Why Millennials are leaving the church

There’s been quite a bit of response to Rachel Held Evans’ CNN piece last week on “Why Millennials are leaving the church,” so allow me to chime in here.

Why are young people leaving the church? Very often, it’s because the church lied to them.

Specifically, it’s often because the church lied to them about the age of the Earth.

Many young Christians have been reared to believe that this concept of creation is a virtual article of faith that represents the biblical teaching. Those young Christians then go off to college, to a museum or to another source of knowledge where they may be exposed to legitimate geology and are stunned by the force of geologic evidence for Earth’s antiquity. They have been personally confronted with an intellectual and spiritual fixed great gulf that is far wider than the Grand Canyon, between their newfound scientific understanding and the religious views of their youth. Not having been equipped to handle the resulting intellectual and spiritual stresses, they all too often conclude, because the geologic evidence is so persuasive, that what they were taught about creation must be incorrect. To them, the Bible now becomes a flawed book. Sensing that they have been misled about creation by the religious authorities of their youth, they lose confidence in the rest of their religious upbringing. Such students may suffer severe shock to their faith. They were not properly taught the truth about creation, nor were they equipped to deal with challenges to their faith. Christians who are professional scientists have all heard far too many accounts of individuals whose spiritual journeys sound much like the scenario just described. Let’s have no shipwrecks of the faith of young, vulnerable, unprepared Christian youth that can be laid at the door of the pseudo-science promoted by Christians.

That’s from The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth, by Davis A. Young and Ralph F. Stearley.

Tens of thousands of millennials are among the shocked and shipwrecked former evangelical Christians who wandered into college, or into a museum, or into a library and stubbed their toe on a rock that was obviously and undeniably ancient. And then they know that they’ve been lied to.

The distrust resulting from that lie is proper, just and well-deserved. And when that lie collapses, as all lies must, those young people will be compelled to test everything they have been told and taught in church. Some of them will test everything and find some good to hold on to. Others won’t.

And so they leave.

Young-Earth creationism is a lie. That lie is chasing young people out of the church. Not just millennials, mind you, but X-ers and Baby Boomers before them. That’s why this is a recurring conversation — why we’re now seeing articles on “Why Millennials are leaving the church” that parallel the articles from 20 years ago about “Why Gen X-ers are leaving the church.”

Young people will eventually catch on that they’re being lied to. So will older people. You can only fool them with lies about geology until they encounter a rock. You can only fool them with lies about supposedly monstrous others until they encounter those others. You can only fool them with lies about the Bible itself until they encounter the Bible itself.


"They barely have a basic understanding of words that appear in dictionaries."

Romans 13 and the Gettysburg Address
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Romans 13 and the Gettysburg Address
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Romans 13 and the Gettysburg Address

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  • MaryKaye

    I had a talk with a Creationist during the lunch break of a scientific meeting, and she was completely surprised to find out that we were spending 95% of our time talking about specific research we were doing, and 5% (in the “Evolution and Education” section) on thinking about evolution vs. creationism. I had just gotten back from six very nice talks about ant population genetics, for example. We looked through the program book together, and she was just so startled. I hate to think what her school biology classes must have been like, not to know that scientists are broadly interested in, even obsessed with, their various critters. (I’m the rare non-critter biologist, but I’m pretty interested in the theory I work on.)

    I think knowing actual scientists might be as “bad” for creationists as knowing actual gay people is for bigots. Not sure what to do about that, beyond science fairs and the like, which such people will boycott.

    The regional head of my aikido dojo is, alas, virulently anti-scientist. I’ve stopped going to his seminars because they make me so angry, but it’s a recurrent reminder that the attitude is out there.

  • Carl Oscar Isaacson

    The lies aren’t just lies about creation.They’re also lies about the book itself and who wrote the book. The lies are lies about Jesus and what we actually know and don’t know about Jesus. These lies are so fragile that when a religious scholar talks about them in ways that non-scholars can understand he/she must be marginalized – a Muslim; a feminist; LGBT, a Liberal. But the lies will collapse and more people will lose faith in their church and then lose faith entirely. Sad, and unnecessary.

  • arcseconds

    You’ve been reading McGrath’s site. What does he say, every time this topic has come up?

    (Fred also says this from time to time)

  • arcseconds

    Dammit, Kubricks_Rube got there before me…

  • arcseconds

    Then isn’t it irrational to suppose your mind never needs changing, given that you don’t know ahead of time whether it needs changing or not?

