Sunday, August 11, 2013

Millennials and religion. Is there a simple answer?

So I've been reading some interesting conversations lately about why millennials are leaving the church. I have my own answer to that question. Really, it's a conglomeration of a lot of the ideas bandied about, but I think it's nearer the mark than any one on its own.

1. If the church was something more than a combination mutual ego-stroking and witch-burning festival, millennials might be more inclined to stay...

Millennials, and every one else who can't stand that behavior. This is an obvious one, but it cannot be overstated (and, sadly, seems to fall on deaf ears). The petty, back-biting, judgey one-upmanship that is prevalent in church communities; the obsession with attacking “others”, like gays, while ignoring all the things that the Bible says that apply to our own circumstances; the insistence that we should ignore passages like Matthew 7:1 (“do not judge, or you too will be judged”), the showmanship of the church, the church politics, the drama, etc., etc.: these are all extremely off-putting.

What passes for “substance” is often just a way to feel better than the “other” group: “God condemns homosexuals and women who have abortions and women who show cleavage and Democrats, and they will surely burn in hell; only his beloved, though they are condemned by the world and mocked by the fools who think themselves wise, will sit by the right hand of the Father, will live on for all eternity in paradise. Amen!” It amounts to little more than theologically-based intellectual-masturbation in a group setting.

The church spends little time exhorting its followers to make real and significant, positive changes to their own behaviors, but rather spends great amounts of time focusing on how evil other people are – and, by contrast, how holy they are. Thus you hear frequent condemnations of gays and “immorally dressed”, “promiscuous” women; lots of raging about what's on TV, and all manner of things that don't affect (or are quietly covered up by) the congregation. But how often do we hear passages like these covered in detail?
Matthew 6
1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

To follow this passage, of course, would cut deeply into the culture of sanctimony that so much of the Christian world embraces. Gone would be the incessant droning on social media, at every church function, at every opportunity, about the parishioners' righteousness, about their unending love for God, about, ultimately, what damned fine Christians they are. Or, more accurately, gone would be the parishioners – to a church that was content to stroke their egos.

Likewise with the “judge not” passage, from Matthew 7. Too many congregations are rife with petty vanities, gossip, backstabbing and self-righteousness; too few take to heart passages like these:

1 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.
2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?
5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

And when these are quoted, pastors go to extraordinary lengths to assert that judging is actually peachy-keen (for instance, the quote of Paul Washer's, “You say, ‘Judge not lest ye be judged.’ But I say, ‘Twist not Scripture lest ye be like Satan’,” which gets bandied about frequently in such discussions). It's particularly irritating to see unabashedly cruel, bigoted and callous people defend their sanctimony in such a way. How could that not disenchant people with the church? How could that not drive people to, and through, the doors?

As to the generation in question...why does this urge to leave manifest more in millennials? That I think has a relatively simple answer. There are fewer incentives to comply, and fewer penalties for failure to do so. You can have a rich, intellectually fulfilling social life without ever stepping foot in church; and you're no longer going to be ostracized if you choose not to attend church. Which means the church has to work harder and smarter to retain millennials (and, I would hazard a guess, subsequent generations). Instead, though, the church is stuck in “indoctrination mode” – whereby children were raised in the church, sufficiently frightened into remaining there, and severely penalized if they did “fall by the wayside” so as to serve as a warning to anyone else. The church has failed to evolve, and is only recently beginning to wake to the possibility of eventual extinction or irrelevance.

2. Atheism and agnosticism do present appealing, intellectually honest alternatives

When you're talking about something that no one has seen, no one has witnessed, no one can reproduce – and the only “evidence” in its favor is an ancient manuscript that has been altered, re-translated, and mistranslated a thousand times – is it really a puzzling thing that so many people are saying, “to be honest, I just don't know”? Factor in that information has become more easily accessible – a person can become well-informed on many topics with but an internet connection, a tablet, and a discerning eye – and the exclusive “truth” of any given religion seems to fade. The morals that religion today tries to attribute only unto itself have existed long before the faiths of the current era, in those hated and feared “pagan” faiths. The moral precepts that the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead puts forth, rules by which the worthy dead are supposed to have lived, are as good as those found in any religion nowadays: do not rob the orphan, do not murder, do not speak in anger, do not cheat or lie, do not defile the temples of the gods, etc., etc. Christians like to believe they have a monopoly on virtue; and yet such ideas existed thousands of years before the birth of Christ. The parallels between creation stories can also be quite disconcerting for someone who has been raised, as so many American Christians are, to believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, complete and exact. Furthermore, the Bible is full of stories of magic and witchcraft, to say nothing of a violent, vengeful God who commands genocides and kills willy-nilly. The church has offered little to counterbalance these decidedly unsettling realities.

