A Change in the Wind

Via Orcinus, a truly incredible story about the latest survey to come out of the Barna Group, whose title is “A New Generation Expresses its Skepticism and Frustration with Christianity“.

Over the last decade or so, the religious right has exercised virtually untrammeled power in America. They’ve commanded the allegiance of a majority of the population and have enjoyed tremendous influence and near-unchallenged power in popular culture, in the media, and especially in government. They have had abundant opportunity to make it clear to everyone what they most care about and what principles they advocate, and they have done so. And as their electoral fortunes waned, they have only become louder and more vehement.

There have been times these past few years when it was frustrating to be an American. While the religious right loudly proclaimed their intent to dismantle the Constitution’s safeguards and impose their rigid, antiquated views on the rest of us, the traditional media was somnolent, and the populace seemed apathetic. I believe the religious right became so bold, so brazen in announcing their desires, precisely because they assumed the lack of resistance meant no one was paying attention.

As it turns out, the people were listening all along. And they don’t like what they’ve heard.

…a decade ago the vast majority of Americans outside the Christian faith, including young people, felt favorably toward Christianity’s role in society. Currently, however, just 16% of non-Christians in their late teens and twenties said they have a “good impression” of Christianity.

One of the groups hit hardest by the criticism is evangelicals. Such believers have always been viewed with skepticism in the broader culture. However, those negative views are crystallizing and intensifying among young non-Christians. The new study shows that only 3% of 16- to 29-year-old non-Christians express favorable views of evangelicals.

The Barna Group, which is itself an evangelical polling firm, gives detail after detail showing how dramatically the public image of Christianity has deteriorated in just ten years:

The study explored twenty specific images related to Christianity, including ten favorable and ten unfavorable perceptions. Among young non-Christians, nine out of the top 12 perceptions were negative. Common negative perceptions include that present-day Christianity is judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), old-fashioned (78%), and too involved in politics (75%)…

When young people were asked to identify their impressions of Christianity, one of the common themes was “Christianity is changed from what it used to be” and “Christianity in today’s society no longer looks like Jesus.” These comments were the most frequent unprompted images that young people called to mind, mentioned by one-quarter of both young non-Christians (23%) and born again Christians (22%).

The following fact in particular shows both that the general populace has heard the religious right loud and clear, and that they resoundingly reject the positions it puts forward:

Today, the most common perception is that present-day Christianity is “anti-homosexual.” Overall, 91% of young non-Christians and 80% of young churchgoers say this phrase describes Christianity… One of the most frequent criticisms of young Christians was that they believe the church has made homosexuality a “bigger sin” than anything else.

Indeed. One wonders where anyone could have gotten that idea.

Many sects of Christianity revel in hostility and rejection, of course, taking it as further evidence of the blind foolishness of the world. But David Kinnaman of the Barna Group has words for them as well:

“Going into this three-year project, I assumed that people’s perceptions were generally soft, based on misinformation, and would gradually morph into more traditional views. But then, as we probed why young people had come to such conclusions, I was surprised how much their perceptions were rooted in specific stories and personal interactions with Christians and in churches. When they labeled Christians as judgmental this was not merely spiritual defensiveness. It was frequently the result of truly ‘unChristian’ experiences. We discovered that the descriptions that young people offered of Christianity were more thoughtful, nuanced, and experiential than expected.”

As much as I’d like to claim credit for it, this sharp drop in public perception of Christianity probably has very little to do with the new wave of atheist spokespeople. If anything, it’s probably the other way around – the excesses of the religious right have left many people repulsed by organized religion and more likely to give atheism a fair hearing.

But in either case, Christians have brought this upon themselves through their actions; they have no one else to blame. As the Bible says, those who have sown the wind shall reap the whirlwind. Or, to use a more secular analogy, the dinosaurs of the religious right ought to consider this news their own personal K-T impact. They may not know it yet, nor will they admit it, but the end of their era is drawing near, and a new age is about to rise. (The religious right’s declaration that they will split away from the Republicans and form their own party if the pro-choice Rudy Giuliani is the GOP presidential nominee is evidence both of their looming decline and their steadfast denial of it.)

