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The Public Religion Research Institute has just released a new study they completed about Christianity in America. It is eye-opening and genuinely shocking, and not only for the reasons that Christians are seeing. There are some hidden messages in this study that they’re not seeing, encoded thuds of Moria drums that foretell a catastrophe for the religion that is coming–and quickly.

The nonpartisan report (h/t to RNN and our own lovely friend Lambchop!) is called “Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion–and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back.” It is the result of a survey of 2200 adults about their religious leanings. It confirms a lot of stuff we already knew and adds a few new ideas to the conversation our nation is having about religion. Now, this wasn’t like a humongous survey, but it looks like it had good methodology and was large enough that it could give us some ideas for future research.

(Credit: Simon Harrod, CC.)
(Credit: Simon Harrod, CC.)

The main thing the PRRI survey discovered was that the number of Nones went from 1 in 5 Americans in 2012 to one in four in 2016. Overall, Nones have leaped from 10% to 39% since 1986. That increase is “raising eyebrows” among Christian leaders of late, with one declaring, “Wow, it does seem like a big jump.” What’s really baffling is how little chatter we’re seeing about this study in the Christosphere, considering how startling some of its findings are to fundagelicals. Or maybe, as you will see today, the near-radio-silence out of the major Christian outlets about the study isn’t really that confusing at all.

Yay, More Labels.

The survey divided Nones into three categories. The demographics here is quite interesting; you can find the charts starting on page 13 of this link but I’ll just briefly sum it up here.

“Rejectionists” were 58% of the Nones. They had flat rejected religion and said it wasn’t important to them at all. They even said that they thought religion did more harm than good in society.

“Apatheists” were 22% of the Nones. They didn’t care either way; they didn’t think religion was important to their own lives but generally didn’t see the harm if someone else wanted to play in that sandbox.

“Unattached Believers” were the last 18% of Nones. They were the classic disengaged Christians who thought religion was very important to their lives but simply weren’t part of any faith communities. They were way more likely to be people of color, less-educated, and female.

(These labels aren’t as presumptuous and condescending as the ones that Barna gave Nones in their own report back in 2013, but I still reserve the right in advance to giggle uncontrollably if some earnest Christian tells me, all earnestly with super-earnest Preacher Eyebrows raised and full earnest Jesus Boner Aura activated, “You’re a Rejectionist!”)

A Well-Charted Exodus.

Most of the stuff this report contains, we already know or strongly suspected.

Yes, Nones are rising in number dramatically, and the younger the respondent, the more likely they were to be a None. The study discovered that almost 40% of people 18-29 were Nones. That percentage positively eclipses all the other percentages.

And the age gap is definitely widening. As older Nones age, they are joined by not only the younger ones but also by older people who are also leaving the religion.

Yes, most Nones are actually not just disengaged Christians; they’re rather further out of the religion than that term typically implies. 40% of Nones described themselves as very or moderately spiritual, but 32% said they were “not at all spiritual” and 26% said they were “only slightly spiritual.” (Disengagement is a term religious researchers use to mean someone who isn’t officially deconverted and may even still think of themselves as Christian, but doesn’t really do religious stuff anymore.) That 18% tracks pretty well with another finding the survey brought out: about 20% of respondents think that belief in some kind of supernatural force is a requirement for morality.

Yes, homophobia does drive people away from Christianity. 29% of the Nones surveyed specifically cited anti-gay religious grandstanding as the reason why they left; 19% cited the clergy sex-abuse crisis. Christian leaders are, as you might have guessed, downplaying those numbers and even blaming Nones because they just couldn’t handle TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. The simple truth is that if I had a product that actively turned off 1/3 of the people who’d used it to the point where they decide never to use it again even if they think it’s hugely necessary, you bet your bippy I’d be paying really close attention to their objections. I’d agree that the greater concern is that 2/3 of those departed customers simply decide that they don’t need that product anymore, yes, but that 1/3 is not something I’d just hand-wave away–not if I had the sense Gaia gave a goose.

Yes, almost no ex-Christians are returning. As we’ve discussed many times here at R2D, the traditional wisdom for years among Christian leaders was that sure, yeah, whatevs, lots of young people disengage in college–but they return once they get married and have kids. But that wisdom hasn’t held true for a long time and it’s even less valid now.

And yes, the over-politicization of American Christianity is definitely a concern for ex-Christians; 16% of them pointed to that as the reason for leaving religion. (The last 18% left because they had a very negative experience.)

A Few Newer Observations.

The survey confirmed some ideas we’d had that were still really new.

First, Nones generally come from religious homes.

Christians–particularly fundagelicals–are very fond of portraying non-Christians as having been lifelong atheists. But this survey reveals something that most ex-Christians already knew: “the vast majority of unaffiliated Americans formerly identified with a particular religion.” Only 13% of young Nones report having grown up in a non-religious home. Though 19% of respondents went from being raised in a religious home to becoming Nones, only 3% of non-religious-raised kids grew up to eventually become religious. A lot of us might have thought this was the case, but this is some of the first confirmation of the idea that I’ve seen.

