Why Are The Millennials Leaving? Because They Can.

Just about everyone is reacting to the Barna Group’s surveys that show a decline in church membership among the millennial generation. Just about everyone sees the problem through the lens of their own experience.

Rachel Held Evans wants a change in substance – high church, more open minded with less focus on listing the things you shouldn’t be doing with your genitals. Richard Lindsay says that we need a change in style and substance, by doing everything that Evans says not to do. And Hemant is saying that atheists are to blame, and whatever we’re doing we need to do more of it.

On one hand, my instincts as a historian are telling me to keep out of this. Maybe this is big, maybe it’s just another case of the younger generation ignoring their parent’s religion until they become parents themselves. “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings” and all that.

On the other hand, I can’t help thinking of Martin Marty’s column on the low church participation in early America. That changed after the revolution, in part because more churches were built but also because there was more social pressure on people to attend them.

That social pressure crested during the Cold War, as faith and patriotism were merged together in opposition to godless communism. But the Cold War ended in the late eighties, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Is it a coincidence that the “rise of the nones” and the “flight of the millennials” seems to have begun in the ’90s? Folks like Per Smith at Irritually think it’s not, and I’m starting to agree.

So here’s a hypothesis: the high levels of church membership seen in the last half of the 20th century were driven by the narrative of the Cold War. The social pressure and close association between national identity and religion drove people to church. Now that those pressures have eased, church membership is in decline.

Most folks I’ve read are focusing on the “civil religion” aspect. I’m taking more of a Thaddeus Russell approach. Perhaps we’re all less high-minded than we like to admit, to the pollsters and even to ourselves.

Americans are under less social pressure to be part of a church than at any time since WWII. It seems less important to be part of a church community. In most areas there is little stigma attached to those who do not attend. Combine this with an increasing value on leisure time – since modern consumer capitalism is eager to give us new ways to spend it – and you see people who would rather stream Netflix on their tablets than get out of bed and go to that church social.

Without that pressure we are simply drifting back to a state in which a fair percentage of the population is unchurched. Not un-religious or un-spiritual, but unchurched. Belief has not declined, but belonging has.

If I’m right then 1) I’ll be fricken amazed, and 2) the question becomes where will this drift take us? Will some other force arise to send people back to church? Will we go back to pre-cold war levels? Or has society changed enough, through increasing secularism, that we will drift toward numbers last seen in Colonial times?

  • Makoto

    I sometimes wonder if climate change will end up driving people to churches in the coming decades. Kind of a “look what science/technology has done to us, come back to god” / “man did this, only god can save us” thing. Of course, I read waaay too much sci-fi, so take that with a huge grain of salt.

    • Machintelligence

      I doubt it. The Christian fundamentalists have spent so much time and effort denying global warming in the face of scientific evidence that their credibility in making that argument is sadly lacking. Not that they won’t make the attempt.

      • Makoto

        Agreed! But I don’t doubt that in the face of reality, they’ll be willing to accept it and still say their god is the solution, even after those denials. And people will follow…

        • Pofarmer

          I dunno, I haven’t seen the “reality” of global warming, so far it’s mainly just computer models that miss. It actually reminds me a lot of theism in some ways.

          • Glass Darkly

            ‘There is none so blind as the one who will not see.’ Dude, the evidence is all around you. Melting ice caps. Changes in weather patterns. Animals and plants from warmer climates making their way steadily north. Droughts and record breaking rainfall. Rising sea levels. You’re just not paying attention.

            • Pofarmer

              At this point, there is nothing outside of normal known variations, and our period of “good” records are remarkably short given the type of change we’re talking about.

            • kessy_athena

              The pithy answer is, “I have three words for you: Katrina, Joplin, Sandy.” The anecdotal answer is to point out that Philadelphia has set 112 daily record highs and only 12 record lows since 1990. http://www.stormfax.com/phlminmax2.html The rigorous answer is, “Get off your lazy ass and actually read the IPCC report.” http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/syr/en/contents.html The evidence is really quite overwhelming, and if you don’t see it, it’s because you’re purposefully not looking.

            • Pofarmer

              The problem is, that I don’t think Katrina, Joplin, or Sandy, were outside of historical norms. They just happened to hit populated areas. And, if you look at fluctuations in temperatures and climate, then you would expect more high temperatures if you were at or near a cyclical high. I’ve looked at the IPCC reports, and a LOT of other information. I simply don’t think that the evidence presented is clear enough for some of the draconian measures being promulgated, and, in personal experience, I’ve seen the forecasts at the regional scale be COMPLETELY wrong. There have even been some papers published arguing that maybe they don’t have a good handle on regional climate variations due to Global Warming after all. I’ll admit, I haven’t spent much time on the subject lately, but, I haven’t seen anything come through that convinces me the models are indisputable correct, or that the weather we are experiencing is outside of what we could expect historically, or outside of normal cyclical variations.