Though the demographic trends are now solidly against them, in all likelihood the religious conservatives will remain set in their bigoted ways right up until they fade out of history. Whether a new, more progressive Christianity will rise in their place remains to be seen. But in either case, this is tremendous news for secular and nonreligious Americans, confirming that a change is in the air, and that it may come sooner than we think.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    There’s a lesson here for atheists. Once you’ve established your power, don’t shove it in people’s faces. That’s what the Religious Right did when they got control of Congress. They are now experiencing a backlash against their excesses. Who was it that said “pride goeth before the fall”? :)

    I can see the day when atheism will be embraced by a majority. Always remember that there is a minority out there who may some day become a majority. Paybacks can be a bitch. The minority has rights, they are humans, and they deserve consideration.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    This is welcome news. I don’t think atheists have any chance of falling prey to the types of excesses perpetrated by the evangelicals. It’s just not in our nature. It’s very clear that an atheist majority would treat a 10% Christian minority much better than they’ve treated us.

  • http://infidel753.blogspot.com Infidel753

    I thought this survey was among the best news I’ve seen in quite a while.

    It’s also interesting that even quite a few self-described Christians agreed with at least some of the negative characterizations of Christianity. I’ve always had the impression that there are a lot of people out there who self-identify as Christians but don’t really believe in most of it except in a vague and unenthusiastic way. As a person’s religion fades, the name and identity that go with it are probably the last thing they give up, not the first.

    It’s just not in our nature. It’s very clear that an atheist majority would treat a 10% Christian minority much better than they’ve treated us.

    I’m sure this is true, because atheism doesn’t have any equivalent of the Christian doctrines that make devout Christians feel compelled torment other people. There’s nothing inherent in atheism to make atheists want to limit the rights of people with an unusual sexual preference, or to make us obsessed with controlling other people’s reproductive processes. Individual atheists may have obsessions but there’s nothing in atheism itself that promotes that.

  • MJJP

    The truth about Christianity is finally starting to filter through to the masses. Over a ten year period consider how many more people are now online and able to do research and more importantly to enter websites, blogs etc and that are either pror or anti Christian and are able to debate the issues with real facts or lack of to prove their point of view. As someone voiced earlier it doesn’t help that the evangelicals got control of govt and some would strongly argue that the fiasco in Iraq is the result of religious beliefs.

  • Pi Guy

    I read that report the other day. Like Infidel753, I was surprised to learn that there were so many Xians who held negative views.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    “Today, the most common perception is that present-day Christianity is ‘anti-homosexual.’ Overall, 91% of young non-Christians and 80% of young churchgoers say this phrase describes Christianity.”

    And this could easily be the biggest nail in their coffin. Every single poll I’ve seen on attitudes about homosexuality, including but not limited to attitudes on same-sex marriage, shows that acceptance of homosexuality increases dramatically with each new generation. People in their twenties are more gay-positive than people in their forties; people in their forties are more gay-positive than people in their sixties.

    I hadn’t thought about it in these terms before, but the Christian Right’s anti-gay agenda is very short-sighted. It’s a great way in the short term to play on people’s fears about sexuality and a changing world; but if they keep it up, they’re going to alienate young people who have gay friends (or who are gay themselves) and think it’s no big deal. And alienating young people is a death knell for any institution.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    To Infidel and BlackSun –

    I wouldn’t be so certain of the beneficence of an atheist majority. Being human, we have just as many failings, and often the same ones. Aside from that mundane observation, I can only quote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “The line between good and evil runs down the middle of every man’s heart.”

  • KShep

    I agree with Thump—-history has proven time and time again what happens when corrupt people are handed enormous power. And like it or not, there are corrupt atheists around, I’m sure.

    I’ll even go out on a limb here and say that it’s a good possibility that many of history’s prominent xtian leaders started out with the best of intentions but when all that money started rolling in, and glad-handing followers started telling them how great they are, well, you know what’s going to happen.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    What Thumpalumpacus and KShep said. I wish I had a dollar for every time some social change movement said, “Once we get in power, we won’t be corrupt, oppressive jerks. It’s just not in our nature. We’re special.” Sorry, but if you’re human, it’s in your nature. (Specific counter-example: groovy, secular France, where they banned Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in school. Thus not only restricting the girls’ religious freedom, but ensuring that lots and lots of Muslim girls will be kept out of school and will be more cloistered than ever. Good going, guys.)