3. Science answers questions that used to be the province of religion

The earth was flat; the sun revolved around the earth; illness was God's judgment; storms, chaos, and death were the evidence of the disfavor mankind had curried with the Supreme Being. As in most cultures, the Christian world attributed what it feared and could not understand to some supernatural judgment or force. (Even today, every time there's an earthquake or tsunami we still hear this mega-preacher or that televangelist assuring us that God massacred however many people half way across the world, because gays are allowed to roam about gayly gay-ing at will, and God doesn't like gaying gays, so he'll kill a bunch of unconnected folks, just to teach the gay-coddlers a lesson. Because, God is love). Now, science has replaced superstition, giving concrete answers in lieu of self-serving ones. Anyone genuinely curious to understand how a given illness works, can find out. You can still simply resort to, “sin! Judgment!” of course, but that argument no longer holds the persuasive force it once did simply because we know better. Back in the day, superstition provided an answer, no matter how bad; and until such time as there was a better answer available, it held sway over people's minds. But those days are gone. Science has provided the better answer, and religion, which was content simply to reap the benefits of people's fears, is obsolete in this respect.

4. The church no longer has a monopoly on thought

This is closely linked to the point above. We live in an age where ignorance is ever more a deliberate choice rather than anything else. With answers to a thousand questions but a few taps or clicks away, falling back on “because, God!” or “demonic possession; quick, an exorcism!” or “how dare you question the will of God?!” is a cop-out. When information was scarce and questioning dangerous, people had little choice but to content themselves with the church's position. Not so anymore.
The irony of this, of course, is that this is a “problem” for the Christian world inflicted largely by the Christian world; the Martin Luthers of the past showed that dissent could bear fruit. Granted, the Calvins of the world brutally oppressed it when it conflicted with their own supremacy, and that response still exists in church communities and families, but the seed was planted and flourished. The holy men of the Church were not infallible. They could be challenged – and the challenger might be right. Combine that with a shift toward representative government, where every man had an equal say, where the old ideas of ruling classes that could not be questioned gave way to a more inclusive system; an influx of information and a boom in scientific discovery; philosophical thought that offered good alternatives to strict religious adherence, by providing a measure of worth for the average man equal or greater than what religious thought of the day afforded; and you have the “perfect storm” for skepticism to take hold. The Church was not unassailable; its leaders were fallible, wrong, sometimes wicked even; the worth of men could be discerned – and protected – by secular measures; and science provided provable answers to questions that had long netted “the wrath of God!”-type answers. Why look to an aging, corrupt, oftentimes seemingly morally bankrupt power structure for answers that reason, scientific inquiry and secular thought can provide?

5. The church has lost its moral authority: people can be good without religion, and people can be evil in spite of religion

This is another point closely linked to the preceding ones. Not only does religion no longer have a monopoly on thought, but many of its thoughts have been proven wrong. Once upon a time, good and the church were unalterably linked in everyone's mind: you either were a believer in good standing, or you were evil, possibly a servant of Satan, definitely deluded by him, always deserving ostracism and often brutal death. Not so anymore. Just as a recognition that gay people aren't scary “others”, but our own friends and family – forced into the “closet” by exactly the bigoted thinking that gay equals evil – has precipitated a shift toward acceptance of the LGBT community, the recognition that people we know and love, not scary “God haters”, are atheists or agnostics, is signaling a shift in the way the “godless” are perceived. Most people know an atheist, or two, or ten – and they're good, even great, people. It's hard to credit the church's idea that good only comes through belief in God, or that anyone who lacks that belief is evil, when the evidence of our own experience contradicts such thinking.

That's only one facet of this point, though. There's the competing notion that a belief in God does not equate to goodness. Christian history, for a glimpse into the past; the Catholic sex abuse “scandal”, for a current example; and, of course, individual encounters with self-serving, cold-hearted, malicious “good Christians”: these are but a few of the instances when belief in God has done absolutely nothing to limit evil. Now, Christianity explains why people can be evil and still believe in God (while also giving them a “get out of jail free” pass for doing so, through faith); but it doesn't lessen the overall point: if godless people can be as good or better than “Godly” ones, what “good” is Christianity?

