Atheists Absent from List of Reasons Christians Leave the Church

Christian Piatt at Red Letter Christians has a list of “Seven Reasons Why Young Adults Quit Church.” He goes into more depth for each point, but here are his theories as to why young adults (“we”) turn away from the faith:

  1. We’ve Been Hurt
  2. Adult Life/College and Church Don’t Seem to Mix
  3. There’s No Natural Bridge to Church
  4. We’re Distracted
  5. We’re Skeptical
  6. We’re Exhausted
  7. I Don’t Get It

Even though he’s speaking to a mostly Christian audience, he makes some really good points. #2, especially, is worth at least a few seconds of your time.

My guess is that most of you are thinking Piatt forgot the most obvious reason people leave church: They figured out God doesn’t exist. Ok, so maybe that was just my first reaction… They realized Christianity bases its entire foundation on a lie. The story the pastors are preaching just isn’t true. You can do all the community building and hand-holding and schedule changing you want — it’ll amount to jack once people realize there’s no god out there.

But from the perspective of real, believing Christians who get disillusioned with their faith, that’s not the reason they walk away.

As fun as it would be to pat ourselves on the back and give ourselves credit for Christians leaving the church, we don’t deserve it. Turns out the Church just keeps shooting itself in the foot.

David Kinnaman explored this in his book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith.

After conducting extensive research, he found out that 59% of young adults left the faith for any of six different reasons:

  1. The Church is too insular — They tell you everything outside the church is bad and wrong… even though young people know that’s not the case.
  2. Church isn’t important, relevant, or interesting to the younger generation.
  3. Christians are too anti-science.
  4. Christians are sex-negative, wrongly pushing abstinence-only education and avoiding frank discussions about sex.
  5. Christianity is too “exclusive” — you’re either one of them or you’re the enemy.
  6. Christians are hostile to those who doubt any part of the faith.

While some of those reasons lean in the direction of “Christianity avoids reality,” none of them outright say people stopped believing in a god or an atheist convinced them to walk away from faith.

There’s also an upside to finding out we’re not as effective as we can be. It means we have a new goal to achieve: Let’s become the #1 reason people leave the church.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Dcott44

    For me as a teenager, Kinnaman’s research is spot on for how I felt.  I left the Church before I left God, particularly for reasons 1, 4, 5, and 6.  Since I had been so indoctrinated, I had to remove myself from that situation before the idea of not believing in a god was even remotely a possibility.  Even then, it was easier to claim agnosticism, if for no other reason than I just couldn’t come to terms with the idea that I’d been dead wrong about something so foolish for the entirety of my young life.  

    As practical as it would seem to have people leaving church simply because of an “aha, lightbulb” realization of Atheism, I think people are simply more complex than that.  For many of us, we need the gradual movement away from the church itself before any sort of realization about the absence of a deity is even a possibility.  

    Certainly this isn’t always the case, and I’m sure there are many Atheists who will be sitting in a pew tomorrow morning who should just come to terms with themselves; however, I’m also sure that for many faithful out there, they must first come to terms with stepping away from everything physical they’ve ever relied upon before the metaphysical comes into focus as the fairytale that it is.

    • Sware

      Similar experience for me as well. I made a couple of atheist friends as an adult. The fact that they were a positive example of atheists and never laid into me or treated my like an idiot for the beliefs I had was a definite factor in eventually shedding belief for good. It just wasn’t the only factor or even the deciding factor.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bob-Down/100001310114443 Bob Down

    Funny that nobody in the surveys said they left the church because they resented paying 10% of their wages to the preacher.

    My guess is that people leave the church for a multiple of reasons, but that nearly all of them still believe in god and still regard themselves as Christians. At the first sign of trouble in their lives, they’ll be back in the Cathedral, down on their knees, and begging forgiveness for sins never committed.

    • http://www.zazzle.com/atheist_tees The Godless Monster

       “Funny that nobody in the surveys said they left the church because they resented paying 10% of their wages to the preacher.” :-)
      Actually, that was always a major issue with me when I was a Christian.
      I’m still pissed about it.

      • Anonymous

        Not only that…. I see may parents on fixed income, barely getting by, giving money to a damn institution that spoon feeds them salvation.

