Michael Metzger

Concluding her marriage took ten minutes. Coming to the end of it took ten years. During that decade, Diane Vaughan says she and her husband were “uncoupling.” Once you learn how “uncoupling” occurs, you’ll see why 44 percent of all Americans leave their faith or change religions at least once in their life. The good news is that a majority of them remain open to religion and want to once again “couple.”

In Uncoupling: Turning Points in Intimate Relationships, Diane Vaughan studied her own failed marriage along with interviewing 103 other divorcees.1 She discovered that divorce is rarely due to what most people assume – some sort of a momentous event such as an affair or loss of a child. It’s instead a slow drift away from one another, an “uncoupling.” The process begins when “happily ever after” no longer sounds plausible to one partner, but he or she is afraid to tell the other. The progression goes like this: a secret, discontent, and finally transition. It’s not dramatic but rather a slow distancing.

This progression seems to be why people give up their faith or change religions. Last year, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life surveyed 35,000 Americans and discovered that 44 percent changed faith at least once. In a follow-up this year, researchers recontacted 2,800 of the 35,000 and discovered a few surprises.2 Focusing mostly on Christians, Pew Forum senior fellow John C. Green said researchers had expected something dramatic like disputes, doctrine, or disillusionment over internal scandals to play more of a role in someone’s decision to leave a faith. Not so.

Instead, almost three-quarters of Catholics and Protestants who are now unaffiliated with a religion said they had “just gradually drifted away” from their faith. Researchers attributed this to a surprisingly high incidence of what they call “churn.” Churn begins with a secret – the faith ain’t working. Your religion no longer seems plausible. It doesn’t explain enough of life but you can’t tell anyone because you know it’ll be unwelcome news. It’s a secret. Churn yields discontentment and then departure. This is a “big indictment” of organized religion, said Michael Lindsay, assistant professor of sociology at Rice University. “There is a huge, wide-open back door at most churches. Churches around the country may be able to attract people, but they can’t keep them.”

Augustine had an interesting formulation in this connection: Nullus quipped credit aliquid, nisi prius cogitaverit esse credendum – “no one indeed believes anything, unless he previously knew it to be believable.” Faith, in other words, only fits inside frames. Sociologist Peter L. Berger calls “whatever is previously known to be believable” a “plausibility structure.”3 Every society has a plausibility structure that is the “social base,” telling people what is ultimately real and true. Even religious choices are made inside frames of reality that are, as Michael Sandel puts it, “antecedent to choice.”4

The reality is that we’re social beings who live in a framework that includes spiritual dimensions. That’s why plausibility structures matter so much – frames of reference precede facts about religion. John Adams was correct that facts are stubborn things, but they’re also stillborn. They’re dead except inside someone’s definition of reality. They’re true, but facts only gain traction inside someone’s frame of reference. Miss California’s recent remark about her religious tradition opposing gay marriage is one example. Her point simply doesn’t sound plausible to many Americans. This issue however has little to do with any facts – it has more to do with society’s frame of reference. It works the same way with religion, the Pew researchers discovered. When a person’s faith was no longer a plausible explanation of reality, they “just gradually drifted away.”

The good news is the Pew study found a large and growing number of people – 56 percent – reporting no religious affiliation yet remaining open to religion. “We tend to think that when people leave [religion] they leave,” said Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University. “But a lot of these unaffiliated are unaffiliated for now… It’s not a one-way street. It’s not like after you’ve left a religious affiliation, you can’t get back in.” Many uncoupled people want to couple again. Yet they want a faith that’s a credible explanation of the heights and depths of reality.

When William James visited a Christian camp as a young man, he wrote of “the atrocious harmlessness of all things” and how he longed for the wider world with its “heights and depths, the precipices and steep ideals, the gleams of the awful and the infinite.”5 Inside his frame of reference, the Christian faith just didn’t sound plausible. So he drifted away. It’s the same situation today according to cultural analyst Wendell Berry. He says organized Christianity doesn’t have any idea on how to connect with reality. This sounds harsh, but it’s exactly how uncoupled people describe their former faith.

This is the challenge facing faith communities today: the Judeo-Christian definition of reality, or its plausibility structure, is not taken seriously and acted upon by the serious actors in the wider world. The solution for faith communities is first framing “what is believable” before talking about “what to believe.” People don’t leave the faith because of facts and their reasoning faculties, they uncouple because of frames of reference. You don’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into. You instead paint a picture of a plausibility structure that accounts for the heights and depths, the precipices and steep ideals, along with the gleams of the awful and the infinite… reality. That picture will probably help many people who want to once again couple.

