become religious, and I admit that I’d think they were wrong, too.
But people are wrong about things all the time and it doesn’t threaten me personally. I wouldn’t insist they were never true atheists, disown them as a friend or family member, or threaten them with eternal torture for thinking the wrong way. I would accept it at face value if they told me they used to be convinced by one idea and now they prefer another.
William Lane Craig, a prominent Christian apologist, made a podcast episode specifically to discredit one version of my deconversion story. Reading through it, how many of these 13 tactics can you spot? I see eight of them: 6, 5, 7, 12, 9, 3, 1, and 13, in that order.
I only found out about this episode months after it was published. At first I was upset that so many false assumptions were made about me, and that they did so without contacting me or asking for clarification on the points where they wanted more information. But then I realized my story must have struck a nerve if they were compelled to make so many desperate ad hominem attacks to discredit it.
What I wish Christians would do instead
If faith is a personal relationship between people and God, what’s the use of arguing about it? If faith is to have meaning, it must be a true conviction of the heart and not something you’re talked into, right?
If you want to have substantial conversations about faith, try to facilitate open and safe dialogues. Be curious. Ask questions. Listen fully, without jumping to conclusions. Be willing to reconsider your views. Finally, understand that ex-believers have probably heard the typical responses that come to your mind right away.
Jesus taught you to love your enemies and to forgive those who hurt you; the world is to know that you are Christian through your love. Some would say that trying to evangelize is showing love, but the reality is that it drives people away. It feels aggressive and patronizing, not loving. So, be graceful toward those who no longer share your beliefs.
You believe in a God who answers your prayers, wants to be in a relationship with all of us, and is very capable of demonstrating himself to us.
If that’s true, then when you’re concerned about someone’s salvation, all you have to do is pray for them — and you don’t even have to let them know you’re doing it.
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