At this point, many Christians will argue that “good” is irrelevant, that everything comes down to a belief in God – that is, the saintly atheist (and, oftentimes, Christian of another denomination) will burn in hell for his lack of belief, but the hard-hearted, lecherous, abusive Christian will sit at the feet of the Lord in paradise, simply because the Christian had faith in God while he went about his evil (and was thus “forgiven”), but the atheist did not (so was not “redeemed”). That's an issue for another post, but not an easy theological argument for many to accept. For the point of this discussion, it comes down to this: goodness is more or less irrelevant, and Christianity may have no bearing on goodness. This is a significant loss of moral weight. If goodness can be obtained from other sources, and if goodness isn't a prerequisite to eternal life anyway, all that the potential Christian is left with is a husk of creation stories, miraculous tales, talking animals, lineage lines, judgmental hypocrisy, etc. Strip away the moral authority, and require only literal belief in stories that oftentimes seem beyond belief, and it is no wonder that people fall away.

I have not touched much on the obsession with “hot button” social and political issues in our own time, more because I think those tend to fall in the categories above than anything else. It should be noted, however, that – much like getting drunk and insisting on arguing politics at every holiday function – the obsession with overriding the separation of church and state in order to force religious opinions into law isn't an endearing trait. There are many others, but I think I've hit the main ones here. I do think that this is an interesting and potentially productive debate, so I look forward to the continuation of it.


  1. Thank you! This post is the kind of reality-based answer that church leaders need to listen to if they actually want to know why younger people are leaving the church.

    I may have been raised in a more-conservative-than-average Southern Baptist church, but at some point it became apparent that my parents and the pastors that they listened to could only defend their doctrine by pretty much outright lying about gay folks, about women, about sex itself, etc. Yet every time I hang out with my parents, to this day, they ask "how I went astray, when they they gave me such a good Christian home ..." They simply won't accept that what they consider a "good Christian home" is built on ideas that are undeniably false.

    1. My upbringing is very similar to yours. And I hear the same kind of thing. "Where did I go wrong?" I've even been told that "college ruined me", or, alternatively, "brainwashed" me. But I've always been a thinker, and always had "rebellious" ideas. University education gave me access to more information, but I might have stumbled across it a million other ways; the conflict of mind was already present. That's why, I think, so many people like to push the religious "university" scene: because questioning is penalized, rather than encouraged as with a real education. If you are never *allowed* to think, the chances of you doing so are much slighter. In other words, it amounts to brainwashing.
      It is one of the things I attempt to do on my blog...articulate contradictions and errors as I see them with theology, particularly when it is forced onto the public sector. The problem I run into is that so many people are so brainwashed that considering things beyond their "comfort zone" is simply not going to happen. Thanks for posting. I'm (very pleasantly) amazed by how much attention this blog post has generated; it's great to hear from readers!

    2. * In the last paragraph, "It is" should just be "One of"...that's what I get for posting before proofing. :)

  2. As soon as I started paying attention to the differences to what my church (and school) was saying about life / the world / and the potential for 'being saved', I started to feel the disconnect. Arguments about how many angels dancing on a pin, etc, were of more import than dealing with the poor, the downtrodden and the hated. We were verbally slapped around for questioning yet our whole denomination was founded by a questioner (ML). When science was being silenced over what was in the bible, my suspicions grew. Here is another case of cherry picking, taking some science and it's good, denying other science because it's conclusion interferes with the bible. Same as some readings in the bible. Some support our behaviour, but others which condemn us(public displays of 'christian' behaviour) are ignored.
    Overall, I found that the usefulness of any religion to explain the contemporary world went out the window, once thinking started being encouraged in the Age of Enlightenment. Once we had science answer things such as cancer, reproduction, earthquakes, the entire world view of the bible was thrown away as antiquated stories.
    As it became evident that the bible 'borrowed' stories from other culture it was no longer 'the unerring word of god' rather a resetting of the same tales. Essentially a retelling of collected stories under a single cover (can anyone say Grimm's Fairy Tales?) does not rate being 'divinely inspired'. The scientific evidence of changes in bibles being placed in at specific points of time (inserted words, et. al) shows the path of change to support changing world view. This again points to humanity's desire to 'shape' a book to fit the PTB world view.