    I think there’s a specific process that often happens in social movements; and once again, I’m going to draw a parallel between the atheist movement and the queer movement. In the earlier days, most out queers were really special and amazing… because you needed to be a special and amazing person to come out of the closet. Coming out was hard and risky, and it took a special kind of person to do it. But as the movement progressed and it became easier and easier to come out of the closet, it became depressingly clear that being gay didn’t make you special, and lots of gay people were jerks. Or were just regular schlubs like everybody else. Somewhat better dressed, perhaps…

    Anyway, I think we all need to brace ourselves for an inevitable disappointment. As the atheist movement progresses and we make it easier and easier for atheists to come out of the closet, our exciting little self-selected community of brilliant, funny, insightful, amazing people is going to look more and more like the human race as a whole.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Hello All,

    I think it is a reasonable possibility that sometime in the future Christianity, and maybe even religion in general will be a minority in the United States. What limits should be imposed when the Christians/theists no longer control the majority. That is, will we be able to think and speak freely?

    Cheers,

    Matt

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    This is welcome news. I don’t think atheists have any chance of falling prey to the types of excesses perpetrated by the evangelicals. It’s just not in our nature. It’s very clear that an atheist majority would treat a 10% Christian minority much better than they’ve treated us.

    It is in the nature of atheism to deny God’s existence and therefore find fault with those who assert God’s existence. I do not think there is any one “atheist” reaction to theism any more than there is one “theist” reaction to atheism. Some will be fair, some will be unfair. Instead of drawing the lines along religious lines, it would be very fortunate if lines were drawn around solid principles of “right” and “wrong”, respecting the individual while providing for the society. A difficult task to be sure!

    Cheers,

    Matt

  • SteveC

    > “Christianity in today’s society no longer looks like Jesus.”

    Now, if only they’d read the Bible, or even just “the Gospels”, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, maybe they’d realize that, even according to the Bible, Jesus is a gigantic dickhead asshole. At least that was my impression of him upon first reading the Gospels. Granted, I did this at age 34, not having been brainwashed into the Christianity, actually being an atheist all my life, but, thinking, prior to reading the Gospels that Jesus was a “nice guy,” philosopher, wise man, etc. I imagined the stories I heard second hand were a cartoonish pastiche of what must be in this highly regarded work, known as (hush befalls the room) “The Bible”.

    Well, no cartoonish pastiche, the image I had was a whitewash that portrayed Jesus as the sophisticate. The actual words of the Bible as they portray Jesus are breathtaking — breathtakingly stupid, horrible, just plain bad. The common view of Jesus — dumb as it sounds — is not a dumbed-down caricature of what’s in the Bible, as I had assumed, it’s a cleaned up, smartened up version of what’s in the Bible. What’s in the Bible… what’s in the Bible is the best thing ever if your aim is to get Christians to quit being Christians, provided the Christians in question aren’t *completely* retarded… which I have had a bad history of giving people the undeserved benefit of the doubt in that area, and I’m now a bit gunshy of granting even unknown strangers the benefit of being regarded as non-retards. I’m a real asshole that way, but there isn’t another way I can be.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Steve C, I noticed the exact same thing about the Jesus portrayal in the Gospels and I even did a post contrasting the paintings of him as a gentle man and his temper and lack of patience in the Gospels.

    Matt, if you are going to insist on being a Christian, you are going to have to keep your mouth shut in Atheist America! (just kidding).

    Last I heard, there weren’t any atheists here in America looking to repeal the 1st Amendment.

    Spanish Inquisitor makes a good point about not rubbing it in peoples faces. I think secularists should resist the tempation to push for removing “under God” from the Pledge or other pointless symbolisms and instead enjoy watching the Fundies implode.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Quoting Steve C:

    Now, if only they’d read the Bible, or even just “the Gospels”, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, maybe they’d realize that, even according to the Bible, Jesus is a gigantic dickhead asshole. … Well, no cartoonish pastiche, the image I had was a whitewash that portrayed Jesus as the sophisticate. The actual words of the Bible as they portray Jesus are breathtaking — breathtakingly stupid, horrible, just plain bad. The common view of Jesus — dumb as it sounds — is not a dumbed-down caricature of what’s in the Bible, as I had assumed, it’s a cleaned up, smartened up version of what’s in the Bible. What’s in the Bible… what’s in the Bible is the best thing ever if your aim is to get Christians to quit being Christians, provided the Christians in question aren’t *completely* retarded…

    This is what I am concerned about.