  • AnonaMiss

    I’ve got to nitpick here, because it’s an important point in my past faith journey – it’s not just faith that Jesus is who he said he is, it’s faith that Jesus is who other people said he said he was. If Jesus had verifiably said xyz I’d be a lot more inclined to believe it than hearing from some people a couple hundred years later that he said xyz.

    I’m not trying to change your mind, it’s just that the ‘is who he said he is’ bit is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Liar/Lord/Lunatic false trilemma and that particular line of argument holds bad memories for me.

  • everstar

    The fact that nobody answered EH’s question with “Because” I can only mark down to an effort of monumental willpower by everybody in the thread.

  • Rhubarbarian82

    I think I’m just gonna start responding with links to “why not Zoidberg?” graphics.

  • Ethics Gradient

    But the Fox poll shows us broadly the same result for age groups that Gallup did a few years before – ie that there isn’t a significant difference between ‘millennials’ and others.

    Fox has a political agenda, which means they report some things that are convenient for them, don’t talk about others, and give constant partisan commentary. But this is not something for which they have a clear agenda – it was a couple of questions tacked on to a general poll, but happens to be the only time in the past 7 years that any pollster in the USA has bothered giving us the age groups results for a creationism question. When they wrote an article on it, they didn’t bother mentioning the breakdown by age. There’s no reason to believe that they crafted the question, or selected those polled, to show a false trend in the responses for age groups. It’s registered voters because it was primarily a political poll, conducted in the middle of the Republican presidential primaries.

    If Pew, which positions itself as the top pollster on religion, actually did something interesting, and gave us some age data on creationism, then we could discuss those numbers. But Pew doesn’t; and Gallup hasn’t done it for 7 years. We use the data we have, and that all points to no millennial shift in creationism belief.

  • Mark Z.

    Religious scholars have long known that Christianity is actually a mash-up of various religions that existed prior to and at the time of ” Christ “.

    Linguistic scholars have long known that English is actually a mash-up of various languages that existed prior to and at the time of “England”.

    It’s still a damn useful language.

  • Fanraeth

    I can’t decide if he’s just a really annoying troll or a Vulcan. It’s hard to tell.

  • AnonaMiss

    Arrgh. The utility of a language has no bearing upon its legitimacy. If only a handful of people in the world spoke English that would not make it any less of a language so its usefulness-or-lack-thereof – beyond the obvious threshhold of ‘is there anyone at all who speaks it?’ – is a non sequitur.


  • Sue White

    Since creationist and Intelligent Design researchers probably spend 100% of their time trying to find and document “holes in evolution”, I guess they have to assume that’s what science is all about – tearing down rival worldviews.

  • Jay

    The dinosaur thing gave me a lot of trouble as a teen, but I really left the church when I realized that everything I knew about the brain made it seem very unlikely that disembodied souls existed in any sort of afterlife. Once I got that far, I realized that from a human perspective, the existence or nonexistence of God matters about as much as the existence or nonexistence of a President matters to an ant.

  • Denis O. Lamoureux

    In my sci-rel course about half-way through my evangelical students often ask me: what other lies did my youth pastor tell me?

  • Lydia Nickerson

    I disagree that religion is the thing that prevents Pol Pots. I became a more moral, kinder, more careful, gentler, and genuinely better person after I left the faith. Religion is an incredibly mixed bag. Look at all the wars fought for religions reasons, some of them amazingly catastrophic. Genocide has been committed in the name of religion. And so have many acts, great and small, of impossible generosity and kindness. I don’t think that religion is an unalloyed evil, although it certainly played that role in my early life. Neither do I consider it an unalloyed good. Like most things, it is mufti-faceted, and people do many odd things with it. And it is far to easy to play the “No True Scottsman” game with religion. “Yes, well, those people that did that awful thing _claim_ to be Christians, but of course they’re not _really_ Christians.” In the end, I think that religion is one way that some people use to control their behavior. There are many other ways. None of these ways work for everyone, probably none of them work for no one.

  • Lori

    But the Fox poll shows us broadly the same result for age groups that Gallup did a few years before – ie that there isn’t a significant difference between ‘millennials’ and others.

    Given that the question is whether things have changed, with some people believing for various reasons that they have, the fact that the more recent poll mirrors the old one doesn’t actually prove anything about the value of the 2nd poll. If the poll was poorly conducted it could be a false negative—views have changed and the poll says that they haven’t.

