There is a game I played with my Adventist friends I now call “Find the Cause.” Every time a friend left the church, or came out as an agnostic or an atheist, we would look for someone or something to pin it on. “It was his family,” one would say, “they were always so judgmental.” “The church was too big, too impersonal,” said another. “I think it was that group of friends he found in college,” I said.
People want a story—a tale of heroes, and villains, and foes, and triumph, and failure. They want an entity to blame for each person who absents themselves from the church pew. They want a ‘why’; but asking assumes great risk, and more awkward than the possibility that they may wear the villain’s cape, is the reality that there are no villains. Pointing a finger allows responsibility to shift to an individual or an event, and ultimately distracts from the most logical conclusion: some people leave their religion because their religion does not or cannot offer them what they need. And what most people need is to base their lives on ideas of which they can be proud.
I’ve heard friends twist this reasoning into an argument against the sciences (“Studying geology taught him to be ashamed of the Gospel,” said Grandma.). Distant onlookers often blame the dissenter, believing someone who willingly leaves their faith community to be disloyal, spiritually weak, or otherwise flawed of character. But no matter who or what the disappointed brethren blame, the result is the same: a villain is named, and the unpleasant and disconcerting task of assessing the validity of faith claims is avoided yet again.
I have not walked away from my first faith community so much as I have downgraded its tenets from postulates to argument fragments. And I cannot walk away from my faith—most people don’t. People leave the places they believed their faith to be—in an image of the Ultimate (What have we but images?), a church, an institution, a community. They leave because there is nothing left to hold them. In essence, they walk away from an empty space, from nothing. I once tried to walk away, largely abandoning my congregation for two months. But the desire for community led me back, back into the fray and the frustration—because while I was surrounded by a community that loved me, what I desired was understanding.
I have no harrowing tale. Though I have many frustrations, frustration is the natural product of membership in any human community. I live on The Apex, on an observatory peak between belief systems, because of ideas. My little dot on the sliding scale of ideologies features close proximity to Christian Fridays and Agnostic Tuesdays. My need to build my life on truths of which I am proud includes the sub-needs of knowledge that my belief system makes the world a better place, harmony (versus competition) with my intellectual integrity, and the foundation of eternal, objective truth. I no longer consider myself a member of my first church because the ideologies implicit in membership do not meet these needs.