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?