Christians on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have been sharing a deluge of recent articles from “hip pastors” about how young people are leaving the church and leaving Christianity. Each of these articles posit a number of reasons why they think this diaspora is occurring, and I’m sure there’s a nugget of truth in each of them – but the one thing I’ve noticed among the articles I’ve read is that they lack any real experience in the matter, and none of them seem to be asking the people who are leaving Christianity why it is that they are doing so.
I’m a real life apostate who left the church and eventually the faith and some might say I know more about why people actually do leave as opposed to some pastor who’s trying to sell a book, but no one is knocking on my door to ask me or any of my apostate cohorts – and nearly every time I try to inject some experience into the conversation these believers are having about us I’m met with negative remarks and accusations about the likelihood that I’m possibly attempting to quell some hidden belief in god with a rage against him.
So, I’ll do what others on the inside have failed to do – I’ll give the outsiders view of why we are becoming outsiders of the church and Christianity, I’ll try to give my own reasons for leaving the church and leaving the faith (two separate things), and I’ll try to do my best not to pigeonhole those that have left by assuming the reasons I’m listing here are theirs – but I’m hoping I’m going to be in the ball park for a lot of you based on my own experiences and my interactions with the ex-christian community.
Church is ubiquitous
The county I live in and was raised in has over 280 churches to serve a population of only 22,000 people. That’s a ratio of people to churches of 78:1 – less than half of the people in my county actually attend church regularly so that means the ratio of people attending churches to the churches in existence is actually more like 35:1. Churches are ubiquitous here in the Deep South and throughout much of the rest of the country – yet church attendance, belief in god, and organized religions as a whole are shrinking at higher rates than they have at any point in history.
This ubiquity may not sound like a bad thing to an insider – a church on every corner sounds like some people’s version of utopia, but for many of us it’s evidence of a fractured organization that doesn’t understand itself much less those it claims to serve. Why exactly would an organization with a singular mission need so many expensive buildings, salaried staff, and overhead in order to serve that mission? The answer is in the fact that there simply is no singular mission within the organization of Christianity as a whole – or if there is, it’s to generate micro-economies for the individual leaders of congregations and perhaps even to stroke their egos.
This generation, and I include myself in what I’m about to say, is full of ideologues and dreamers – people who want to be a part of something bigger than themselves and many of us initially view the church as one of those bigger-than-me things. Church, as we join and get excited about changing the world, looks like the ideal place to make that happen – but as we get tangled up in missionary tourism, fundraising to cover overhead, and the business of it all the luster is quickly lost. We realize quickly that the church isn’t changing lives – it’s just making people feel good in superficial ways and lining the pockets of those at it’s most profitable positions.
The church lacks grace and introspection
Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see or hear Christians talking about some new and egregious form of persecution being suffered at the hands of liberals, atheists, or homosexuals. Many modern Christians are very quick to point the finger at one group or another as the reason for “America’s great downfall” while they forget that they’ve maintained a majority status in this country since it’s inception and that majority status in most instances has lead to their getting exactly what they want up and until the point where people have had enough and start fighting against old and out-dated social norms.
While it’s one thing to believe that a lifestyle(I hate that word), sexual orientation, or belief system is sinful – it’s entirely another to forgo all personal introspection and self improvement in order to legislate that other private individuals morality lines up with your own. It’s not that my generation really believes you don’t have the right to believe or even say that gay marriage is wrong – it’s just that the very people you’d like to join and be active in your church are too busy trying to improve ourselves and examine who we are to have time to worry about the ills I may or may not perceive in another person – and somehow the mantra of “be the change you wish to see in the world” has really sunk into my generation – many of us believe that and we work on ourselves first, trusting that the guy next to us is trying to do the same thing.
When I was still a Christian I don’t ever remember having time to worry about the dangers of gay marriage. I mean – I was so convinced that I was a piece of shit and that I had so much sin in my life that I couldn’t fathom telling someone else that they needed to work on their life! The Christian religion is allegedly about grace, yet it finds these particular “sins” it wants to pick on – I’ve literally heard 400 lb pastors berate homosexuality from their pulpits as if consensual love and sex is somehow worse than the coronary waiting in his left ventricle.
People won’t go where they don’t feel loved, and they won’t eschew grace where its not been given.
The church sucks at taking criticism
I’ve been lobbing criticism at the church for a long time, far longer than I’ve been an atheist. When someone like me points out that a $6000 per person mission trip to a poor African country where $6000 dollars could lift an entire family into the middle class isn’t a wise use of funds (or insert any other critique) the answer I receive is “but what have you done?”