        Meanwhile I am making up the difference and what do they get from the church?  Requests to bring food to their pot luck functions…fuckers.

        • http://www.zazzle.com/atheist_tees The Godless Monster

           Oh man, that just makes me sick. Are your parents aware of the way you feel about this?

          • Anonymous

            Yeah, I’ve been an atheist since…well as long as I can remember. 

            I believed in Santa Clause yet not in God  (there was *proof* Santa was real).  It always drove them nuts:)

            So I grin and bear it…

    • Ulrike Dunlap

       “Funny that nobody in the surveys said they left the church because they resented paying 10% of their wages to the preacher.”
      That’s exactly why I left. In Germany, your tithe for the churches is collected by the Government together with your taxes and comes right out of your paycheck every month. When I had my first job, I took myself down to city hall and signed a form declaring that I no longer belonged to the catholic church. It made for an instant increase in take-home pay!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Adam-Patrick/100000027906887 Adam Patrick

      The church I went to when I was younger didn’t ask for tithes. I don’t even remember them asking for money at all.

  • Dcott4

    Also, I believe Piatt’s number 5: “We’re Skeptical,” must be present before any affirmation of Atheism.  Mustn’t one first be skeptical of a hypothesis if they are to assert it as fallacious? 

    • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

       Exactly. I doubt most Christians cease to be so in a moment of revelation, so “becoming an atheist” would be a curious thing to find in this list. But “becoming skeptical” makes perfect sense, and is the first step in a rational move away from Christianity, or any other theism.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_CO4XFS7IXIESALGRH5RJLDUTHE p

        and we should be aware,  there’s still often a pretty strong and persistent psychological  residue of belief in some vague  “higher power” even from those disillusioned by organised religions. Way before positively identifying as atheist.

      • Lee Miller

        I actually did cease to be a Christian “in a moment of revelation”–as a result of devotional Bible reading and actually paying attention to what the text said.  It probably happened because I believed the Bible is all truth without error–when one part clearly could not be true, the whole thing fell apart for me, almost instantly.  I might have retained faith if there had been any reasonable explanation for why my critical passage said what it did–but no commentary I could find addressed the problems it posed.  Within a matter of a few weeks I was totally away from the church and haven’t been back.

        • Alastairblake

          Lee, i still am a christian, and im curious what error you read.

  • Josh

    I’d like to think that we deserve at least some credit for spreading the ideas. I bring up 4 or 5 of those things everytime I talk about the jesus-man.

  • chicago dyke, evolved outlaw

    “no natural bridge?” what does that mean?

    “i don’t get it” is encouraging. yes, lots of us don’t get it either. there’s just a whole bunch of woo and underpants gnomes logic and the like that’s too hard to ignore. 

  • d’Armond

    > Let’s become the #1 reason people leave the church.

    How?

  • Moribund Cadaver

    The contemporary world is naturally corrosive toward organized religions that attempt to stifle exploration of reality. The Internet alone is a serious threat to religious hemogeny. It’s virtually impossible to sell the lie that the world is far smaller and more simplistic than it actually is. It’s easier than ever for people to be exposed to a multitude of beliefs, personalities, and ways of living even if by vicarious transmission of information.

    In one sense, atheists don’t have to “crusade”; they merely have to be ready to help explain things to people stumbling away from religion and looking for better explanations for life. In this sense, being a “friendly” atheist (pun not intended) is more important than ever before.

    Perhaps the most important thing for would-be friendly atheists to remember is that religion, in the abstract, is not “stupid”. Religious believers, speaking generally and not specifically, are not “idiots”. Religion was and is a natural stage in human development. People who are raised with a religious worldview are not morons. It’s simply the reality they’re given to work with.

    Those becoming skeptical of religion often have no framework with which to replace the positive things religion provides, and this is what causes them to hesitate and become stuck as “lapsed” members of the church. But unable to fully step away. “There’s life after religion” might do well to become the mantra of the friendly atheist.

  • Anonymous

    “I don’t get it” is about right for me. I sort of believed many of the stories in a historical sense, but they completely lost me at the supernatural mumbo jumbo, especially when it came to Jesus being resurrected and ascending into heaven. The whole spirit especially is something I never got.

