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.

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About Adam Lee

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


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