Reading Time: 11 minutes (Dennis Jarvis, CC-SA.)
Reading Time: 11 minutes

Before we start, there’s some breaking news: I’m getting interviewed on radio by a member of Minnesota Atheists next Sunday, November 2nd, at 9am-10am CST! It’s my first radio interview so I hope I won’t suck at it. If you’re not in the listening area (950KTNF AM), you can still hear it by heading to, clicking the “listen” tab, and using “55412” as your ZIP code. I’m super excited. I’ve talked before about how impressed I am with this group; their YouTube series with Dr. Hector Avalos about Biblical archaeology really helped me learn about the topic, and they’ve had Robert Price and Dale McGowan on their podcasts in the past. That’s some very august company, and I’m very honored to be invited to join them for a little while. I’m not normally even awake at that hour, so this ought to be a lot of fun! Now on to our regularly scheduled thing:

Interior of the house of a Palestinian Christi...
Interior of the house of a Palestinian Christian family in Jerusalem. By W. H. Bartlett, ca 1850 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The other day this post popped up in my FB feed about what Christian parents are doing wrong along with an interesting comment attached to it from an ex-Christian parent about how whoever wrote that list forgot to include one very important thing. What my friend commented about the list fed into what I was thinking earlier about control, making me realize that those idea apply as well to the mass exodus of young people from Christianity and what their panicking parents and elders are doing to try to staunch the flow.

I’ve talked before about how quickly young people are leaving Christianity. Indeed, one doesn’t need to search far to find article after article talking about it. Yes, absolutely, young people are leaving Christianity, either fully deconverting or doing what one site called “disengaging” (I do love that word), which means to pull away from the actual practices of the religion–praying, going to church, witnessing, studying the Bible, etc; what Pope Francis calls practical atheism. The rates go from “whoa” to “holy shit” from 0 to 60 seconds–some surveys discovering that a third of Christian youth disengage; others head into the nosebleed percentages.

The usual suspects get blamed: colleges are soooooooo meeeeeeeean to Christianity and young people are “inarticulate and uninformed.” Colleges are sooooooo attractive to young people and filled with “rabidly anti-Christian” educators eager to tear apart those kids’ faith like the meanipies they are. Here’s a youth pastor who thinks that the problem is that young people are “illiterate” and that’s why they’re leaving–that link is especially useful because it lists a variety of books and studies, all of which paint a downright dramatic picture of a church that is greying in place.

It must be hard to be Christian parents in this climate and know anything about these statistics. For what it’s worth, I sympathize. Given the demonization done of ex-Christians and atheists, given how little most folks–especially fundagelical parents–know about either group, given how poorly most Christian denominations understand real love, I can totally get why parents might worry about the state of their kids’ spiritual health. It’s misplaced, but it’s still there. Parents love their children. That doesn’t really change no matter what religion someone is. So of course they will want to do something to guide their kids as best they know how–and of course their peers and leaders will take advantage of that desire.

As you can imagine, resources abound for parents eager to ensure that their offspring stay Christian through those risky early-college years.

As you can also imagine, those resources range in value from “useless” to “guaranteed to backfire in the most hilariously catastrophic manner possible.”

(Dennis Jarvis, CC-SA.)
(Dennis Jarvis, CC-SA.)

Everything is Better in Lists.

Take this bit of wankery seen in the wild a few months ago that tells us all about “3 Common Traits of Youths Who Don’t Leave the Church.” Are you already wondering what those traits might be? Well, here they are:

1. They are converted.

2. They have been equipped, not entertained.

3. Their parents preached the gospel to them.

To which I can only say–before Christian parents heave a huge sigh of relief because they think they’re doing these things already–I know any number of ex-Christians who could easily say they once fit into all three of these categories. I myself fit them to a certain extent. Not that it’s difficult to fit into them; like a lot of other blather one encounters in fundagelical Christianity, not a single bit of these guidelines is actually concrete or verifiable through any objective means. They are just words, words, words–like “submission” and “true Christian.” They don’t mean anything. The author of them not only lacks citations for what he’s saying but also any concrete proof that it works; it’s just his observations and intuitions. As he even concedes, after blaming everybody for not indoctrinating kids well enough and lauding those parents to “made” their kids go to church (because that always makes kids super-fervent Christians who love Jesus and not simmering cauldrons of resentment eager to flee the second they’re able to do so), “it’s not a formula”–but insists, absent any evidence whatsoever, that “it’s also not a crapshoot.” Now that’s optimism! And he forgets to talk about the most important thing a parent can do to ensure a child moves in the direction the parent wants.

On the other hand, this site’s got a list of things not to do:

1) Falling into the temptation of using religion to control their children through guilt and shame.

2) The parents seem to be afraid of the world, instead of empowered to live in it.