Second, the educational makeup of Nones also didn’t especially surprise me.

The more education someone had, the more likely that person was to be a full-on Rejectionist. I don’t know if I’m allowed to reproduce the chart they listed, so I’ll just refer you to Fig. 10 of their PDF if you’re inclined. This finding fits as well with what we’re seeing lately in the ranks of Christianity; the religion as a whole is starting to polarize around class, gender, racial, and educational lines. Little wonder fundagelicals are so distrustful of higher education. (And more kids than ever are getting college educations–that cannot bode well for religious leaders!)

Third, almost nobody is actually looking to rejoin a religious group.

Looking for Group.

Looking for group” is old-school gamer slang for “trying to find a group of people to roleplay with,” and I’d truly be hard-pressed to find a better way to describe the mental image that comes to my mind when I hear someone describe themselves as “seeking.” The survey discovered that 7% of their responding Nones were trying to find a faith community that fit them. As you might expect, only a fraction of Apatheists and Rejectionists were looking for groups, while only about 22% of Unattached Believers were, either!

I suspect strongly that there is an element of wishful thinking going on in the study, though. As Lambchop pointed out in her very astute follow-up, that 7% of Nones that are seeking a new group to join translates to less than 2% of adult Americans as a whole.

That still means millions of Americans are saying that they’re trying to find a group to roleplay with. Where the hell are these people? How hard exactly are they “seeking” a group? What are they doing to seek one?

It’s striking that even most people who consider themselves Christians aren’t even trying at all to find a group to play with, but the ones who are clearly aren’t actually landing in congregations. Most churches are tiny and report zero baptisms per year–or 1 or 2 at most, usually of the children of existing congregants. An influx of millions of visitors would be enormous–and it’s just not being reflected in the numbers coming out of churches.

Scary Finding #1: Nothing They’re Doing with Kids is Working.

All this frenzy of activity Christians have devoted to indoctrinating young people doesn’t actually appear to be succeeding in retaining more of them through those critical college years.

Youth Pastors: Harbingers of the End.
Youth Pastors: Harbingers of the End.

I probably won’t see a lot of engagement from Christian leaders on this point anytime soon. They’ve been flailing around for decades trying to figure out how to keep kids Christian and so far nothing they’ve come up with really seems to work (and indeed cannot work).

Some churches go the super-rah-rah Cool Hip Youth Pastor Dude route, making their youth groups into cults of personality for rock star leaders who use fog machines and full bands to get teens super-duper-excited. But gang, it’s not hard to get teens super-duper-excited. They’re carbonated right out of the box. Keeping them on point is the problem. All that giddy excitement is meaningless if it doesn’t translate into retention. And it doesn’t.

But the ultra-traditional “back to basics” scholarly approach doesn’t work either!

Almost all churches I’ve ever seen put a big stress on indoctrinating kids. Hell, if they aren’t kept busy enough indoctrinating their own kids, they’ll gladly go for other people’s kids too–with or without consent! And yet nothing they’re doing in all that frenzy appears to be leading to an increase in membership. They’re not even keeping up with population growth. Their leaders can spin that however they like. They can sniff down their noses about kids today or whatever makes them feel better. But their churches are emptying and the members who remain are only getting older and older.

Those leaders especially will not want to engage with the reason that their young people are leaving and not returning because they don’t really have any answer for it.

Scary Finding #2: Mixed-Faith Marriages are a Thing.

Christian leaders are trying hard to push the idea that mixed-faith marriages are a huge no-no. I could not find one single major Christian leader willing to say that they’re even okay; instead, they all demonize the idea to the point where you’d think that a mixed-faith couple eats a roasted baby as part of their wedding ceremony–with nearly cartoonish admonitions of doom and catastrophic failure.

And yet despite all that frantic activity and all that discouragement, 14% of evangelical respondents were in a mixed-faith marriage right then.

In fact, the further left one drifts through the denominational pool, the more likely one is to find such a couple. About half of the Nones were in such a marriage–but that’s still way lower of a percentage that it was in the 1970s. We don’t know how many of those Nones started out their marriages as Christians and then deconverted, but I’m betting that’s the story for many of them. Nor do we know how many of those religious spouses married to Nones are evangelicals or something less extreme. The mere fact that so many Christian respondents were in a mixed-faith marriage speaks to how poorly this party line is holding with the flocks.

We’re going to talk more about this idea next time, so I’ll just say here that I think it’s downright hilarious that Christian leaders are trying so hard to demonize mixed-faith marriages while a surprising percentage of their flocks ignore the warnings and get into them anyway–or stay in them if a partner deconverts.

Scary Finding #3: They Just Stop Believing.

