As of this writing, I am facilitating a course/discussion regarding the decline of Christianity in America. Someone made a point in the discussion that is similar to one I’ve made previously… but I can’t find where I made it so I’m making it anew. 🙂
The question begins with a look at the measured increase in self-identified ‘religious nones’ in America since around 1990. (This data can be found linked to here.) In 1990, some 8% of Americans identified themselves as having no religion. Today, that figure has doubled. In the meantime, there has been a drop in those identifying themselves as Christians, from about 86% to 76% of the nation’s population. Some back of the napkin calculation suggests that some 30,000,000 fewer people call themselves Christian than did in 1990 with a significant portion of these falling into the ‘religious none’ category.
However, of note, the number of outright atheists has seen only a moderate increase. Even many of the ‘religious nones’ say they believe something.
You would hardly know this in a survey of the content on the Internet. The hard core atheists and secular humanists are over represented in blogs, forums, and the like. In the meantime, atheist apologists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc, have a firm hand on the direction of dialog. Throughout this, the evolutionary party line is enforced in almost every place, except for the private consciences of the individual (for now).
Hard core philosophical naturalism as expressed by the ‘new atheists’ is having an influence. So what gives? Why are their numbers not off the charts?
This is my explanation as a Christian apologist having been involved in this topic for fifteen years as well as a teacher and church professional. True, it is anecdotal, but I think it explains the facts. I think more rigorous scrutiny would demonstrate it.
Essentially: hard core philosophical naturalistic materialistic secular atheism is a ‘gateway drug.’
Consider this common scenario: Young Christians emerge from their congregation’s educational programs with a basic grasp of simple Bible stories and simplified theology and then go off to college. At college, they are confronted with an academic atmosphere that is hostile to Christianity. Evolutionary theory in particular is jarring, but there are a variety of other ingredients, too. Faced with the appearance that ‘all the facts’ are against Christianity and the appearance that all smart people reject religion, and ill equipped from their upbringing to offer a response beyond “I just believe,” young folks fall away in droves.
Thus far, the common scenario. But that is not the end of it.
Why not? Because as these young folks mature, and as they graduate and enter the ‘real world,’ they find that the hard core secular atheism just doesn’t add up. People can ridicule the idea that there is design present in the universe but these young adults know better. Evolutionists can insist that morality can be fully explained by natural selection, but these young adults aren’t buying it. Materialistic philosophers can insist that it is unscientific to suggest that God is the best explanation for the ‘Big Bang’ but ordinary people scoff at their reasoning.
These trends are real and the New Atheists know it. It annoys them to no end that people could defy their iron logic and scientific conclusions. Unfortunately, it is still a free country and there is nothing they can do but continue to brow beat dissenters.
Note, however, that in the process described above, though these young people return to some kind of belief, they do not necessarily return to Christianity (or whatever their childhood belief system was). More and more often, they don’t. In their minds, the evidential foundations of ‘organized religions’ have been irrevocably dismantled- that much they still remain convinced of from their college indoctrination. Where does this leave them?
A great many of these folks will identify themselves as Christians but not go further and align with an ‘organization.’ I doubt I am the only one to notice how many people dine at the Belief Buffet, picking and choosing what they will believe from all the available choices. This trend is substantially manifested even among those who call themselves ‘Christian.’ More often than in previous years, though, they simply cast off all labels and fall into the ‘religious none’ category.
There are probably reasons for that, too. For example, the ‘war on labeling’ has been going on for some time now and today we are at a point where it is pretty safe, socially, to dispense with them altogether. But I digress.
If my explanation is correct, then there is reason for Christians to be hopeful. But there is also reason for them to be alarmed. It would appear that for all the effort of the New Atheists, they win relatively few converts. Unfortunately, these converts dominate academia and important sections of the scientific community: they are strategically placed to build their base. Still, it is much easier to discuss truth claims with those who already believe something than those who claim not to. (Atheists don’t ‘believe’ in evolution or anything like that… these are scientific facts, and facts are to be obeyed, not believed).
But we must view with alarm the fact that our young people find themselves as unprepared as they are. We cannot comfort ourselves with the belief that after their ‘normal’ time of doubt they will eventually return to orthodox Christianity. This is not the case. They will return to ‘belief’ but fewer and fewer return to faith in God through Christ.
From an eternal perspective, these are in no better situation than if they had remained hard core materialists. It is thus little consolation knowing that so many of them will ultimately reject the New Atheist Gospel.
An important key seems to be to do a better job of retaining those who are raised in the Church in the first place. A need for a more robust education seems obvious. But the final answer will be bigger than that. How do you keep folks from becoming drug addicts? It isn’t just by making ‘gateway drugs’ illegal. There are well known indicators surrounding people who reject drugs (gateway, and otherwise) and it would be my position that these indicators are generally absent in the churches as young people perceive them.
There is much to do and not unlimited time to do it.