    So my indoctrination never worked. But I didn’t actively define myself as atheist until much later

    • Jmsauer

      It’s unfortunate that God is spoken about in such a mystical way that it leads to confusion. The reason is that many bible teachers aren’t theologically trained so they shroud their ignorance of theology in mystery. I think it simplifies the trinity when John 1 says that no one knows or has seen God, but Jesus has revealed him. And the Spirit effectively brings Jesus to us. It’s that simple.

      • JohnnieCanuck

        You have an overactive imagination. Not that you should take all the credit for it. You are, after all, standing on the shoulders of giants when it comes to imagining impossible things.

  • TiltedHorizon

    It was number 6 which did a number on me. Faith was always black & white as a young Catholic, one was either a god fearing Christian or a heathen, as I grew older I became aware of how loose the term “Christian” actually is.  The casual application of the word suggests uniformity but the teachings of Catholicism was polarizing, placing non-Catholics in the same heathen bucket with non-Christians (and those evil atheists). I eventually left Catholicism, concluding such hubris as a sin, hence the wrong faith, only to discovery the same problem existed in the other churches as well.

  • Ashton

    #5 and 7 describe me pretty well.  As someone said above, atheism isn’t on the list but skepticism is broader and takes its place.  I think that skepticism is a better thing to have on the list because it can include people who are atheist, agnostic, deist, or anyone else who finds the claims difficult to believe.  Within Seventh-day Adventism, there is a book called Why our Teenagers Leave the Church by Roger Dudley.  The author followed a number of teens growing up within the Adventist church and their church attendance and involvement within adventism as adults.  I read it trying to find other people who thought the way that I do.  This was before I really knew any other atheists.  I was disappointed by the book because not once did it mention people leaving out of disbelief.  The things that it focused on were the church not being welcoming.  It also said that many young people stop regular church attendance in young adulthood but return when they have children.  While this does describe a number of people I know, I can’t believe that his failure to mention nonbelief wasn’t intentional.  It seemed like he was glossing over the reasons.  He encouraged the church to treat young people better, but it seemed to me like maybe he just said that because it would be a lot tougher to address skepticism.  It was really too bad because I thought that the idea of the book had a lot of potential.

  • honestabe

    I always  feel a little confused when I see studies and articles on this subject. I’m a former Christian, and I’ve been asked why I left my faith, but I can never point to any one reason over all the rest. 

    Sure, I mean, there may have been one straw that broke the camel’s back, but I think most people who reject their faith do so for a wide array of reasons, many of which are on this list but none of which any of us could say held the most sway. Still, if I had to rank the reasons somehow, I’m sure atheism would be near the top. I think most of the other things are just ways that the Church becomes inconvenient as a young adult in today’s world. It becomes harder to say homosexuality is wrong when you’ve met gay people that you love and respect, even harder when you see the love they have for someone else of the same sex with your own eyes, and even harder when you look at the civilized world around you and realize that your opinion is that of the minority. It becomes harder to reject evolution or believe that your species is the primary focus of the Almighty after years of courses in biology, chemistry, astronomy, and physics. 

    But apologetics abound. There are as many interpretations of scripture as grains of sand in the Gobi. It’s easy to simply create your own mini-theism with your own personal god that loves gay people, created and tinkers with life through the mechanism of evolution, and has other pet projects elsewhere in the universe. 

    I’m not saying it was easy to turn my back on my church and so many of my closest friends and role models. But it was a great deal harder, after having done so, to really examine the reasons I did all these logical gymnastics to retain my belief in god. Only after doing that, meeting atheists and realizing that atheism was a viable or even preferable option could I really shed my belief in Christianity and, quickly thereafter, my belief in any gods. 

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think a deity exists. Kinda follows from that. 

    (So #5 Skeptical and #7 Don’t get it, I guess.)

    I also don’t worship the Greek Gods….

  • Anonymous-Sam

    I left Christianity out of empathy for those who were suffering who had no relief no matter how much I prayed for them. I couldn’t worship a god who didn’t care how much agony someone was in.

  • Anonymous

    The author has some good insights. I’d like to add to the list with one other greater point having to do with the maintenance of any belief.

    A belief, no matter what it is, requires no evidence to be held.  People can argue over whether their beliefs have more or less evidence than someone else’s, but no support at all is actually required to hold one.