    Thus as a person in my 20's I came to realize that this was all malarkey, in my 30's I felt that if there was a god (overarching intelligence) it was due to our combined intellects. In my 40's I questioned even that limited Gaia concept. Now in my 50's I have become an avowed agnostic/atheist and feel all religions were simply a way for the PTB to control the populace before the rule of law was taken for granted. But the bible was always viewed as a 'controls' on the great unwashed mass, not something for the PTB to actually do, thus the time honored "don't do as I do, do as I say" attitude of many 'church elders'.

    1. You raise excellent points about the "borrowed" nature of the Bible. Comparative religious studies can be eye opening indeed for a well-indoctrinated person who has been raised to believe on face value that the Bible is the inspired, preserved word of God. Nothing so startling as to find that cultures that predated or existed simultaneously (without contact) with Jewish/Christian/Muslim culture had such similar notions, all tailored to the folks in question. The hell concept is a great example, but there are many others (Christmas, the Virgin Mary, etc.)
      Of course, if your goal is to justify forcing archaic rules (many of which you flout yourself) on other people, contradictions matter less than whether or not people will believe it.
      Thanks for reading.

  3. Rachel, nice chunk of rational thinking!

    Actually, the thinking you displayed up above is very very similar to that which led me to disown my faith, after 46 years as an evangelical and several years in Europe as a missionary.

    What mystifies me is how you manage to maintain allegiance to an irrational faith, when you yourself express such sparkling rationality? It's kind of scary to let go, and leaving the church family was kind of gut wrenching, but the intellectual freedom and honesty that I feel now is positively exhilarating!

    1. Thanks anon. As for your question, to be perfectly honest, it is a conflict to which I do not have an answer, and a search that is still in progress.

  4. Okay, Rachel. We have problems in the church! You've addressed them quite convincingly! Now, do you plan to be part of the solution or just curse the darkness? Also, do I detect that this is your experience in church and with Christians?

    Let me remind you that God answered the quest of the amazing youth movement of the late 60's. He can do it again! The American church of the 50's and 60's had it's share of stuffy, irrelevant, bigoted, pompous people too! Most seemed to despise the long-haired peace-seekers and their festivals. But not God! Suddenly, a huge movement broke out in that very youth culture: The Jesus Movement, as it was called. The music, the search for peace, the quest; all were answered in the cause of Christ.

    The greatest thing my church did for me and my friends in the 70's was to let us plug in our guitars at church (!), not nag us about our hair, and accept our enthusiasm for God. Even the old-timers showed us love! Among other things, great contemporary music expressions of love for God were born and resonate to this day.

    Has your church failed to teach you the rational, intellectual grounds for your faith? If you think the only evidence for Christian is "ancient manuscript"(sic) that has been corrupted then you have been severely cheated! The opposite is true concerning the New Testament documents! Perhaps you know this and are just decrying it. In that case, can you give the evidence for Christian Theism found in science, philosophy, and history, etc.?

    Thankfully, there is a huge renaissance of Christian philosophy and apologetics in the Christian church. The atheists/skeptics have become the "fundys" who spout platitudes and poor philosophy, and Christians are recapturing the life of the mind (which seemed to be neglected for several decades in exchange for a more "feely" faith). So all is not lost yet! I expect another "Explo 72" any day now!

    Again, are you going to curse the darkness or light at least a candle? You seem on the verge of rejecting your faith in Christ. If so, you'll be rejecting the biggest Straw Man I have ever seen! Thoughts?

    1. I'm curious about the renaissance in apologetics you speak of. I've seen nothing new except for presuppositional apologetics which is neither new nor particularly impressive. But it does seem to be the game of the moment. I haven't been moved by an apologist since I read C.S. Lewis. So I'm genuinely curious.

    2. Kevin Harris, all I can say is ... LOL!

    3. Yeah, that right there is exactly the kind of arrogant self-centered response that might drive people like the poster over the edge.
      If you ever do lose your faith Rachel, do not worry. You can jump right in, the water is warm. Like Herb Silverman says: 'smile, there is no hell'.

    4. Kevin Pickle, Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands a Verdict set many on the apologetics task in the 70's. From there the church began to discover Francis Schaeffer, Norman Geisler, Alvin Plantinga, and the older thinkers as well. This led to a deeper interest in philosophy (not just pop-level apologetics). Today, the church has made great strides breaking out of emotions-only slumbers, and the writings, conventions, podcasts, curricula, etc. on philosophy/aplogetics are enormously popular. Ravi Zacharias has noted the renaissance and William Lane Craig has chronicled it among academics. I've noticed a big rise in Calvinism among 20- 30-something males. I don't know why! But with it comes Presupps.