            • kessy_athena

              It’s true that Katrina, Joplin, and Sandy are comparable to other historical storms. Extreme, once in a lifetime events like these have always happened – once in a lifetime. Three such events happening in the space of a few years is *not* within historical norms.

              Whether or not global warming is really happening and whether or not it’s because of human activities is a completely different set of questions then what we should do about it. If you think the cost of action is too high and not worth, then actually make that argument. Don’t BS that it’s not real because you don’t want to have to deal with it.

              Weather and climate are not the same thing. A weather forecast being wrong is completely irrelevant to questions about climate. And while you are right that we can’t predict with confidence exactly what the changes will be doesn’t mean that we can’t say with a great deal of confidence that changes are happening and they are not going to be pleasant.

              And seriously, if you don’t see the fact that climate change is happening all around you, you really aren’t paying attention. You can read about the rapid loss of arctic sea ice here: http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/ or just watch a time lapse animation of the summer minimum ice coverage since 1978 here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKWriI5GjJg Or you can read about the 2011 tornado outbreak, the most severe ever recorded. (Incidentally, this does not include the Joplin tornado – it actually happened about a month before Joplin.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/April_25%E2%80%9328,_2011_tornado_outbreak Or look at the 2003 heat wave in Western Europe, which killed around 70,000 people. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2003_heat_wave Or consider the Russian wildfires of 2010, cause by record high temperatures and drought, that in turned raised world food prices and helped trigger the Arab spring. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_Russian_wildfires Or look at NASA’s analysis of world temperature rise over the last century. http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/graphs_v3/ Or try the CRU temperature reconstruction if you prefer. http://www.cru.uea.ac.uk/documents/421974/1295957/Info+sheet+%231.pdf/c612fc7e-babb-463c-b5e3-124ac76680c5 Or look at how actual measurements of atmospheric CO2 have shown the levels rise from 320 ppmv in 1960 to 400 today. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_dioxide_in_Earth%27s_atmosphere

              And this is just barely scratching the surface. I don’t know how big the input buffer is for this comment system, but I could probably exceed it with links to evidence of climate change if I wanted to. When I said the evidence is overwhelming, I was being entirely literal.

          • Yoav

            Tell that to the people of Tuvalu and other pacific island nations or to the residents of the Alaskan village of Kivalina.

  • Machintelligence

    I tend to attribute the increase in nonbelief (or at least the willingness to admit to nonbelief) to the 9/11 attacks and the fall of the Soviet Union. No longer were our arch enemies the godless communists, but rather God besotted fundamentalists.

  • Pofarmer

    I dunno, I think millenials are leaving because of this kind of crap from Bad Catholic.


  • kessy_athena

    “Perhaps we’re all less high-minded than we like to admit, to the pollsters and even to ourselves,” seems like a pretty safe bet to me. I like Vorjack’s analysis, although of course only time will tell. I tend to be a little cautious about connecting single events like September 11th to larger trends in society. I think large scale social change trends to be driven by large scale historical trends. So I think that the end of the Cold War is a far better candidate then September 11th. Although I wonder what role the sudden explosion in access to information brought about by the internet is playing in all this. My intuition is that information is starting to shift some large things, although the exact shape and direction of that change is not at all clear to me yet.

    • Michael Mock

      I don’t think it’s just information; I think it’s also community and social connections that the Internet has helped make possible. Basically, I think we’re looking at a combination of “what the church has to offer (socially speaking) isn’t unique anymore” and “there’s no longer so much stigma attached to not being part of a church”.

  • Holly Golightly

    Nay! It’s pretty much that Millennials today can’t imagine a God existing with so many problems in the world, especially within our own nation. Given the economy, Millennials feel lied to by everyone, especially the government; and since our government is closely associated with the church, they feel lied to by it as well.

  • Grotoff

    I think you are right about the general trend. These people aren’t atheists; they just don’t identify with Christianity. The death of the Soviet Union and the rise of militant Islam has had a lot to do with the current suspicion of religion.

    2 other key factors are the rise and fall of the Religious Right and movement for gay rights. Here Christians identified themselves specifically with a ruling party, and when that party clearly fell apart into failure that rebounded on the church. Many young people feel like you can’t be a Christian (the way their parents were) and be a Democrat. Additionally, the rise of gay rights has put the religious specifically on the side of evil in clearest way ever. During the Civil Right era, churches took different sides and in fact drove an important part of the movement for equality. In this issue, pro-gay churches have clearly been sidelined. The victory for gay rights has increasingly meant a loss of respect for the church.

    Because of these factors, I have hopes that the plunge of Millenials away from organized religion may be more permanent than some speculate.