    Fox has a political agenda, which means they report some things that are convenient for them, don’t talk about others, and give constant partisan commentary. But this is not something for which they have a clear agenda – it was a couple of questions tacked on to a general poll.

    This is where I think it’s completely fair to take Fox’s well-earned reputation into account when evaluating things that they produce and report which is why I feel comfortable saying that if Fox didn’t have an agenda on the issue they wouldn’t have put the questions in the poll. This is clearly a very partisan issue, with Fox & its viewers heavily invested in one side of the debate. Supposing that these questions were some sort of “Just wondering” strikes me as naive.

    Again, Fox having an agenda is not proof in and of itself that the poll is bad, but there is ample reason to question it.

    We use the data we have, and that all points to no millennial shift in creationism belief.

    If the data is poor (which this may or may not be) then we’d be wise not to put too much weight on it even if it is all we have. We don’t want to be like the guy looking for his keys under the street lamp because that’s where the light is.

  • quietglow

    I’m circling my old mindset, trying to figure out what happened. My family was all very science-oriented, I was just taught at school that literal 7-day Creationism had to be true, with all the bad education that went with it.

    I remember what it was like. I remember clutching bits of evidence that someone reported someone found, and they tended not to match up well with each other but since I thought it was the truth reflected where we otherwise hadn’t found evidence yet, I stuck with them anyway. Some of it sounded pretty out-there, like reported living dinosaur sightings. Some of it I knew wasn’t true, but since it went in a bundle with other things that might be convincing and must be related to the truth I sort of let it come along anyway. So I used the speaker as a source.

    Finding out the whole thing was false, and every bit of “evidence” was really a doctored story or outright lie, was an enormous cognitive relief. It had resulted in a mindset that was basically part fantasy world, or a world that had no reliable evidence for anything at all.

    Afterward I went into an arguing phase where I’d go into a debate and I’d know I was just saying the same arguments I used to hear,. My opponents would read it through their filter, wilfully misunderstand it, and call me a fool, or I’d see them read a scientist’s work, say the scientist’s work all pointed in another direction, and call the scientist an ignorant liar for writing what their work meant. I don’t understand what happened in my brain then, and I don’t know how to get through. It saddens me very much.

  • chrisalgoo

    Knitting is also used to create socks and blankets, because someone observed that putting wool on your body makes it warmer.

  • phantomreader42

    Well, love, understanding, giving away free food and booze, entertaining crowds with stories, screwing with annoying legalistic asshats, violently assaulting usurers with improvised weaponry, cursing fruit trees, causing a zombie outbreak, enduring torture for reasons that really don’t make that much sense, and becoming a lich.

  • everstar

    I think it’ll get you about as far as actually trying to talk to hir will, and will probably be less headache-inducing.

  • phantomreader42

    You don’t get to blame other people for your own deliberate dishonesty and willful ignorance. That’s on you.

  • phantomreader42

    And if the only person to misread it admits that he did so deliberately, as EH did above, then the misreading is ENTIRELY his fault.

  • No, Vulcans are logical.

    Like, actually logical, not just “my logic is unassailable because I say it is”.

  • quietglow

    How do you disentangle the emotional from the factual? Regardless how they feel about being lied to, or how deliberate their youth pastor was in lying, how do you react when someone takes it personally?

    Are they ever mad at you?

  • Denis O. Lamoureux

    I introduce the class to the basic principles of biblical interpretation, and I do it VERY, VERY SLOWLY, so that they always feel in control.
    Some take it personally, but I tell them that I once taught the very same errors in Sunday schools. I also defend their pastors because they were taught incorrectly as I was.
    Then I say to be patient with their pastors, and that their will come to be lead the church and for them not to repeat the errors of my generation.
    Occasionally a student gets upset with me, but I usually take them out for a coffee and they usually understand that I’m only pointing to the solution.

  • AnonaMiss

    I see you’ve been playing Echo Bazaar, delicious friend.

  • stardreamer42

    When you have been indoctrinated in the idea that the Bible is The One And Only Truth, everything in it is absolutely true (even the internal contradictions somehow manage to be simultaneously true), and if there is doubt about even one thing in the Bible, the world is going to Hell in a handbasket and so are you… and then you hit the one thing where you can’t reconcile reality with what you’ve been taught… then yes, the entire structure is likely to come tumbling down, because that’s what they TOLD you it would do. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • stardreamer42

    Evans mentions young people having to choose “between compassion and holiness”. She’s being nice about it; many of them come to see it as having to choose between human decency and holiness.


