Switchers and Stickers

The Chaplain over at An Apostate’s Chapel posted about the latest poll by the Barna Group, which found that 1 in every 8 Americans is an ex-Christian. Meanwhile, about 3% of Americans were raised non-Christian but later converted. The Barna Group’s press release described their finding in these terms: “The study underscores that the spiritual allegiances of childhood are remarkably sustainable in our society… the most common faith journey that people take is to form spiritual commitments as children and teenagers that typically last for the duration of their life.”

While it’s certainly true that most people don’t change their childhood religious beliefs, I think Barna is glossing over the most significant finding in their own survey: people are leaving Christianity at four times the rate they’re being converted into it. Even though Christians still command an absolute majority of Americans, we’ve known for some time that their share of the population is shrinking, and this is probably a large part of the reason why: they’re just not holding onto their members nearly as fast as they’re making new ones.

Part of this, I’m sure, is the low-hanging-fruit issue. When Christianity is virtually the only choice and any other religious belief results in harassment or worse, which was the de facto state of affairs in America for decades, the vast majority will naturally choose the path of least resistance. But with the rise of the atheist movement, Christianity is facing genuine competition in a way it’s never had to deal with before, at least not in this country. Leaving faith altogether is more of a viable option than it ever was, and there are bound to be people who respond to that. For the same reasons, it’s no surprise that Christian evangelism is bearing little fruit. In our society, it’s safe to assume that most people have heard the basics of Christianity already, and anyone who wants to join a church has ample opportunity to do so. They’re selling a product in a market that’s already saturated.

For atheists, the ongoing exodus from religion is validation of our strategy of persuasion. We’ve turned a large number of people into nonbelievers, and opened up the religious landscape for many more doubters, questioners and seekers – the people I described as “soft atheists” in the linked post. Although the majority of people still go through life as Christians, it’s no longer the automatic option, and we’ve made them aware that there are other possibilities.

My question is this: We’ve got half our strategy down – making the arguments and the appeals that convince people to switch religions. But we need to work on the other half – building the secular community that makes nonbelief more “sticky“, that is, making it a friendlier and more appealing option for people with opened minds. I can think of two things that may not be obvious:

College scholarships for atheists from religious families. I was thinking of this after reading a comment by Sarah Braasch in the thread on escaping ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Atheism is growing fastest among young people, but many of them are from ultra-religious families who may retaliate against their kids for being honest – cutting them off, kicking them out of the house, etc. A scholarship for young people in this situation, enabling them to escape and to get an education, would be a lifeline.

Vocational training for former clergy. A similar, but even more extreme, problem is faced by nonbelievers among the clergy, who, for the most part, have no marketable skills outside religion. It would help the atheist movement greatly to have more of these people out of the closet and speaking out, and we can make it possible for them to do so if we could offer job training or some other opportunity to have a life outside their church.

What other suggestions do you have for ways we can expand the secular community and make new atheists feel welcome?

The Atheist Community Is Diversifying
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
The FLDS Cult Is Unraveling
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
About Adam Lee

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

  • Andrew T.

    Scholarships for atheists “breaking away” from religious families are an interesting idea, but how would it be executed?

  • Dave

    While I always love to hear good news (as opposed to “The Good News”), I have to find fault with your claim that

    …I think Barna is glossing over the most significant finding in their own survey: people are leaving Christianity at four times the rate they’re being converted into it.

    I’m guessing you’re basing this on 1/8 (12.5%) being roughly 4x 3%. That’s well and good, but we need to take into account the relative size of each community. It looks like Christians make up roughly 76% of the country. Therefore the 12.5% of the country that are leaving make up 12.5 / 76 = 16% of Christians. 3% of the country leaving non-christianity make up 3 / (100 – 76) = 12.5% (coincidentally) All of this is conflated by the numbers being totals, not a rate of egress, but I’d still argue that 12.5% vs. 16% isn’t as exciting.

  • http://neatshirts.blogspot.com Abeille

    Encourage atheists with extra rooms in their home to board young atheists who are rejected from their faith-community/family and who are struggling to obtain higher education.
    Create a fun environment for atheists to explore different cities, states, or even countries. Hosting atheists and working on the foster family’s pet charities, be it a soup kitchen, sewing blankets for the less fortunate, or attending a counter-rally. Much like a “mission” except without the religion. Encourage a hands-on approach to helping the community. All ages could be welcome.
    Encourage growth of more secular summer camps that promote rational thought. I know there are some but there should be a lot more.

    The unique problem of making the atheist community more welcome is making the older (especially new) atheists feel welcome. Churches focus on children; atheists, at least currently, are often already adults.
    Community centers and more secular charities– basically anything that gets people together would help. Simply being more visible, so others don’t feel alone, even if they don’t wish to participate.

  • chroma

    College scholarships for atheists from religious families

    Like many scholarships, that sounds like it could be taken advantage of if it’s not handled thoughtfully enough.

