The sky is falling, but Christians are looking at the ground to find out why. Today, let me show you some facts about their decline–and why they don’t want to deal with the truth of it.
The Decline: In Full Swing.
Check out this fascinating article from a Christian news site about young people who are leaving their religion in record numbers. The news was even worse than I’d originally thought and it looks like things are just deteriorating faster and faster.
- 73% of people with no religious affiliation (the “Nones”) came out of religious homes; 66% were described as de-converts.
- Rainer Research found that 70% of youth drop out of church between the ages of 18-22.
- The Barna Group discovered that 80% of people raised in religious homes will “disengage” by the age of 29.
- This pastor thinks that 60% of Americans are “unreachable” by what he calls “the attractional model” (the idea that people attend churches that are interesting and have stuff for them to do). And he thinks that number is growing quickly.
Pursuing that number, I landed here, where another researcher claims that this 60% believe in some kind of god and are “on a spiritual journey” but just don’t think churches can help them find what they seek. I’m not sure what these 40% and 60% numbers mean if they’re using it to mean solely people who are spiritual or religious to some extent; the idea that someone might not be seeking anything religious or not believe in any kind of god doesn’t seem to ping their radar at all. Everybody wants something, according to this model.
The researchers who claim that oh, don’t worry, they’ll be back once they’re married and have kids are forgetting one important detail: a lot of us aren’t getting married and having kids. We may want to–a Pew poll found that 81% of high schoolers wanted to get married–but as of 2011, only 51% of American adults actually were married. And 28% of us never had been married, not even a “starter marriage.” (Imagine a time before that phrase existed!) And just about 1 in 5 women hasn’t had kids–making the childfree hardly some aberration or weird anomaly.
A Cultural Revolution.
Between all of these stats, one may see a cultural revolution underway. Not beginning, not ended, but definitely underway. American culture has simply changed. And even Christians have changed with it–they’re just as likely to divorce if not more likely than anybody else, and given crime and misery rates in Christian-heavy states (and statistics like the religious makeup of prisons), anybody who wants to argue that “godly” people are better than non-Christians is going to have a tough time selling that idea. As much as they might hate the idea of “the world,” as much as they try not to be “worldly,” Christians are in fact part of the world and the tapestry of humanity, and these cultural changes are part of their lives just as they are part of everybody else’s lives.
How Christians look at these numbers is interesting, though. Of course they want to know why young people are leaving in such huge numbers. They’ve written books about it, like unChristian and You Lost Me, both by David Kinnaman and both exploring Christianity’s sudden drop in dominance and relevance.
Unfortunately, their conclusions often bear no resemblance to actual ex-Christians’ lives. As “The Leavers” in that first link I gave puts it, often Christians think that we left because we just wanted to sin; as the author sanctimoniously opines, “The Christian life is hard to sustain in the face of so many temptations.”
He goes on to praise the two ex-Christians he interviewed who were “honest enough to cite moral compromise as the primary reason for their departures” and wag his finger at those who suffered “intellectual crises that seemed to conveniently coincide with the adoption of a lifestyle that fell outside the bounds of Christian morality” (because of course he knows exactly what his god expects in the way of morality).
Meanwhile, the rest of us ex-Christians are rolling our eyes at his condescension and dismissive attitude.
This same writer goes on to decide that the problem with ex-Christians is that we were “exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculated them against authentic faith.”
Ah, okay. We just didn’t believe the right way (his way) or do the right things (the things he thinks we should have done) or hang out with the right church (his type of church). We did something wrong, or got exposed to the wrong sort of religion. If we’d just been taught right, we’d never have left, is the implication. Eric Metaxas goes one step further by saying “as a parent I’m taking this very seriously,” with the implication that a parent’s life and teachings will vastly influence how a child later walks in Christianity. And he comes by his error honestly. After all, doesn’t the Bible say in Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it”?
I’ve heard all kinds of blame flung at those who are leaving the church in such huge numbers. A pastor, Chris Edmondson, says that the problem is that Christianity’s got “a branding problem” and that people are turned off by how Christians behave (true and with very good reason, but that’s not why many of us rejected the religion). Another researcher decided that young people leave Christianity because they weren’t challenged enough by their churches–that their churches’ youth programs were too bright and flashy but lacked substance.
The cattle call for lame reasons continues as if we were standing at a GOP convention listening to politicians talk about why they keep losing elections. (ETA: Ouch, this didn’t age so well in 2019.)
