Reading in and reading out

A good discussion on the Boar’s Head Tavern about whether it is possible to “read oneself out of the kingdom”. Here are the main posts:

do many people here at the Bar know of individuals who have read themselves out of the Kingdom — who have walked away from their faith because of what they’ve read.  I ask because, over the last year or so, I’ve been struck by the number of occasions where folks in my end of the conservative evangelical pool act/talk in such a way that suggests how “dangerous” it is to read certain things.

  • Fearsome Tycoon’s response, giving examples of Christians who discover, through reading, that science and atheism differ from what they’ve been told by their pastors, but concluding:

I don’t think reading alone does it that much. There’s usually a process where the person finds like-minded folk to talk to that reinforce their growing doubts.

  • My response, emphasising the social dimension to how our opinions change, and quoting this post by Richard Beck (a must-read, that one) on the role of “honour and shame” in transforming social norms and (I’d argue) individual beliefs.
  • Briefer responses from Phillip Winn and Mack Ramer.

All that is by way of bending and stretching exercise leading up to Brian’s latest post, in which he gives a very useful summary of the process that is often at work when people leave (or, for that matter, join) a church or the Christian faith, or undergo other forms of moral or intellectual revolution:

It’s not reading by itself that is a problem, but it’s:

  1. Through reading, discovering that one has (possibly) been snookered, told half-truths, lies or misrepresentations;
  2. Shame/disgust as a result of the discovery;
  3. Hanging out and interacting with others who have made, or in the process of making, the same discovery; and
  4. Adoption of that community’s values and/or moral framework.

That certainly fits with my own experience of how my views on many subjects have changed, often diametrically (and more than once) over time.

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6 Responses to Reading in and reading out

  1. Chris E says:

    I think certain books when read carefully, can end up with the reader having to re-think their faith, and perhaps rebuild it upon a completely different set of pre-suppositions to the ones they previously held. To that extent I have a certain sympathy with those who criticise something like the recent Peter Enns book for taking apart the readers faith without necessarily providing answers.

    That said the problem often lies with the quality of the answers. I’m sure I’m not the only one to have witnessed questioning Christians being given answers that the person providing them didn’t believe, or thought were half truths at best.

    I think a lot of this springs from a very impoverished view of the faith which in turn comes from the very weak grasp most evangelicals have on what they actually believe. Actually – I wonder – shouldn’t we be as worried about a lot of the books Christians read which result in them staying ‘in the faith’, especially if it leads to them taking a hetrodox view of their faith – perhaps the problem lies less with James Kugel, and more with John Eldredge.

  2. Religious change is certainly very complex. I’ve had a few people ask me recently to explain how I got from being a straight-down-the-line conservative charismatic evangelical to where I am now (which is a sort of agnostic atheist Anglican skeptic Christian non-Christian hybrid irreligious religious person), and these days I usually respond by throwing out a few suggestions without attributing it to a single factor.

    Reading and intellectual arguments played a large part in where I am today, but so did a lot of other factors. Finding several reinforcing communities was also a large part, but ironically, resisting that social reinforcement was also a large part at some stages. For example, I’ve consistently surrounded myself with fairly moderate evangelicals and never really assumed myself into the skeptical or atheist community in the same way.

    (Sorry, it’s even more complex than I’ve made out, but if I don’t shut up, this will become a blog post in itself.)

    PS Did that John Shay chap really write that “no non-biblical writer is infallible”? I think he’s going far beyond even conservative evangelical orthodoxy there, since surely even hardened fundies claim only *Scripture* is infallible, not the writers themselves.

    PPS I had to fight my natural instinct to disagree on this one, since my impression of FT is that for him, this argument is just another way to invalidate people who disagree with him!

  3. Sam says:

    I think I read myself out of my very conservative Oneness Pentecostalism from reading the Bible. I knew that it and my church said homosexuality was evil. For the longest time I dealt with that: I wasn’t evil, therefore I couldn’t be gay. When I finally saw it another way: that I wasn’t evil but I was gay so the Bible—as interpreted—was wrong, I left.


  4. Brian Auten says:


    Re: Jonathan Shay. Based on your question in the first PS, I think my sentence/link @ BHT might not have been as clear as it could have been. The material I excerpted (and hence, the material you quoted) was from Ricky Alcantar; my comment and link about Jonathan Shay was in reference to Alcantar’s assertion that one wouldn’t derive ethical teaching from Homer (which is part and parcel of what Shay writes about in both of his books).



  5. John H says:

    David: Thanks for that. Interesting what you say about resisting social reinforcement also playing a part – but the point remains that it’s as social animals that we go through these processes.

    Also, to be fair on Ricky Alcantar, as a matter of logic “no non-biblical writer is infallible” doesn’t necessarily imply that biblical writers are infallible… 😉

    Sam: The critical words being “as interpreted”…

  6. Theresa K. says:

    Sounds so familiar from my Evangelical years! What settled things for me was learning that faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the Word of God. In other words, I learned I was never the founder of my faith and cannot, on my own build it up. If my faith comes from God by grace through Christ, then I don’t alone bear the burden of being responsible for my sustaining my faith. I formerly depended on Christian media and literature to keep my faith up (ending up quite confused using this method). I’ve now cut out “Christian” media and tend to vet books first before reading them.

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