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Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion 
by Phil Zuckerman
Oxford, 240 pages, $21.95

Atheism and religious indifference are growing in the United States. In Faith No More, recently reissued in paperback, Pitzer College sociologist Phil Zuckerman cites Pew surveys showing that “20% of Americans now claim ‘none’ as their religion.” Harris polls register an uptick of atheism, from 4 percent in 2003 to 10 percent in 2008, with another 9 percent identifying themselves as agnostics.

Making allowances for the ambiguity of some categories (does “none” mean “no denominational preference” or “no religion at all”?) and the limitations of survey evidence (see Robert Wuthnow, “In Polls We Trust”), Zuckerman is correct that “these are the highest rates of atheism/agnosticism ever reported in an American survey.”

In a nation as religious as ours, most atheists start out religious. Yet, Zuckerman claims, there have been few studies of the de-converted, despite the rising numbers. Faith No More helps to fill the research gap.

With generous quotations from his eighty-seven “apostates” (a descriptive, not pejorative, term here), Zuckerman details the reasons people give for leaving a faith. For some, religion simply stopped making sense. Unexplained and undeserved misfortune shook others. The influence of parents for and against religion is critical, though not necessarily in straightforward ways. The most intensely religious parents can raise apostate children. Education, friends and lovers, and exposure to the claims of other religions are also factors.

In Zuckerman’s interviews, sex came up again and again, usually in the form of complaints about the “relatively restrictive sexual regulation that delineates who one can have sex with, as well as when, where, and how.” A number of his subjects claimed that the only sexual instruction they received from parents and church was “Don’t do it,” and many were left with the impression that sex was inherently unclean. When they slipped up and broke the rules, the easiest way forward was to give up on the faith.

Zuckerman disputes the notion that atheists and apostates are amoral. Forced to define and defend their ethical stance rather than receiving it from others, atheists are, he claims, more sensitive and self-conscious about ethics than believers. Apostates find life meaningful without God, and they generally don’t quake at the prospect of death with no afterlife. Many experience apostasy as liberation.

From his survey, Zuckerman develops a typology of apostasy. He distinguishes between early and late apostasy; between “shallow” apostasy that rejects a particular religion but retains a form of spirituality, and “deep” apostasy that concludes there is no deity at all; and between the “mild” apostasy of those who were only nominally religious in the first place and the “transforming” apostasy of those who had been seriously committed to the faith they later abandoned.

As Zuckerman says in his final chapter, “reasons are not causes.” Not everyone abandons their faith because their parents quarrel, as did one subject. On the contrary, religion can provide relief from childhood trauma. Not all his subjects could even give reasons for apostasy. Some experienced it as “an inevitable, almost uncontrollable emergence of something that they had always felt inside of them.” His research was “haunted” by the weirdly Calvinist question of whether some people are “secular by nature.”

Faith No More opens a window into the souls of people who have stopped believing that they have souls. With atheism and apostasy on the rise, it’s worthy of careful study by those of us who want to prevent apostasy and reclaim the apostate.

I wonder, though, how completely these apostates have rooted out their previous intellectual, cultural, and moral habits. Zuckerman's interviews clarify the changes that apostates experience, and how they regard their former belief. In taking the subjects' account of their ‘deconversion' at face value, however, he doesn't pay attention to what remained constant through the apostasy. Some strive mightily to undo the “lies” they were taught at home and in church, but they can’t remake themselves completely. This complicates Zuckerman’s conclusions about the ethics, personal character, and worldview of apostates. How much do they rely on capital borrowed from the bank where they no longer do business? How much are they formed by the residues of Christianity that still pervade American life? To put it another way: What happens to their kids?

Zuckerman’s findings about sex aren’t a surprise. Every pastor who has counseled someone who is questioning his or her faith knows that sex is one of the main motivators. Sexual opportunities of college are as powerful as intellectual challenges in tempting students away from the religion of their childhood. Zuckerman’s study highlights the importance of teaching both those nasty “restrictive” sexual regulations and expressing the glory, delight, and sheer miracle of our “spousal bodies.” The trick is to display the inner beauty of the rules themselves.

More broadly, this throws some light on why sexual issues loom so large in today’s cultural clashes. David Brooks’s recent suggestion that we change the subject may be good PR advice, but it’s bad moral theology. A battle about sexuality is a battle for the soul of America.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.

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