    Matt

  • Brock

    Matt: It is not “in the nature” of atheism to deny god’s existence. All we are sayiong (or all I am saying; I don’t necessarily speak for the majority) is: In the face of all the absurdities in the Bible, Quran, Book of Morons, etc, can you please provide us with some proof–any logical, evidence based proof at all– of this hypothetical god’s existence.

  • Polly

    @SteveC,

    You know it still pains me to say it, but I agree with you about JC. I always loathed the way he treated foreigners (except the Roman guard; smart move) referring to them as dogs who should get crumbs or as ignorant (woman at the well) or telling his disciples to stick to Israelites, not those gentiles or half-breed Samaritans. Saint Paul also tends to suggest that the Jews come first, and THEN the gentiles. As a “gentile” myself, I used to find the Bible pretty offensive; but I suppressed it. I mean take it all in context: I now refer to the OT as the “Mein Kampf” of ancient Israel. I strongly suspect that the command to go out into the world was tacked onto the end for mass appeal.
    Yes, I know it’s not all bad, and at least JC graced some Samaritan villages with his presence, preached forgiveness, and gave us the good Samaritan parable, blah, blah, and went on about the faith of the Roman guard (again, smart move) but coming from the lips of a god, ANY racism or negativity is WAY out of bounds.

    I don’t trust anyone in power. We’re all better off having the rulers at each other’s throats rather than ours. Vote RANDOM! :)

  • Pingback: ChristianThinker.net

  • Damien

    Question: If the GOP had been more successful in its policies — not completely mismanaging the response to 9/11, for instance, or having at least some grasp of ethics — would we be having this conversation today?

    If the right links itself to religion, and the right becomes unpopular, then it should be no surprise that religion also becomes unpopular. But it’s not because religion itself has been debunked in the minds of the populace.

  • OMGF

    This is what I am concerned about.

    Matt, he may have attacked your intelligence, but I see nothing in there that suggests he wants to curtail your rights.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Brock,

    I think that atheism generally entails the belief that God is not there. Agnosticism is generally more conservative and reserved. The attitude you express in your invitation for evidence seems more indicative of agnosticism than atheism. Atheists believe that God is not there, for whatever reason. If you are an atheist because you feel there is no evidence, that is fine. You therefore believe that God is not there because you feel there is no evidence to support God’s existence.

    Also implicit in your statement is the idea that there are no logical arguments for God and that several major religions are fraught with absurdities. This will lead you to believe that those people who follow such absurd ideas must have something wrong with them. This is also okay because those people probably think there is something wrong with you (I don’t because I think there are lots of absurdities too!). My only concern is that everyone gets to think what they want to think without being subject to the ruling authorities views.

    Cheers,

    Matt

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    OMGF,

    Matt, he may have attacked your intelligence, but I see nothing in there that suggests he wants to curtail your rights.

    The fact that he attacked at all worries me. It is one thing to politely point out discrepancies and fallacies in the way that many people do here. It is another thing to profanely attack someones view and suggest that people who believe it are “retarded”. This mentality goes beyond healthy criticism, in my opinion.

    As a side note, I think that it is very rude to use the term “retarded” as a slur. This is degrading to people who have mental challenges to overcome.

    Cheers,

    Matt

  • OMGF

    The fact that he attacked at all worries me.

    You should see the attacks that come at me on a regular basis when I post at Xian sites. What do you see there that makes you “worried” though? Do you honestly believe that SteveC wants to coerce you into disbelieving in god? Surely he understands that that is unrealistic. I still see no reason to expect that he wishes to curtail your rights.

  • http://www.christianmusiclyrics.org.uk Paul

    Thanks for your site it’s very informative :) God Bless

  • KShep

    Matt:

    I think it is a reasonable possibility that sometime in the future Christianity, and maybe even religion in general will be a minority in the United States. What limits should be imposed when the Christians/theists no longer control the majority. That is, will we be able to think and speak freely?

    I’m generalizing here, as I feel that there are corrupt (and corruptible) atheists out there who might go too far if they are given unchecked power to do so. But having said that, I think it’s safe to say that you will be able to think and speak freely. Atheists as a rule have no problem with that. In fact, most atheists would gladly admit the existence of god if the guy would just prove it somehow.

