What the church could learn from two YouTubers losing their faith

Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal, hosts of "The Earbiscuits," on Nov 8, 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

Link: “This Christmas I would like a book of puns. I’d really like to incorporate more puns into my life.”

Rhett: “I would have expected a pun to be in that.”

Link: “I don’t have the book yet.”

Rhett and Link are goofballs and, as millions of listeners have discovered, very entertaining goofballs. In 2013, the two childhood friends allowed the wider public to start listening in on their shenanigans when they launched their “Ear Biscuits” podcast, which debuted at number 22 on the iTunes charts.

In 2017, the hosts took their show to YouTube under the banner of “Good Mythical Morning” where they have continued offering pop-culture commentary, personal stories and whatever thoughts pop into their heads. Watching “Ear Biscuits” is like sitting around with your best friends, often laughing so hard your sides hurt. With over 16 million subscribers, these YouTubers have clearly connected with their audience.

Earlier this year they took that connection to a deeper and unexpected place. In back-to-back episodes, Rhett and Link each shared their respective stories of how they had gone from being committed Christians working in professional ministry to doubting God’s very existence.

In back-to-back episodes, the hosts of "Earbiscuits" shared their respective stories of how they had gone from being committed Christians working in professional ministry to doubting God’s very existence.

Rhett spoke first, methodically recounting the experiences, conversations and books that had chipped away at the Christian beliefs inculcated in him since his youth. Anticipating the criticisms that people will aim at him in response to his disclosure, Rhett acknowledges: “I understand why people do this because this is what I did for many years when I had friends who said, you know, I don’t really believe that anymore.... And that’s a difficult thing for me now because, I gotta be honest, it kind of feels very dismissive, right? And I don’t think it really accounts for what actually the reality was and is.”

In the following episode, Link offers a more emotional account of his struggles with a severe image of God punishing humanity for its sinfulness, feeling phony leading worship while experiencing no intimacy with God himself and being troubled by the church’s lack of acceptance of members of the L.G.B.T. community. Like Rhett, Link makes a point of saying that, although his experience within the church was overwhelmingly positive, he nonetheless felt liberated by his decision to finally walk away from Christianity.

The “Ear Biscuits” hosts had taken a huge risk. How would their audience react to this radical departure from their usual lighthearted antics? Perhaps as expected, there are viewers—particularly those from Christian backgrounds—who have been disappointed and disillusioned.

But scrolling through the comments for these episodes, one sees that the overwhelming response from the “Ear Biscuits” public has been support and commiseration: “It’s scary how close Rhett’s story is to mine. Almost step by step identical.” “I feel very much the same way.” “Exactly how I felt looking out into a life without the faith I had been conditioned to accept.” “This is so relatable. Thank you for your humility and vulnerability.” With over one million and 623,000 views, respectively, these are among the most popular episodes the duo has ever recorded.

The Christian world has been repeatedly shocked by high-profile (mostly evangelical) figures abandoning and sometimes publicly deconstructing their faith.

Although Rhett and Link certainly took a personal risk when they aired their doubts and criticisms publicly, they were far from the first to do so. Many credit the popular preacher and author Rob Bell with opening up the floodgates when he challenged evangelical beliefs about hell and damnation in his controversial 2011 book Love Wins. Since that time, the Christian world has been repeatedly shocked by high-profile (mostly evangelical) figures abandoning and sometimes publicly deconstructing their faith—people like Joshua Harris, the well-known author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and Marty Sampson of the Hillsong United band, which got its start at Hillsong Church in Sydney.

These public deconstructions have provided a narrative that smoothes the path for disaffected Christians to follow, and social media has sped others down that path by providing safe spaces where seekers can express their doubts and questions in a way that many feel is impossible in their church communities. Some of the most prominent of these include the closed Facebook group Love Heretic and podcasts like Nomad and The Deconstructionists. As more people empty out of churches, many are flocking to these digital safe havens.