David Kinnaman classifies us into religious-sounding categories like “Nomads,” “Prodigals,” and “Exiles.” Naturally, the implication is that all of these types of people are just going through phases–nomads wander, prodigals party, and exiles search for meaning, but ultimately Christianity is the home base, the family the prodigal will stumble back to, the yearned-for promised land of the exile.
The problem isn’t how Christianity is packaged or how “superficially” it’s presented. It’s not how “shallow” our upbringings were or how sincere we were about pursuing the religion. It’s not how sincere our parents were. Many of us were very deeply entrenched in our religion and believed with all our hearts and tried our best to be good Christians.
The problem is that the religion turned out to be making a number of objective claims that we assessed and discovered were not true.
Christianity made false claims and we found out about them. The false claims vary–for some of us it was the idea that prayer works; for others of us it’s that its version of history is preposterously erroneous; for others still it’s the idea that Christianity makes its adherents demonstrably better people than everybody else. But the religion very foolishly makes a number of claims that we can objectively assess, and we took the step of assessing them.
And we realized that Christianity wasn’t true.
No matter how attractively packaged it was, no matter how firmly indoctrinated we were as children, no matter how deep our faith or our dedication, no matter how high-quality our education and how meaningful our daily spiritual walk was, we discovered a crack in the illusion and pulled it open to discover there was nothing back there.
The Best-Case Scenario.
For many of us this revelation was at first heartbreaking; we’d have done anything to un-see what we’d seen, to un-know what we’d learned. Some of us still regret that we saw behind the curtain. I don’t; I think it’s the best thing ever that the god depicted in the Bible doesn’t exist, and am relieved that those few non-toxic Christians I know worship a god who doesn’t look a damned and damnable bit like the one in the Bible.
Just like my ex-Christian brothers and sisters, I can’t force myself to believe again just as a Christian can’t force him- or herself to believe in Santa once that myth gets busted.
It doesn’t matter how flashy the youth program is. It doesn’t matter how sincere our parents were. It doesn’t matter how much or how little we know about theology.
What matters is what’s real. And until Christian researchers and pastors can understand that, to us, reality mattered more than religion and until they stop treating us with condescension, dismissiveness, and derision, the exodus from their ranks will only accelerate.
They can’t engage with us realistically and meaningfully, but have to hide behind platitudes and falsehoods to explain why we left. They have to treat us like idiots or children for leaving. They have to invalidate our reasons and deride our judgement.
And that disrespect and inability to engage honestly with dissenters is a big part of why Christianity’s failing.
It’s not good enough to ask “Why did you leave?” if the Christian asking it isn’t ready to hear the truth and accept it. It’s not like we heathens and apostates aren’t talking about it–there are thousands of “ex-timonies” on websites like Ex-Christian.net, and every one of them puts the lie to the falsehoods that so many Christians believe of apostates.
The problem is that Christians aren’t listening to us. They’re hearing what they want to hear and ignoring or distorting the rest. I know why they do it; I did it too when I was Christian, to my lasting shame. That doesn’t make it okay.
Moreover, Christian leaders don’t have the luxury of time for self-indulgent self-deception. The clock’s ticking, the lightning’s about to strike the tower, and they’re idling in the car fooling around with the stereo and arguing about what music to play.
The Urgency of Need.
Today’s young people aren’t like these leaders were at that age. Hell, they’re not even like I was at that age. They can smell bullshit a mile away and they’re better-educated and savvier than any generation of young people I’ve ever seen in my life. They know that where there is smoke there is fire, and they know that hypocrites aren’t trustworthy sources of spiritual edification. They distrust authority because authority’s given them no reason to trust. They distrust Christianity because Christianity’s given them no reason to trust it either.
All the fun programs, rammed indoctrination, and apologetics arguments in the world won’t work if we’ve seen behind the curtain. And that’s the one thing that all these Christian talkers can’t address, because they just aren’t capable rationally and emotionally to see behind that curtain with us. Instead of doing what they actually need to do to engage with us, they’re wasting time trying to figure out how to make the curtain prettier.
If I could tell Christians one thing on this subject, it’d be this: stop treating us like idiots, and recognize the heartbreaking and searing pain we felt when we realized Christianity’s claims just weren’t true.
Recognize the sincere searching many of us did for truth. Understand that most of us weren’t looking to de-convert or even feeling skeptical about our religion. The truth crept up on us–usually while we were doing Bible studies to get closer to our god!
Chances are we know the Bible better than you do, and chances are whatever you think we did wrong, we actually did right even by your standards. Try asking us about it instead of assuming.
Wow, this was long even by my standards. Thank you for walking this far with me today, and please join me next time as we talk about how I struggled toward learning how to form rational opinions.
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(Cas tidied up this post on November 5, 2019.)