    Vocational training for former clergy

    Very nice idea. Perhaps the information resources could include communication on why clergy would leave, their reasoning, state of mind et cetera, so that priests could plausibly seek out these programs as if to research and understand why other priests leave – thus plausible deniability, plus of course reaching out to a greater number of people.

    Dave, good point that we need to take into account the relative size of the groups. A potential problem I see with your calculations, though, is that they don’t take into account that the size of each group is changing with time. At what point in time were Christians 76%; before 1/8 adults had deconverted, during, or after?

  • Snuggly Buffalo

    The problem with your math, Dave, is that the percentages above apply to the whole American population, not the communities you refer to. 1/8 Americans are former Christians, not 1/8 American Christians eventually become apostates. And 3% of Americans are Christian converts, not 3% of American non-Christians eventually convert.

    Estimating the US pop. at 300 million, that means roughly 37.5 million Americans are former Christians, and only 9 million Americans are Christian converts.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Regarding the scholarship – My thought is that this would be an essay competition, similar to the one the Freedom from Religion Foundation already offers to graduating high-school seniors. Having the applicant write about and describe their situation and explain why they need the aid would weed out all but the deserving. It could also be supplemented with an in-person interview for the finalists if necessary.

  • http://Daylightatheism.org J. James

    Abeille, I think yours is a fantastic idea. I already have been volunteering at a kid-friendly natural history park/museum for years. I think we should make it less about the “Atheist” part of it-considering the extreme negative connotation-and broaden it to a multi-banner affair, including not just Atheists but Agnostics and Secularists as well. Charities are indeed a big one, but I also think that expanding the science education here in America would help immensely. I have taken CP, so-called College Prep biology Freshman year, and it was pathetic. We did not cover evolution at all, even though it was a chapter in our book. This worries me, because at least at my school the overwhelmingly vast majority don’t take any higher Life Science than that. I’m now taking AP bio, the next level, and it’s worlds better but absolutely terrifying if you don’t anticipate it. In fact, last year in my 1600 student school the class was closed because only eight enrolled. In my first week three people dropped the class. I truly believe a better education leads to more freethinkers, and in this world we need all we can get.

  • 2-D Man

    Just to further beat a dead horse, there’s a more glaring problem with the conclusion:

    [T]hey’re just not holding onto their members nearly as fast as they’re making new ones.

    Suffice it to say, conversion is not the only source, or even, I would wager, the main source of new Christians.

    As for new ideas for atheists to do, I’ve been thinking about trying to put together a public science fair, but that’s not really a project I have time for at the moment.

  • http://Daylightatheism.org J. James

    Ooo, that has potential. Science encourages thought, thought encourages Atheism.

    And, of course, it sounds like fun.
    There could be different science fields present, maybe some cool inventions and such. Perhaps something like that could raise money for secular charities?

  • http://Www.bullshitexpress.com David

    I would like to see the study questions before I gave the study any validity. There are often flawed questions that can influence participants. Either way, interesting stuff.

  • keddaw

    Scholarships for atheists “breaking away” from religious families sounds good, but can you imagine how it would play in the press – evil atheists offering bribes to tempt children away from the light.

    It is a horrible situation for a kid to be in, but this idea would cause a lot of harm short term with little overall benefit, except to the kids abandoned by their families, but they were on our side already.

  • http://GodlessPoetry.blogspot.com Zietlos


    I have seen a large number of religious scholarships, even in a secular, partially gov’t-funded university, so I do not see what would be an issue. However, the issue really lies in the wording, not the criterea nor any other issues involved: Many people dislike atheists. We know this. Anyone who would pretend to be atheist for money is at LEAST agnostic, to avoid the stigma, so money going to the wrong people wouldn’t really be an issue.

    The issue of “breaking away” would be the hard part, as keddaw notes. Better wording would be, perhaps unfortunately, the bland generic wording of bursaries that litter the academic landscape (and I’ve read a ton of them, I am a student). It would probably read something like this: “The Ebonmuse Atheist Bursary: This scholarship goes to an atheist coming into their first year at a post-secondary educational institution that demonstrates academic excellence and financial hardship.”

    90% of bursaries I read have that as the general wording, replacing denomination name or removing it as needed. It keeps it really neutral: News stations would have a hard time spinning that into a negative statement, even out of context, so it would be quite possible. It’s all in the wording.

  • Quester

    Speaking as a former pastor, now deconverted, I applaud the idea of vocational training for former clergy. A simpler, similar idea would be to help former clergy recognize what marketable skills they do have (public speaking, communication, leadership, research, customer service, etc.) and what other carrer paths value these skills. For instance, I now work in the reference department of my local library and someone I knew who was in a similar situation now sells cars at a dealership. There *are* other options!

    As for a community, some of Abeille’s ideas sound really good. I’m not interested in gathering to complain about religion or theists, but am very interested in a local group who’d want to make the world a better place without requiring supernatural agents to do the heavy lifting.