What are we to make of these happenings? Should Christian communities be panicking? Sociological surveys reveal a clear trend of each new generation reporting lower levels of religiosity than the one before it. Given this data, it might seem just a matter of time before everyone follows the path of Rhett and Link and so many of their listeners.

Yet another body of research suggests that deconstruction may not be the inevitable endpoint but rather the midpoint in a longer trajectory leading back to faith. Social trends are the product of past history as well as present circumstances. Therefore, if we are to understand the current trend in disaffiliation, we must consider the historical context out of which it arose.

Faith deconstruction may not be the inevitable endpoint but rather the midpoint in a longer trajectory leading back to faith.

The Old Order

While Rhett and Link spend some time talking about their post-Christian lives in the deconstruction episodes, they devote the lion’s share of the time to looking back on the life and belief system they left behind. It is clear that they now think that belief system to be naïve. Theirs was a Bible Belt Christian community in North Carolina that did not encourage the kinds of questions Rhett and Link were asking themselves and each other. Rhett offers the example of being told as a child that there was no real evidence for evolution.

Rhett and Link’s Christian community is in many ways representative of a now-faded era in which most Western cultures embodied a generally unquestioned Christian worldview. Until relatively recently, most people in these communities simply took for granted Christian beliefs about God, the creation of the world, morality and the afterlife. This worldview also pervaded Catholic parishes through most of the 20th century, when people were more likely to remain in the same, largely homogenous community their whole lives.

The Present Disorder

The first cracks in this previously impervious Christian worldview began to appear about 500 years ago with the dawning of the modern age. Modern scientific inquiry was yielding new discoveries that seemed to challenge biblical accounts, including the age of the planet, the evolution of species, including the human species, and the place of the earth in the universe. The development of historical-critical methods of scholarship led to critiques of traditional interpretations of Scripture and religious beliefs. As a result, a dangerous thought entered the world: “What if it isn’t true? Could it really be otherwise than we have been told?”

Often a person’s initial reaction to such thoughts is to dismiss them. In Rhett’s story, he remembers becoming quite skilled at apologetics, that is, mounting arguments to counter challenges to Christian beliefs. “I could roll those arguments out with the best of them,” he recalls. Over time, however, the counterevidence mounted, and eventually, he concluded that it was unreasonable to cling to those Christian beliefs. Of course, this was not a purely intellectual exercise. Both Rhett and Link testify to how painful it was to feel increasingly at odds with and eventually to break with the Christian community that had nurtured them into adulthood.

As the YouTube comments show, many people (over 4,600 viewers have commented on Rhett’s episode) share this experience of questioning religious beliefs, struggling with all the spiritual and personal implications and ultimately rejecting beliefs that they have come to regard as indefensible. Some within the Christian community might console themselves with the thought that these online faith deconstructions are a passing trend. But the demographic data suggests that something significant and long-lasting is afoot. A historic shift has occurred in Western culture. The critical attitude of Enlightenment thinkers like Spinoza, Voltaire and Kant has entered into the common consciousness. In such a culture, it is virtually impossible for an unexamined faith to survive.

The critical attitude of Enlightenment thinkers like Spinoza, Voltaire and Kant has entered into the common consciousness. In such a culture, it is virtually impossible for an unexamined faith to survive.

These Enlightenment thinkers exalted in the triumph of reason, and, in like fashion, many of those challenging religious belief today express feeling liberated by doing so. In their testimonies, Rhett and Link declare that they are living just as morally as they did before and, in fact, now have healthier lifestyles and have expanded their capacity to love. On the other hand, Rhett confesses: “It’s not like I’m about to give you some philosophy that I live according to now… that gives me community, purpose and meaning. I don’t have that.”

These candid reflections reveal the complexity and ambiguity of the existential situation of people like Rhett, Link and the many “nones” among us. Some seem to be undergoing real personal and spiritual growth. At the same time, many are experiencing new psychological struggles. Notably, the trend in religious disaffiliation has been paralleled by a rise in anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. Although it is always dangerous to assume causation based on correlation, there is abundant research in the field of psychology (for example, that of Viktor Frankl and Aaron Antonovsky) demonstrating the pernicious effects of lack of meaning on a person’s mental health and general well-being, particularly in times of crisis like the present moment. The tagline for the Nomad podcast could very well be the motto for today’s younger generations: “Stumbling through the post-Christendom wilderness, looking for signs of hope.”