By far the scariest finding to come out of this survey, though, is that people generally aren’t leaving because they got mad at someone, or a Bad Christian hurt them, or their parents messed up somehow, or  blah blah blah.

They just stop believing in the religion’s claims.

That’s it.

Oh, some of what Christian leaders say about Nones is true–some of us really do leave for those reasons. But the majority of Nones say they left because they just stopped believing. We didn’t so much reject the religion as we outgrew it. And I’m totally sorry if that offends Christians; I know that I sure wouldn’t like to be implicitly called a childish person. I must be simply honest here, begging their pardon in advance, and say that “outgrowing” is what it genuinely feels like to leave Christianity. It was a false belief based on faulty premises and no evidence, and I moved out of it like a child moves out of belief in Santa Claus. From what I see from other ex-Christians and other research on the topic, this experience is very common.

This finding dovetails with the other major reason for leaving religion. The study lists a number of reasons which, taken together, could be summed up as discovering that the god-shaped hole doesn’t exist. Christians are very fond of claiming that everybody has this “hole” in their hearts/souls/psyches that only Jesus can fill (you snicker you lose). By this they mean that people have an innate, inborn need to go do Christian stuff like attend church, pray, and read the Bible. That’s one of the reasons they cling to the Law of Conservation of Worship like they do–they assume that if someone refuses to do that stuff in a Christian context, then they’ll make up a new context to do the same stuff (so instead of attending church, they’ll go to an atheist convention; instead of reading the Bible, they’ll read On the Origin of the Species, and no, I’m not exaggerating–these are actual examples I’ve heard. Indeed, one joke around Patheos is that Christians go to church, while atheists go online).

The truth would alarm them very badly: that actually, once you stop attending church and doing Christian stuff, you discover how superfluous that stuff really is. Church tends to be irrelevant to most people’s lives. Most of the people involved in them aren’t really especially close and don’t usually have much in common with each other. The rituals themselves are largely a waste of time. The community is generally a monetary drain and a drama factory. There might be a rush of loneliness at first as someone disengages or deconverts and then doesn’t know what to do with all that money, time, and emotional energy, but gradually we find (or re-find!) ways to fill our days that are more rewarding and relevant.

So someone who is already kinda feeling that religion doesn’t fulfill their needs might well see a huge scandal erupt and decide they’ve had about enough, or stop attending just to see what it’s like not to do that stuff and discover nothing’s really changed.

Those of us who still crave community can usually find groups to play with that aren’t based on false supernatural claims and are doing way more good in the world with way less drama. We might have to go online to find them, but they’re there. (Hi, gang!) The very little putative good that religious groups can do is not unique and does not outweigh the many detriments to being part of them.

So religious groups have two big problems: first, they do not provide a product that people feel they need (or feel compelled to pretend they need), and second, they do not provide an environment that makes dealing with their irrelevance or negative points even vaguely tolerable.

And there is not one single thing that they can do about either concern.

What I Wish Christians Would Learn from this Study (and What They Absolutely Will Not Learn).

A clear narrative emerges here that flies in the face of what fundagelicals say about those who have disengaged or left their religion.

Most ex-Christians don’t really have any particular issue with their religion. Most respondents couldn’t point to any trauma or terrible event as the reason why they disengaged. Most of them reported that their most recent trip to a place of worship (like for a wedding or funeral) was pretty positive. They just stopped believing, is all.

Christian leaders can’t provide a compelling reason to believe their nonsense. Oh, they’ve got an entire field of study devoted to coming up with excuses in lieu of evidence, and that field of study is called apologetics. It appeals only to those who already believe or who don’t have or wish to use strong critical thinking skills.

When faced with an overwhelming exodus of believers from their ranks, all those leaders can do is more of what they were already doing but harder and more of it. They literally have nothing else in their toolbox. Indeed, when Ed Stetzer found out about the study, here was his response according to that Christian Century link:

Stetzer takes heart from the study’s finding that more than half of all nones say they believe in some concept of God. “That’s where the victims’ vulnerable point entrée is,” he said. “There is still an unfounded, unverified assertion awareness that there is a God and the Christian’s job is now to prey upon the unwary explain who that God is and what he has done for them.” [strikethroughs mine, obviously — CC]

Yes, because Ed Stetzer and his pals haven’t been doing that at all up to now. His entire response to the fading dominance of his religion has been nothing short of hilarious, and we’ll have to return to him at some point because you seriously could not create a more dishonest, blame-flinging, self-serving, reality-denying response than he has offered–not without being accused of straw-manning!

Caught them mid-fight.
Caught them mid-fight.

Christians’ inability to change course is good news, so this study shows us that we are heading in the right direction. Don’t let up, don’t get complacent, but be of good cheer, friends: we’re getting there.

Christians themselves are seeing to that.

We’ve got a discussion of that movie Christian Mingle up next and I really wanted to touch base on this study beforehand, since it ties in to the themes in that movie. See you next time!

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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