While I think it’s important for atheist, skeptic, and humanist organizations to have a presence in their communities and on the world stage that is charitable – on an individual level I believe in quiet giving and quiet works. The time and money I provide for charitable causes or for families in need directly is private – it’s not something you’ll see me bragging about or having photo-ops to post to social media about. The reasons I’m private about that is because, for me, it just means more to make it that way – for me to get nothing out of giving makes it better – and it fuels my ego (an ego rarely in need of fueling) to have people see me doing that…so I decided a very long time ago that I would always give outside of the limelight.
While I am doing what I can, I’m not feeding villages in sub-Saharan Africa or running a food bank for the benefit of my local community (though that’s a failed dream I’ll have to put on hold) – and I know that. I know I’m not changing the world, but that doesn’t mean the criticisms I have for Christianity and churches isn’t valid and well worth consideration.
The truth is, every church financial report I’ve ever read – and I read lots of them, is a nightmare of overhead. Salaries, utilities, mortgage, capital improvements and less than 10% of income going into people who need it. One church financial summary I reviewed had a budget of over 1 million dollars with less than $10,000 being directed into either financial assistance for struggling families or more generic financial/food assistance funds – there’s something insane about that for someone like me and when I’m critical of that someone should be saying, “gee, maybe he’s right – my pastor makes 6 figures a year!” rather than “What have you done with your comparatively meaningless income?”
Furthermore, any criticism thrown by outside sources toward Christianity is often met with rancor – just recently President Obama made remarks about the Crusades at the National Prayer Breakfast – pointing out that Christians too did terrible things in the name of Christ, and so terrorism isn’t only a Muslim problem. The President’s act of pointing out this historical fact (and current fact in parts of Africa) made him the target of Christian outrage – simply for stating a fact!
Christianity isn’t providing us with answers
Finally, my generation is one that’s been forced to confront the fact that all that we see and hear isn’t necessarily true. We live in an age of information, we have data screaming past us at an alarming rate – and a large part of that data is distinctly falsifiable. Unlike the generations that precede us in this age of information we’ve been largely trained to discern between information that is correct and information that isn’t, which is why you won’t find us forwarding or sharing fantasy memetic emails like our parents and grandparents. We’re a Snopes generation and we don’t believe everything we’re told just because it’s claimed with authority.
We want answers and truth, and we appreciate the journey to finding those things – and yet somehow that trait has been conflated with being lost or confused when in reality it means we’ve got a dedication to something bigger than ourselves and yet subject to our ability to understand it, and we don’t have to apologize for not accepting the gravy our grandparents and parents have been ladling all over us since we were kids anymore. We’re just fine asking “why?” or “how do you know?” and the church and functional Christianity give us incredibly empty answers or refuse to engage those questions at all when asked!
Christianity may be able to provide some easy, feel good answers in some of the most superficial ways – but the moment a young person begins to question the validity of those prayerfully sought moments of clarity they quickly become less than clear and only lead us to asking more questions about why it is one might be led to believe in any of this. It isn’t enough to say, “because the Bible says so” or “that’s how we’ve always believed” anymore – there are challenges now in the fact that the vast majority of us have access to information about religion and science that previous generations haven’t – they lead us to appreciate evidence and falter in belief when ambiguity and the failure to answer rears it’s head.
Many of us are settling on the idea that Christianity, even in the most basic sense, may not be true. We’re finding, as we search for better explanations as to why exactly it is that we’re on this speck of a planet – that while reasonably sound answers may not be exactly around every corner – that the religion of our forbears provides only sanctimony and presumption and nothing like evidence or reason to guide us there. If Christianity isn’t true, and we’re not being compelled to believe it is, it’s going into the spam folder – just like grandma’s slightly racist chain emails.
We’re Leaving Christianity – for our own reasons
Everyone leaves their faith for different reasons, everyone stays or adopts a faith for different reasons – it’d be wrong for me to try to pigeonhole any individual’s path from one place in life to another and so I don’t want it to be thought that I believe that the reason’s listed here are comprehensive. When we boil faith down into its base parts and we try to determine why a person believe what a person believes the answer is really quite simply: people believe what they are compelled (by evidence, emotions, tradition, or whatever) to believe, and Christianity is doing an increasingly bad job at compelling people to believe in it for countless reasons.
Whether its because you find the church impotent, overtly ubiquitous, impossible in its inability to self-critique , or simply find yourself unable to accept the message – your reasons for rejecting Christianity are probably better than others have imagined, and perhaps that failure to listen to those of us leaving the faith is further reason for us to keep marching onward.