While by no means downplaying his struggles, Rhett does end his story on a hopeful note:

I think there’s a giant sort of shift that’s happening culturally, and I think that we may be arriving at that some time. But it doesn't exist right now for me. But what does exist is an openness, is this curiosity. Listen, I still think that belief in God is very reasonable. I think that the idea that the universe is ultimately purposeful, is headed towards some ultimate purpose, not only is that comforting but it kind of feels, again it feels right to me.... So I would call myself a hopeful agnostic, meaning I don’t know, but I hope.

Long before faith deconstructions started trending, researchers and scholars recognized the early signs of this trend.

A Future Reordering

Rhett has good reason to hope. Long before the Ear Biscuits hosts spilled their guts, long before faith deconstructions started trending, researchers and scholars recognized the early signs of this trend, but they also recognized the even earlier signs of a subsequent cultural shift of the sort Rhett seems to have intuited. For example, the Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan once observed, “The second stage of meaning is vanishing, and a third is about to take its place.”

This observation concerning three stages or evolutions in human consciousness emerges repeatedly in research spanning across multiple disciplines. Perhaps the most classic formulation appears in the writings of the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who wrote in 1960 of a “first innocence” or “first naïveté,” followed by a stage of criticism, which is followed in turn by a “willed” or “second naïveté.” Well-known spiritual authors like Ronald Rolheiser, O.M.I., and Richard Rohr, O.F.M., also note the imprint of these three forms of consciousness on the spiritual lives of contemporary people.

Upon the naïve consciousness that marks individuals and cultures in early stages of development, there follows a second phase characterized by the emergence of critical thought and often attended by a rejection of symbolic meanings like those contained in sacred texts, doctrines and religious rituals. Religious disaffiliation and a growing void of meaning of the sort we are presently witnessing are predictable consequences of large segments of the population moving into this critical form of consciousness. Many of those who have moved into this critical consciousness assume that it is the endpoint in human psychological development, but the research of psychologists like James Fowler and Robert Kegan and the decades of experience in spiritual direction of guides like Rolheiser and Rohr offer a different account: Critical consciousness is not the endpoint but rather (at least for some) the midpoint of their spiritual journey.

Beyond criticism, there emerges a “post-critical” form of consciousness in which one arrives at a new appreciation for religious meanings. In contrast with the naïve belief of the first phase, post-critical thinkers do not blindly accept the beliefs of their community. Rather they explore religious teachings and practices with eyes wide open, that is, using critical methods and questions but with an awareness of the limits of reason before mystery. While capable of identifying distortions and superstition within religious traditions, they also recognize the depth of meaning to be accessed in religious traditions and appropriate that meaning in an intentional manner.

Just as we can recognize figures like Voltaire and Kant as the advance guard of the wave of critical consciousness, so, too, can we identify people among us today who embody this further evolution into post-critical consciousness. Such people know what they believe and have good reasons for believing, often hard-earned through a period of exploration and critique. They have an exceptional capacity for abiding paradox and tension and for that reason are not threatened by difficult questions or encounters with people of differing perspectives.

In his book Christian Conversion, Walter Conn puts forth Thomas Merton as such an example, supporting this hypothesis with an in-depth psychological analysis of the faith development of the famous Trappist monk. That people like Merton have passed through the crucible of the critical phase and emerged with a deeper faith may provide some encouragement to people like Rhett, who cannot in intellectual honesty go back to the naïve faith of their youth and yet find themselves hoping for more than a deconstructed religious worldview.

Pope Francis seems to have the right read on the situation insofar as he has been calling for Catholic communities to become communities of “accompaniment."

How Should Christian Communities Respond?