3) The children do not see the parents drawing any joy from their faith.

4) The children are discouraged from finding answers to their questions.

5) The children believe they have nothing to offer the Christian community.

Again, this advice produces ex-Christians as often as it might Christians. The author of it advises parents to be “inspired” by Jesus, which will in turn inspire their children–but doesn’t quite describe exactly how parents will know they are being inspired by their Savior. And it, like the first piece, misses mentioning the most important thing possible that parents can do to keep their kids Christian.

I’ll spare you the rest of my research; it’s all pretty much of a muchness. I doubt you’ll find anything that is markedly different from what I’ve outlined here–nebulous bullshit promising results, or equally nebulous warnings of what not to do. None of it is very useful but it ticks all the boxes that Christians like to see ticked in these sorts of writings and gives them someone to blame when things go hideously wrong.

And it’s all so pointless. It’s not hard to find Christian parenting advice focusing on making sure kids are either so insulated from “the world” that they can’t possibly encounter anybody or anything challenging to their faith, or else so hugely indoctrinated that a ready apologetics answer springs from their lips the second they encounter an opportunity to use a talking-point. I didn’t see a single post or article that used any citations at all for their advice or reveal exactly how they knew that their advice was worth following. It’s like Christianity (its evangelical flavors especially) is running this massive social experiment on their own kids–and the results are in, amigo; what’s left to ponder? Christianity, despite this proliferation of words, words, words about keeping kids Christian, is losing them in droves anyway.

I’ve noticed that when Christians see themselves failing somehow, their response is to drill down harder on a false message and backfired tactics rather than contemplate that either one is wrong (sorta like what our about-to-get-banned newly-banned drive-by Christian commenter is doing this evening on the Designated Adult post). They think that the problem is either not doing things hardcore enough, or not communicating their ideas just perfectly; we see this going on right now with the Republican Party’s constant attempts to “rebrand” that only seem to drive target groups further and further away from their viciously sexist, racist, classist banner. But the problem isn’t the way Christians are communicating their message, and no matter how they try to rebrand their overreach, it’s still a pretty bad message at heart–and not all of them even agree that rebranding is needed. Even where they can be made to agree on this subject, all their attempts do is try to whitewash and conceal their bad message. And the failure of that message certainly isn’t going to be fixed by being more disapproving and restrictive, or even by ever-more-savagely oppressing themselves and whoever else they can.

So I don’t hold out a lot of hope that Christian parents are going to start questioning this conventional wisdom about how to raise kids who stay Christian once they’ve flown free of Mommy and Daddy’s power. Control is the only real tool most Christians have in the ol’ toolbox at this point. Indeed, a number of panicking Christian parents are currently cheering on an evangelical abstinence-only lecturer, Pam Stenzel, who openly deceives and shames students about sexuality and contraception because she’s soooooo “moral.” That link is about how a school board was wasting taxpayer dollars to invite this overtly religious person to come preach to kids in an attempt to shame and terrorize them out of having sex, because that always works, right? (Since then, a private business decided to handle Ms. Stenzel’s fee, but it seems that even they’re ashamed of doing so; nobody’s saying which business it is, not even Ms. Stenzel herself–so much for Christian bravery! Remember during the Dover trial where Alan Bonsell got caught telling a bald-faced lie by a federal judge about how he got Creationist books into classrooms?)

It’s mind-blowing, considering that one of Christians’ big bugbears is “subjective morality.” I don’t know what could be more subjective than “the ends justify the means” and “it’s okay if I’m the one doing it.” Lying to and deceiving kids is fine, as long as it’s for a good cause. Ms. Stenzel can’t possibly tell them the truth, because–why? Is she scared they’ll have sex if they’re given honest and accurate information about their bodies (which is completely untrue)? Or because people who get lied to about their bodies never have non-marital sex (like my mother did to conceive me, after she’d received a purely abstinence-based sex education)? Would she rather kids wreck their lives with disease or pregnancy than to protect them, or does she prefer to terrorize and keep kids ignorant because that’s how kids stay Christian (holy cow, that’s downright evil!)?

Whatever her reasons for fearing the truth, Ms. Stenzel openly tells Christian audiences that she doesn’t care if abstinence-only education has been shown time and again to be hugely ineffective. Her goal is very clearly making and keeping kids Christian, not helping them stay safe, which is why she refers to what she’s doing as a ministry and not as education.

In this story about Pam Stenzel, I see a microcosm of the entire approach Christianity is using on youth.

And that approach isn’t going to work. Ms. Stenzel and her peers are making a lot of assumptions about young people that simply aren’t true.