    Some of these comments are so blasphemous that reading them is like listening to demons howl.

  • People like you blaspheme the things other people hold sacred and revel in your freedom to do so. In the countries that do not allow such freedoms, anti-blasphemy laws are not in place as religious tyranny, they are in place to prevent cases where, without the laws, believers would rise up and lynch people like you. Maybe one day the Christians of the U.S. will see the value of the crusades of their history and return to them to purge such as you.

  • That’s…. made of special, all right.

  • ohiolibrarian

    Before there were humans, animals used, and still use, technology (aka tools).

  • ohiolibrarian

    Did you notice that when you combine the percent of people who accept Darwin/scientific explanations and the percent that say that both Darwin and the Bible are correct, you get a majority? (48% accept evolution as at least a partial explanation of the origin of human life on earth.)

    The sample consisting of only registered voters and a relatively low number of cell phones might introduce bias into the sample when you look at the younger age group. Unless the ‘under-35 with cell phones’ group was over-sampled, this cohort might be too small to be accurate (the cell sample was randomized by state). Subgroups have a rather large margin of error (7.5% for Independents), so I imagine that the under-35 subgroup might have a rather large margin of error as well a not being very representative of the under-35 population.

  • ohiolibrarian

    Might I also point out that Gallup has also had ‘issues’ with sampling bias recently?

  • Dragoness Eclectic

    Nope. Non-fundamentalist Christians are more likely to just switch denominations if the church they are in teaches nonsense. Or go quietly agnostic. At most, they might turn pagan or to another major world religion. Very rarely are they so driven away from religion in general as to turn atheist.

  • Denis O. Lamoureux

    Most important thing is to affirm their faith and their rationality. Treat the students with respect and give them total freedom to go in any direction they want. And if you care for them, they will do just fine.

  • Carstonio

    When a Baptist minister labels evolution a “rich man’s elitist religion” pushed by “outsiders,” it suggests to me that the issue is deeper than religion or even tribalism. I’ve heard a theory that folks like Randall Terry are driven by shame at being poor or having grown up poor. Perhaps many creationists feel ashamed of being poor and/or uneducated, perceiving scientists as pretenders to authority.

  • Jay

    Maybe we should start a band.

  • hamletta

    My faith. Duh.

  • hamletta

    I’m talking about what an asshole you are.

  • Adam

    Read my take on the Millennial issue here http://www.balmofgileaduk.blogspot.co.uk


    Excellent idea! I believe I’ve seen that posted somewhere else.

  • Carstonio

    Blasphemy and heresy are invalid concepts, because they amount to attempts to control the thought and speech of others. They are the ideological equivalent of Eric Cartman bellowing “RESPECT MAH AUTHORITAH!!”

  • Carstonio

    I don’t blame people who become enraged at hearing negative things about their religion. But if they turn violent, that’s their problem. They simply need to learn to deal with it. And if millionsmof people would turn violent in those circumstances, that’s deliberate intimidation of dissenters.

  • In light of that, I would be curious to hear what you think separates you from Islamic terrorists.

  • There’s a lot more lies going on than just creation. They can’t keep perpetuating lies, people eventually do figure things out. I understand that we all evolve in our learning and it would help a lot if leaders would ADMIT they had it wrong and pursue truth together. Instead they keep the lies going. In the process, they lose their credibility and we throw our hands up and walk away.


    What separates me from Islamic terrorists is the fact that I do not engage in acts of terror. Neither do I advocate acts of terror. However, I do believe that goverment should not impede the free practice of the religion of the majority of a society. If the public practice or signs of the religion of the majority offends minorities then they should live where they are not offended. They must either conform or tolerate.

  • EllieMurasaki

    So it’s only the majority who may exercise, or perhaps it is only the majority who have, the right to freedom of religion?

    What about people who will be a religious minority no matter where in the world they live? Where should they live?


    Such minorities, and everyone should have rthe rght to freely practice their religion without molestation from anyone, including government. Nevertheless, in this society, Christianity is the majority religion, and therefore is the religion most often seen in public. It is also the religion of most officials, and therefore, more often called upon at public functions. Hence, others must be tolerant. If they cannot accept seeing Christianity practiced, then they should go to a more comfortable place.