The above research suggests that deconstruction may not be the final episode in the story of people like Rhett and Link. Many of those who have left their churches (though certainly not all) express a yearning for something more, and the psychological research and lived experience of some post-critical Christians suggests that there is indeed something more awaiting them. That being said, a recovery of faith is by no means the inevitable outcome. Much depends on the support seekers receive from Christian communities and elsewhere.

Pope Francis seems to have the right read on the situation insofar as he has been calling for Catholic communities to become communities of “accompaniment.” In “Christus Vivit,” the post-synodal apostolic exhortation on young people, the pope explains that such communities of accompaniment avoid “constantly judging them or demanding of them a perfection beyond their years” (No. 243). Instead, they engage in a process of accompaniment that is “gradual, respectful, patient, hopeful, tireless and compassionate” (No. 236). Like Jesus walking with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, suggests Francis, Catholics should walk with those who are trying to make sense of their experiences, ask questions and listen patiently, encouraging them to interpret their experiences in the light of Scripture and respecting their freedom to choose their own path (see No. 237).

Pope Francis offers a vision of Catholic communities where all members are nurtured and treated as mature adults rather than as children to be shielded or controlled. In other words, he is pointing us in the direction of becoming communities of post-critical rather than naïve Christians, communities where we acknowledge and respect the difficult, often messy work of making meaning of life and faith in contemporary society. There is simply no other option in the era of deconstruction, no going back to a pre-critical time. The only way forward is through the gauntlet of questioning and criticism because, if people do not find a hospitable space for their searching within the church, they will seek it out elsewhere. Many already have.

It is therefore an urgent task that our Catholic communities consider how they can create spaces for questioning, seeking and meaning-making. Fortunately, some models already exist. Parish evangelization programs like Alpha and ChristLife have proven effective in attracting newcomers to Christianity and awakening more intentional faith in even long-time Christians. Key to their effectiveness is fostering open and honest discussion of the big questions of life and faith, typically after breaking the ice with a shared meal.

Pope Francis offers a vision of Catholic communities where all members are nurtured and treated as mature adults rather than as children to be shielded or controlled.

Small communities fostered by lay ecclesial movements offer another venue for Catholics to support one another in a critical exploration of faith. For example, it is the practice of members of the Communion and Liberation movement to meet weekly in small groups to verify the truth of the Gospel in their lived experience, following the method of the movement’s founder, Msgr. Luigi Giussani. In these small communities, members engage Catholic teaching with seriousness and respect in an atmosphere in which critical questioning is not merely tolerated but expected. In these meetings, it is not uncommon to hear stories of members who grew critical or drifted away from the church but later returned. Hearing such stories of return—stories that embody the same depth of authenticity and brutal honesty exemplified in Rhett and Link’s stories, some of them touching upon the very same issues—is crucial for smoothing out a path back toward reintegration within the Christian community.

Parish faith formation and Catholic education can also provide vital support for young people as they make sense of faith in postmodern society. Pastors like the Rev. James Mallon, the author of Divine Renovation, have successfully transformed confirmation preparation into a meaningful, enlivening experience by incorporating Alpha Youth. Communion and Liberation facilitates small communities for high school students following the same method utilized in adult groups.

For my own part, I have presented elsewhere a vision for the kind of religious education capable of meeting the needs and challenges of promoting meaningful, resilient faith in a culture of critical consciousness. This approach imitates Jesus’ model of spurring his audience’s minds into motion through provocative questions, images and stories, leading them to reimagine the world in a manner better aligned with the reign of God and prompting a personal decision to live into that vision. Whether Catholic communities adopt this approach or another like it, it is imperative to recognize and address people’s present need for support in making sense of life in a pluralistic, rapidly changing and generally overwhelming world.

The faith deconstruction trend will continue. Christian communities can criticize and resist this trend, in which case we will only succeed in pushing more people out into the wilderness where they are less likely to find the life-giving waters for which they thirst. Or we can walk with them through the wilderness of disillusionment and doubt—as Jesus did with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus—in the hopes that ultimately we will, in the words of T. S. Eliot, “arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

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