They’re not like how we were at that age. I mean that in the best way possible. Of course there are always awful or dipshit kids, get offa my lawn, whatever. But overall, these are smart, caring, compassionate people coming of age now. I hear what they talk about, and it just staggers me to see the level of self-awareness they can bring. I feel a great deal of optimism when I look at what they’re doing and how they treat others, overall. The world is in pretty good hands. One thing young folks aren’t, though, and that is patient with deception. They live and move through a world filled with dishonesty and manipulation. What marks them more than any other generation, I think, is their desire for authenticity and truth. They may not always know how to get there, but they know that’s what they want.

And they’re going to get the truth whether their parents like it or not.

Speaking of which: right now, in almost every young person’s hand or pocket or purse, there is a little gadget that can access for its owner very nearly the sum total of human knowledge and experience. With that gadget, anybody can debunk a pastor’s talking-point on a Sunday morning before the altar call is even given, destroy an entire homeschooling curriculum in one otherwise-empty Saturday afternoon, and undo an entire Vacation Bible School’s rah-rah with one YouTube comment war.

It gets even worse, though. With the possible exception of the most insulated of young people, most folks know at least one person nowadays who isn’t Christian who can easily give the truth to the lies those young people have been taught by their well-meaning authority figures. Sooner or later, a Christian youth is going to encounter information that is going to connect with them and make them realize that the apologetics they’ve innocently gulped down and absorbed isn’t adequate to answer what they’ve just discovered. Sooner or later, those young people will run across a a gay person, or a feminist, or a Wiccan, or an atheist, or whatever else his or her church demonizes–and realize that what their church teaches about that label is totally wrong, and maybe that young person will wonder what else is wrong.

So… did you guess what all of these advice sites and speakers and writers forgot to include in how to keep kids Christian?


Isn’t that weird stuff for all these Christian writers to forget?

See, if something’s true, then it stands on its own. It doesn’t need fear to sell itself. It doesn’t manipulate. It doesn’t coerce. It can handle exposure to other viewpoints. The truth can be shown objectively. It is obvious and self-evident. It doesn’t need to abuse anybody or lie or contort things as being true “from a certain point of view” (goddamned Jedi). It might lose for a short while to a lie, but it comes out eventually.

Anything that can be destroyed by the truth deserves to be, as it’s said. And the harder Christian parents try to insulate their kids and drill down on these deceptions and teach them opinions as if they were facts–no matter how well-meaning their intention–the worse it’s going to be when those kids get a tiny glimpse of what’s real.

Young people are not leaving Christianity because they wanted to bonk like bunnies.

Nor are they leaving because they’re religiously illiterate.

And they’re not leaving because they were entertained too much, or because they weren’t insulated enough, or because they weren’t forced to attend church often enough, or because their parents weren’t “inspired” enough (seriously WTF!).

They are leaving because Christianity’s truth claims are not true, and they figured that out on some level.

Some of them may well return to Christianity or some form of it at least; for them, they make peace with these truth claims and come to an understanding within themselves about “metaphorical truth” or what-have-you. But for many others, they will leave entirely and never return. They will leave because they figured out what was real and what wasn’t–and did so on their own–and wanted no part of a religion that doesn’t seem to value truth-telling.

Indoctrination is about implanting untruths in kids’ heads, in much the same way that apologetics explains why reality never seems to conform to Christianity’s expectations. That’s why neither is honest, and why neither one works in the long run. They can only exist in squalid darkness, in a dank cave where the air is always stale and the light never penetrates, where their catchphrases can be repeated over and over again in perfect safety from challenges. And that doesn’t work as well as it once did.

The message itself is flawed because it’s not the truth. And the tactics are flawed because they are based around manipulating and forcing kids to accept stuff that isn’t, at heart, truthful. It’ll work for a short while because young children trust their parents and authority figures, but once they get older, they’ll start seeing cracks in the brick wall.

Those kids will then have to unravel the truth, at great personal cost and with much emotional pain and devastation, when they get older. It’s a brutal process; I’ve seen a number of ex-Christians go through it. Teaching kids pseudo-science and junk history squashes their curiosity and destroys their sense of wonder; religious indoctrination often rends apart young people’s sense of boundaries and justice and replaces both with brightly-parroted, chirped apologetics talking-points and a dull insistence on repeating phrases like “god did it!” and “everything happens for a reason.” Worst of all is that these young people will also have to recover from that strange sort of metallic shame religion pushes for feeling emotions that just about every human on the planet has felt since before we even became humans.

D’you think that after making that cruelly unnecessary journey that those who complete it will look back at their onetime religion and feel anything but anger and disgust for what it’s done to them?

At this point, Christian parents and pastors are the best allies that anybody could ever want in making kids disengage from Christianity.

It’s almost as if that’s what Christian leaders wanted all along. If they wanted to see legions of young people struggle and stumble and stagger out of their religion, they couldn’t have gone about that goal in a more direct and straightforward way than what they’ve chosen. The question is whether they’ll realize it before they destroy their religion.

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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