    With that condition, a great deal of maintenance is required, especially if a belief is one that is held based on nothing other than its own existence. With a modern world that continues to bring forth evidence that supernaturalism is silly, a belief maintenance system is simply more difficult to maintain and old church-based systems for doing so are just not up to the job.

    For some people it will still work, however, but the method must increasingly involve surrounding themselves in a cocoon of sorts with other believers, shutting out the anti-supernaturalism sources. With today’s ability for anyone to communicate with thousands in the blink of an eye, in order to maintain that cocoon it must become a prison of sorts, locking everyone away even more tightly as the basis for superstitions continue to dissolve. Older  people are more acceptable to this kind of thing than the young, meaning that youth culture is just not supporting it.

  • Wintermute

    I don’t think we need to be #1, at least, not directly. If we encourage openmindedness and  skepticism, and if we provide social and emotional support for people deconverting, and build a community that allows us to provide many of the indirect benefits of religion, then we’re doing ourselves a huge favor even if it doesn’t increase the number of people who directly credit organized atheism for their deconversion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cburschka Christoph Burschka

    Let’s become the #1 reason people leave the church.

    I don’t really think we can beat the bible on that score…

    • Canadian Atheist, eh!

      Right, plus frankly that suggestion is in the “dick” category. It’s first of all an unnecessary goal (re Christoph’s comment) and undercuts the atheist movement to boot because you’re only going to court more charges of “dickishness” in order to do it. Just keep speaking softly (being “friendly,” Hemant) and carrying the big stick of reason and truth on this. I get impatient with the slow pace of change, too, but we and our arguments are better served when religion and faith remain their own worst enemies.

  • guest

    Those are also some of the reasons for people, like me, leaving Atheist groups. Any group that has a heavily homogeneous atmosphere will eventually run into trouble for skeptical people. If you add authoritarian figures into the mix it will make any group structure feel similar no matter what it is.

    • Anonymous

       I know what you mean. I was pretty excited at the growth of atheism through the internet after being an unbeliever surrounded by believers for a couple of decades. Not so much nowadays. Many of the groups seem to be more intolerant than the Christians who are part of my everyday experience. Maybe I’m just too old for all the aggression.

  • Suzeaa

    I think it’s also time constraints, too many distractions, and loss of normal family structures.

  • http://inmyunbelief.wordpress.com/ TCC

    I think that the article in question is asking a different question (the Kinnaman book is another story). The question is “Why are young people leaving the church?” not “Why are young people abandoning belief in God?” (The comments there, on the other hand, seem to be going in the right direction.) Clearly, the latter is a bigger question and would surely be relevant to the first, but people often religion to be a bit much without finding belief in God to be all that unbelievable.

  • Ndonnan

    Personally i left religion behind when i was 21 when i realised my denomination wasnt absollutly right.I started going to another church run by bikers,ex hells angels,coffin cheaters ect called Gods Squad.They had a differant focus on their demagraphic from my middle class up bringing,it was awsome.Thats when i realised how many people in all churches only have a religion and that is easy and advisable to leave behind for whatever the reason [although i would say the #1 reason is because i want to do only what makes me feel good]                       What i pick up from reading these posts is people who never had a personal relationship with God, only a religion,if thats all you got you might as well”eat and drink,for tomorrow we die”,[thats Gods advice from the bible] You dont need sceince or athieism to justify your view,live your life while you can,the ends all the same, if you arnt sure of what that is,or want to change it,turn to Jesus and ask Him to come into your life, then prayer banners and councils asking for Gods guidence through prayer will be seen as a positive thing instesd of an offence,go on ,give it a try.

    • justthefacts

      Something I want those like yourself to understand. The removal of Christ from my life doesn’t, and didn’t change my life. That is, it did not change my view of morality. I cannot go out and rape, pillage and plunder now. I did not change. I know. I know. You’ll say my life has changed. Point is…just because you believe  (and those that have told you over and over again) that without God there is no morals doesn’t make it true. Actually, in this respect, it is good to have religion if that is what keeps you moral. As for me? I keep me moral.