    5. Kevin Harris, I have heard many of the "rational arguments". IMHO, many of the attempts to present a rational basis for belief are mere rationalizations and attempts at obscurity.

      As for what to do...I have no idea. They are not popular notions, what I present here, and I am not a "person of influence"...what can I do? I blog, and I try to inform myself on many different perspectives (reading the God Delusion now, I've read the Qu'ran, I've read the Bible multiple times, read parts of the Talmud [I admit, that one is a little daunting for sheer volume :) ], various works on the Bible, follow various blogs, etc.) I try to discuss my ideas, and hear others', but, again, they're not popular ones.

      So my question to you is...what would you recommend?

  5. Kevin Harris, please do not use shame and draconic language like, "curse the darkness" on this young woman. Her logical argument should be answered in kind.

    1. How's this for 'shame and draconic langugage": baloney! She made a forceful, over-generalized, critique. I tried to put things into perspective. Coddling and enabling is not always the best route. Especially with a person who has some serious questions (as she does)! My best honor of her as a person is to treat her post seriously!

    2. Thanks for reading/posting Leslie. It's great to see so many new readers! :)

      Kevin, I did mention that these were not the only factors, and also used qualifying language to indicate that I wasn't trying to paint the entire community with the same brush. I point to strains of Christian thinking that are, I would (and do) argue, prevalent, but not entirely representative. "Coddling and enabling" is an interesting turn of phrase, indicative it would seem of a belief that I am somehow transgressing. I'm curious to know how. My philosophy is something akin to Thomas Jefferson's: "Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear." I do not, therefore, see that I have done anything "amiss", certainly not something that could be "coddled" or "enabled". I would submit to you, sir, that such an attitude is problematic in its own right. Truth need fear no light, no examination; it remains true, and will be borne out the more so for examination.

  6. You're officially my new favorite blogger! I stumbled upon this entry through a series of links I followed from other blogs (can't remember where I started, but came here from "Friendly Atheist"). I can't tell you how refreshing it is to read such an eloquent, well-reasoned blog entry. I couldn't care less whether someone chooses to be Christian, atheist, or any other type of belief, and I get so tired of the evangelizing and demonizing - on both sides.

    Oh, and this - "gays are allowed to roam about gayly gay-ing at will, and God doesn't like gaying gays" - I laughed SO hard. I'll definitely be back!

    1. Thanks M, glad to have you!

      That bit was more frustration bubbling up than anything else, I think, lol, with the mind-numbing obsession with LGBT folk. I don't get it.

  7. I think many of these are spot on. And strongly stated as they are, some of them are nevertheless understated, compared to reality. For example your #5 - Church has lost its moral authority.

    It's worse than that. It's not just that people can be good without God, but it's even that on a number of important topics, the church has been on the WRONG side. The impression is that, instead of the church being a leading star in matters of moral and ethics, it's a trailing slow-poke that has to get dragged, kicking and screaming, into modernity by the rest of society.

    For example on equal rights. Church was not among the *first* to recognize that equality before the law for women and men is right. To the contrary, it was among the *last*, and even today when this issue is pretty much settled among ordinary people, there's still medieval remnants in church, you get drips of it occasionally, like the preacher 2 weeks ago who - from the pulpit itself, announce that his sons would be taught to be independent, and his girls would be taught to be dependant.

    The same pattern repeated with cross-race relationships, with females in the workforce, with gays and so on.

    Again and again, society moves on, usually in the direction of *more* acceptance, *more* willingness to tolerate individual free choice. And then, a generation later, church is reluctantly forced to follow the rest of us.

    You can't lead from behind. And that's what the church seems to be doing on moral and ethics today

  8. Thank you, Rachel. I appreciate your post. I reposted it on the Nicaea Community Facebook page. An open group for all believers and nonbelievers in the divinity of Jesus Christ, where all opinions are welcome and comments are encouraged. Please come by and share your insights anytime! Thank you, again, for your contribution to the conversation! Jerry, one of the administrators at the Nicaea Community

    1. Thanks Jerry, I appreciate the share. I will certainly check the community out. :)