In preparation for some presentations I have in about a month, I’m penning a couple of posts as a way to organize my thoughts. (These posts are not necessarily what my presentations are about). This is the second.
In my first post, I highlighted two disturbing trends. 1., the rise of the ‘religious nones,’ people who say they do not identify with any religion and 2., the fact that so many of these people were raised in the Church in the first place.
As the Pew Research Center puts it:
Perhaps the most striking trend in American religion in recent years has been the growing percentage of adults who do not identify with a religious group. And the vast majority of these religious “nones” (78%) say they were raised as a member of a particular religion before shedding their religious identity in adulthood.
The number of ‘nones’ has been on the rise since the early 1990s, but has risen even more sharply since the mid-2000s. About 1 out of every 5 American now says he does not identify with any religion. That number is sliding up, and if the trend line stays the same, in about a decade we’ll be looking at about 1 out of every 3. In the 1970s, it was 1 out of every 20.
I am not the first to have observed this twofold trend of ‘religious nones’ emerging in large proportion from the Church itself, but I did become national news (albeit in a modest fashion) when I declared, in 2007, that the Church was producing atheists.
Not just ‘nones,’ but atheists.
On this, I think I was ahead of the curve. Perhaps this is why so many people found my claim to be controversial.
Two books that came out at about the same time help put it in context.
First, there was David Kinnaman’s 2007 book UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity and Why it Matters.
There is useful analysis in this book, but in my view, it is incomplete. It may explain where we are now, but how we got here and what we should do about it are not satisfactorily treated. George Barna says in the foreword:
Most of the books published about culture and faith are based on the author’s personal opinions and a few idiosyncratic anecdotes. Such a basis for cultural evaluation is of limited value. David, on the other hand, has spent years collecting and studying reams of national survey data in an effort to truly grasp the big picture and its nuances.
With all due respect to ‘years collecting and studying’ (which I also have been engaged in), I think there is tremendous value to the ‘anecdotes.’
At bottom, Kinnaman seems to think that with some important changes made by the Church in America, people would otherwise be receptive to Christianity.
The ‘survey data’ in view, and even the many conversations that I’m sure Kinnaman had, essentially rely on ‘self-reporting’ on the part of the people involved. Well, do the people explaining why they’ve given up on the Church really understand why they have? They may give a reason, but is it the real reason? In my experience, people are reluctant to give the real reasons for their disbelief–if they know them at all. In my role as a Christian apologist, 95% of my task is to find out the person’s fundamental objection(s) to the faith, and you can only find that out through argument.
You need long, sustained, ‘conversations’ with people, where you don’t take everything someone says to you on its face. You’ve got to push back a little. Prod, probe, and so on.
And my experience, even as far back as 2007, is that the changes everyone is talking about making (including Kinnaman) will have little effect in making people more receptive to Christianity.
I can help explain why by talking about another 2007 book, Dan Kimball’s They Like Jesus But Not the Church. It covers much the same territory as Kinnaman’s book and like it has some good stuff in it. Kimball’s ‘anecdotes’ yield more practical recommendations than I think Kinnaman’s book does, but it, too, seems to be premised on the idea that if we change the ‘delivery’ of certain aspects of Christianity, ‘religious nones’ are primed to return to it. ‘Nones’ are still ‘spiritual.’ As he puts it, “…as the title of this book implies, they are open to Jesus…”
I won’t deny that the bulk of ‘religious nones’ remain ‘spiritual.’ In fact, I’ll go even further and argue that even the hard core atheists are ‘spiritual.’ Whether they like it or not, they are all made in the image of God. Something inside them longs for something bigger, and to the man, each of them spends most of their life reaching out for that ‘something’ so that they may be satisfied. (The motto for my ministry, Athanatos Christian Ministries, is “He has set eternity in the hearts of men.” This is why.)
But I do deny their receptiveness to Christianity.
This ‘hardening’ against Christianity, and ‘spirituality’ in general, is reflected more clearly today than it was back in 2007. For example, the Pew Research Center reports in 2015 that not only are there more ‘religious nones’ than before, but that these are increasingly secular:
At the same time, between the Pew Research Center’s two Religious Landscape Studies – conducted in 2007 and 2014 – we also see consistent evidence that the “nones” are becoming less religious. For example, the share of religious “nones” who say they believe in God, while still a majority, has fallen from 70% to 61% over that seven-year period. Only 27% of “nones” are absolutely certain about God’s existence, down from 36% in 2007. And fully a third of religiously unaffiliated Americans (33%) now say they do not believe in God, up 11 percentage points over that time.
And perhaps more troubling is this hint of things yet to come:
Fully seven-in-ten of these youngest Millennials (born between 1990 and 1996) with no religious affiliation say religion is not important in their lives. A similar share (70%) also say they seldom or never pray and 42% say they do not believe in God, all bigger percentages than among religious “nones” as a whole.
So, in the up and coming generation, the proportion of people who positively reject ‘religion’ (and not just ‘institutional religion’) is steeply on the increase.
There are some who welcome this. Barry Kosmin, who himself is acquainted with the ‘survey data’ in large part because he collected a bit of his own while leading the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), is a promoter of secularism. He takes issue with the assumptions of other surveys that people are still basically religious and spiritual:
To the contrary, I believe that a fundamental change has recently occurred in American society and that there has been a significant generational shift away from religion and theism.
He participated in yet another study in an attempt to validate this belief and found:
In order to ascertain their worldview, we also asked students to choose whether they would describe themselves as Religious, Spiritual, or Secular. The Secular were a heartening 28 percent of the total, only slightly less than Religious (32 percent) and Spiritual (32 percent).
Identification patterns are changing, and young males seem to be much more willing than older generations to adopt the atheist or agnostic label. As a result, around 28 percent of those in the Secular worldview group self-identified as atheists and agnostics.
Finally, the million dollar question:
What, then, are the causes of this alienation from religion?
In 2007, I argued that a lack of apologetics grounding within the Church was one of the prime reasons. I still believe this, especially if you take the broader understanding of the word as I mentioned in part 1.
In the decade since, I have given much more thought to the matter. I have had countless more conversations with people. The reasons for disbelief are varied, but in the main, they all center around one basic idea: Christianity isn’t true.
And how do they know that Christianity isn’t true?
Darwinism, and all that it entails.
But, importantly, as I will discuss in future posts, there is far more to what it ‘entails’, and people started acting on what it ‘entails’ long before most of those reading this entry were even born.
In the meantime:
For a provocative book that comes closest to making this argument, you will want to read Ken Ham’s 2009 book, Already Gone.
Given that the statistics for the last 10-15 years have shown that most of the ‘religious nones’ used to be Christian, Ken Ham’s discovery through his own commissioned study that a person was more likely to jettison their faith if they had gone to Sunday School, VBS, etc., than if they had not, his findings should be of profound interest for any person who cares about the direction our churches should be going if we wish to counter these trends.
In part 3, I will elaborate on this, but I will argue that despite the central role that Darwinism presently plays in fueling hostility to Christian faith, the role that it played in the past is more significant–and more expansive than we typically tend to think about.
I am available to present on these topics at length. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.