    The only limits I see are likely to be on using theology as a basis for writing laws or policies for citizens to follow. We’ll punish pharmacists who refuse to fill contraceptive prescriptions, for example. We’ll nail the landlords who refuse to rent to unmarried couples. We’ll toss intelligent design out of science classes, for good. We’ll take religion out of politics—that is, politicians can believe what they want, but they will remember that they represent everyone, not just those that think as they do. And we’ll toss them if they cross the line.

    These are all things we, as a society, should be doing now, xtian majority or not. Xtain leaders haven’t yet figured out that it is in their best interests to get out of the business of writing their beliefs into law. Freedom of religion, separation of church and state, these things protect them, too. I found all the attempts to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case in Florida disgusting. The faithful didn’t notice what was really going on—it was an attempt to take away a husbands right to decide what kind of medical care was best for his incapacitated wife. And they thought gays were attacking the institute of marriage—it was their own leaders!!

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    OMGF,

    That you are attacked at christian sites is equally worrisome and I hope that you are correct that you are correct in your assessment that his words reflect a rather benign dislike of christianity.

    Cheers,

    Matt

  • brock

    Sorry Matt, I am an atheist, 1) because I have never heard any coherent proof opf god’s existence, 2) because of the manifest absurdity of the entire idea, as well as lots of the details, 3) because I would live my life exactly the same way even if there w3as an invisible man in the sky watching me to see if I behaved
    4) because if he wants to send me to Hell because I don’t want to kiss his holy ass, then he’s not worthy of my consideration, let alone worship. 5) Well, I can’t think of 5 right now, but I probably will.
    As for logical arguments for god, they have all been refuted time and again. Rather than giving you an extensive reading list, I suggest you check out our genial host’s essays on his atheism pages.
    No, I don’t necessarily think that people who beleive in god have something wrong with them. I used to believe in the same sort of stuff, and so I merely consider them less spiritually developed than I am. I’m not better than; I may have worked harder than, thought longer than, or maybe I’m just luckier.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Brock, may put in #5? “Because the Abrahamic conception of god collapses under the weight of its many internal contradictions.”

    Forgive my forwardness in so doing.

    Matt R: I, and many atheists, hold to the principle of tolerance not despite our experiences, but rather because of them. Any danger to freedom of conscience, given these experiences, would seemingly arise only after some generations of atheists who haven’t experienced persecution have arisen. As noted above, I’m not nearly so optimistic as some of the other regs here, unfortunately. I can only promise that some of us will place our allegiance to freedom above our desire to change your mind. After all, the resort to compulsion is indicative of a weak arguer, and no atheist I know would admit that failing. :)

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Thump,

    Thanks for the encouragement. I hope it turns out this way.

    Cheers,

    Matt

  • Brock

    Everybody please follow Thump’s example: feel free to add your own number 5!
    I forgot to mention, Matt that your trick of explaining to me what I really believe as opposed to what I think/say I believe,is a favorite one of Christian apologists.

  • Steve Bowen

    Seems to me that Atheist is only a relevant tag to apply to oneself if you are immersed in a society that is implicitly religious. When only 10% of Americans are xians and rational thought is (once again?) the basis on which the country operates we can all stop defining ourselves in terms of other peoples delusions and get on with living the one life we get to experience.
    No, atheists won’t limit the freedoms of the religious minority; we are not a movement, prizing dogma over and reason trying to supress free thought.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Brock,

    I dislike it when people strawman me, and if I have straman-ed you, then I sincerely apologize. No tricks here. I am not trying an apologetic to make you believe Christianity. You are on your own there.

    Cheers,

    Matt

  • Harvard

    To Matt R –

    —-You said, “My only concern is that everyone gets to think what they [sic] want to think without being subject to the ruling authorities [sic] views.” —-

    Really?
    Your ONLY concern is that everyone thinks what he/she wants to think?
    Think about it for a few moments and you’ll come up with a dozen reasons why your ONLY concern is nonsense.
    Tell us, please, the first of these dozen reasons.

    And – again – please spare us. What you’re saying is not cheerful.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Sheesh, Harvard, did you get up on the wrong side of the bed today or something? Take it easy. You can argue against Matt’s position to your heart’s content, and he may choose to reply or not, but in either case he can be as cheerful as he likes. Let the man be.


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