I firmly believe that people seldom disassociate themselves from a religious affiliation simply because they decide to stop believing in a thing. Either they encounter a new belief which displaces what they had previously believed, resulting in their identification with a different group more compatible with their new belief, or the social dimension that once bound them to a group of people with whom they shared common beliefs erodes, undermining their motivation to identify with the group. In which case, they don’t move on to a new affiliation. They join the ranks of the “faith-shifters”, Escobar (2103) may purport.
In some cases (perhaps many), their attraction to the former group erodes because the group’s behaviour, in whole or in part, fails to reflect the character and values of its beliefs. When that happens, disassociation from the group results in disillusionment with what the group supposedly believes and, in too many cases, a rejection of those beliefs altogether…akin to “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
To put it more succinctly, people identify with a group on the basis of belief. They un-identify with that group on the basis of experience. Bad experience often leads to scepticism about belief. Sometimes the sceptic can find his or her way back to some palatable form of belief. Sometimes not…
Four years ago I thought I had lost my faith. I came to the place where I could no longer reconcile a belief system based entirely on the supra-natural — incarnation, atonement, resurrection, the Holy Spirit’s indwelling of the bodies of believers, etc.— with a pattern of behaviour among Christians, including me, that reflected no supernatural character at all. In hindsight, this likely happened around the same time my supervisor told me I might be struggling with “Compassion Fatigue” and should stand down from the therapy chair until I could heal.
Confused, I began understanding that my value to any Christian community was based on my perceived functionality. That is, I had value as long as I was of service. When I perceived I no longer had much value, or my service seemed unappreciated or less functional, I became very disillusioned, lonely and resentful. I grew weary of the fulminations and pontificating of conservative evangelical Baptist Church leaders, each more self-righteous and self-assured than the last, spouting truisms and platitudes with bold confidence and certainty.
I came to the place where, like Thomas (John 14:5; 20:25), I decided to doubt everything. Everything! Stripped right back to questioning the existence of God and the idea of Christ as the “narrow gate” (i.e. professing the deity of Christ), or doubting the notion perichoresis, or in divinely inspired Scriptures… or even the idea of any ultimate purpose for the Cosmos. Then, on a floor swept bare of certainties and foregone conclusions, I laid out, as best I could, my presuppositions and assumptions, discarding those that appeared unreasonable, unworkable, or unnecessary; and then I began the arduous task of rebuilding my faith—or at least trying to determine if it could be rebuilt.
That was four years ago. Since then, I’ve become convinced that any trying to return to the “former glory” (before the bottom fell out of my belief system) seems somewhat futile. I’ve come to understand that the bottom just seemed to ‘drop out’ because my entire ontological and epistemological foundation became unstable: with too much “doubt and confusion” to undergird the heaviness of my reality, even in the face of indisputable changes in my frame of reference and my experiences.
I sensed my foundations of faith were a lot less massive in the rebuilding, and that’s OK. The superstructure is a lot less rigid and unyielding. In the absence of so much certainty and confidence, especially self-confidence and fear of the unknown, I find I can see more clearly what really matters. I think I’ve come to this place, at least…in the sage words of the insightful Parker J. Palmer (2000):
“Do you know what I learned from my experiences, if nothing else? The more personal you are willing to be and the more intimate you are willing to be about the details of your own life, the more universal you are… And when I say universal, I don’t mean universal only within church culture… When one recognizes that pain – and response to pain – is a universal thing, it helps explain so many things about others, just as it explains so much about oneself. It teaches forbearance. It teaches moderation and patience in response to other people’s behaviours. It teaches a sort of understanding. In one word, it teaches us that everybody else needs to be understood. And out of that, comes every form of love.
So if we’re talking about what motivates this world to continue existing as a community, we’ve got to talk about love. As I learn more about the seed of true self that was planted when I was born, I also learn more about the ecosystem in which I was planted—the network of communal relations in which I am called to live responsively, accountably and joyfully with beings of every sort. Only when I know both seed and system, self and community, can I embody the great commandment to love both my neighbor and myself.
 Palmer, P. J. (2000). Let your life speak: Listening for the voice of vocation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.