1 Diane Vaughan, Uncoupling: Turning Points in Intimate Relationships (New York, NY: Vintage, 1990).
2 Jacqueline L. Salmon, “Study Examines Choice of Religion: Spiritual Attitudes, Not Church Policy, Cited as Reasons,”? Washington Post April 28, 2009, p. A4.
3 Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York, NY: Random House, 1967), p. 45.
4 Michael Sandel, “The Politics of Public Identity,” The Hedgehog Review 2.1 (Spring 2000).
5 Quoted in William Edgar, Taking Note of Music (London, UK: Third Ways, SPCK, 1986), p. 18.


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  1. “…The faith ain’t working. Your religion no longer seems plausible. It doesn’t explain enough of life …”

    I have personal knowledge. I still live in the space between where the world I constructed has imploded and a new way of imagining the world has not fully emerged (Will it ever?). Let me encourage others who dwell here with the encouragement I received before partaking in the bread and the wine this past Sunday: “We can come here and reenact the story—for in the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread… likewise, after supper, he took the cup—and as we reenact the story it works on us and changes us.” When so much no longer seems plausible rehearsing the ancient story, in faith, has been my sustenance.

  2. One aspect of “uncoupling” you failed to mention was how American it is. Our “frames” are so tuned in to the consumerist mindset that we quit one church and join (or don’t join) another the same way we would a fitness center–it wasn’t meeting my needs, I didn’t like the facility, there was a creepy guy there I didn’t care for. In other cultural contexts, “quitting” your church wasn’t even an option. You were born in it, baptized in it, confirmed in it, married in it, and buried in it. Period. I think our love affair with freedom and choice has some unfortunate consequences in this regard.

    BTW, you’re usually so great about the references, but you didn’t footnote this: “It’s the same situation today according to cultural analyst Wendell Berry. He says organized Christianity doesn’t have any idea on how to connect with reality.” Where did he say that?

  3. Mike,

    Have you delved into Plantiga’s book Warranted Christian Belief? He thoroughly establishes a framework for Christianity. He also addresses the dismissal of the faith by those who hold a framework that makes Christian belief implausible to them. He seems, from a philosophical and apologetic standpoint, to be saying something very similar to your point.

    The challenge I still feel is how to say what Plantiga says in a way that makes sense to my secular or unbelieving friends.

  4. I am a neophyte to this blog and system of thought, so I apologize if my questions are elementary or incoherent, but at a minimum, please know that they are honest.

    “The solution for faith communities is first framing “what is believable” before talking about “what to believe.””

    I am hoping you can elaborate on what this means and how it is we frame “what is believable”? There is much about Christianity that is unbelievable. For example, Christ’s resurrection is unbelievable, so if I were “paint[ing] a picture of a plausibility structure” I would be tempted to leave that out, but because it is objectively true and central to God’s story, I cannot. Does that mean I have started with “what to believe”?

    Similarly, if I am trying to paint a plausibility structure to move another person into a position, then isn’t that structure something to believe rather than merely something that is believable? If it is merely believable, and there are other believable structures, then why should the structure I create be believed?

  5. Hi Mike:

    It seems that what is believed is determined by our own perceptions, the reality of “my” world. What is believed today is based on what I want. How do we share “what to believe” seems to be the revelant question.

  6. Questions, questions, questions! David: Wendell Berry’s talk is titled: “Christianity and the Survival of Creation” – a rather stout and candid address he gave recently at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Trent: Yes, this is one of the big challenges before faith communities – the lack of academic ideas being translated into workaday language. That’s why this stuff doesn’t resonate with the wider world. Plantinga’s great – if you’re in the Calvin College world (or their plausibility structure). If you’re not, all this stuff sounds weird. For Scott and Barbara: this is where people of faith miss the boat. We’re not “bringing them anything” – we’re uncovering reality that’s all around them and that everyone lives and breathes. I don’t “talk” people into a plausibility structure, I let them see that their walking and living in one. I let them do the talking. It’s called experiential learning. There is ultimately only one reality. If their plausibility structure does not account for reality, I let gravity do its work. This also means that I don’t claim to know it all, and I believe that people apart from faith can get a whole lot right. But at the end of the day there is only one reality. If we let gravity do its work – rather than relying on the golden throats of a few evangelists – many would sense that the Judeo-Christian faith seems to more adequately account for our shared experiences.

  7. I’m not one for talking academically, but my thought in reading this is that not many of us ask questions – big theological questions. It seems that most of us go to church for the experience or emotion and not to ask hard questions. When the worship style changes or we are afraid to ask the questions, we either move churches or just go quiet and stop going.

    I’m not sure this is intentional on the Church’s part, but inviting people to ask those difficult questions might help address this – keeping the lines of communication open so to speak…

    Just my take on this discussion…

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