  • R. Brad White

    Hemant, as you seek to encourage atheists to be more evangelical with their atheism, just a word of caution against becoming what you hate…pushing your beliefs on others, thinking you are only holders of truth, becoming mean spirited with those who disagree with you, trying to “save christians” as an ultimate goal…instead of seeking authentic relationships with them, etc… In other words…BE the friendlier atheists you are trying to be. Ps-dont forget to focus on the rest of the God believing world too (not just Christians).

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

    David Kinnaman explored this in his book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith. After conducting extensive research, he found out that 59% of young adults left the faith for any of six different reasons […]

    No.

    I’ve read Kinnaman’s book. It’s well worth reading, as it passes along some data about what level these departures are occurring, and what fraction of teens are bothered by these various reasons. He even suggests some interesting sub-categories within those who become “lost”.

    The major deficiency from a sociological standpoint is he does not report what correlations there are between any of the six attitudes and ending up in the “lost” or not. (Or subcategories of the “lost” — though those may be too post-facto defined for independent measurement.) As such, while he shows there are subjectively interesting rates of departure and there are higher levels of such attitudes in the younger generation, he doesn’t even get to within an XKCD of showing causation.

    I suspect this defect could be remedied, possibly even just my examining the existing data sets. But such an elaboration doesn’t seem to be out there yet. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/keithacollyer Keith Collyer

    I don’t believe that atheists should “become the #1 reason people leave the church”. I suspect that many people become atheists after leaving “the” church, rather than the other way round – though I don’t know of any studies that have been done. If people become atheists first, it seems to me (and this is anecdotally supported by people’s posts here and other places), that for those people it was self-realisation rather than external argument. This was certainly the case for me. Positively trying to deconvert people is likely to be counter-productive, as that is an attack on their core beliefs, which people will fight to preserve. Let’s get them when those beliefs are already waning, not when they are inside the comforting stranglehold of supportive people.

  • Joe Bindeman

    Botton line is that it is always a choice to turn away from God(#4,6). The church is made up of sinful humans like you and I.(That’s why #1 people sometimes get hurt) What we really need is not an institution but a vibrant relationship with Jesus, the Living God. This relationship carries over into every area of life(#2,3). Jesus said(John 10:10)”The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” It’s okay, even healthy, to be skeptical and ask questions until you “get it”(#5,7), but to claim there is no God(atheist) assumes that one has all knowledge and power to make such a proclamation, characteristics of God alone! Try instead to take God up on His promise: Jeremiah 33:3 ‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.’

  • http://twitter.com/Brimshack northierthanthou.com

    But of course the notion that atheists are really responsible for such things is no more an empirical question to those that make the charge than the notion that homosexuals are recruiting college students (and thus making them gay). The charge survives the evidence, because evidence was never pertinent to the charge, at least  not in the minds of those who keep claiming its all that secular influence.

  • Jmsauer

    For those who are calling themselves ex-Christians: do you guys ever miss the personal forgiveness and understanding that Christ gives? Do you ever miss your relationship with Christ and being loved and known by Him?

    If you haven’t experienced ChrIst in that way, then I would suggest that you have never been a Christian. Being a skeptical church member isn’t the same as knowing God. This is a relationship that is offered freely by Christ and is available to all who come to Him. You don’t need to know all the answers to trust Him.

  • Jmsauer

    It seems like the list gives reasons to maybe find a better suited church rather than quitting church all together. If someone truly disbelieves that Jesus was who the bible claims him to be, then church is a sham. If he was truly resurrected then church is legitimate and we should take it seriously despite our petty disagreements. It all hinges on the authority of Jesus. I believe he did rise from the dead to solve our death problem and our seperation from God problem. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus our lives have no meaning. But since he did rise our lives have great meaning.

    • justthefacts

      More dogma.

      That is the weight YOU put on life. My life has lots of meaning. Just ask my daughters, wife, parents, brother, friends, etc.

      • justthefacts

        You simply buy into the notion as an atheist, as an agnostic ( which I consider myself) one cannot be moral. I find that quite bigoted and I take exception.  Without getting into fine detail I believe you and I would see eye to eye on what it means to be a moral person. With the obvious exception of where morality originates.

        “It all hinges on the authority of Jesus.”

        No. It hinges on your belief of who Jesus was…or was not.


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