July 30th, 2013
02:17 PM ET

Why are millennials leaving church? Try atheism

Opinion by Hemant Mehta, Special to CNN

(CNN) - Articles and books about why millennials are leaving Christianity often focus on what churches are doing "wrong."

They're anti-gay, anti-women, anti-science, anti-sex-education and anti-doubt, 
to name a few of the most common criticisms.

I don't disagree with those critiques, but there's another side to the story.

While Christians have played sloppy defense, secular Americans have been showing off some impressive offense, giving young Christians plenty of reasons to lose faith in organized religion.

For instance, atheists dominate the Internet, rallying to thriving websites and online communities in lieu of physical meeting spaces.

Even a writer for the evangelical magazine Relevant admitted that “While Christianity enjoys a robust online presence, the edge still seems to belong to its unbelievers.”

Atheists outnumber Christians on popular discussion forums like Reddit, where subscribers to the atheism section number more than 2 million. The Christianity section is not even 5% of that.

The Internet-based Foundation Beyond Belief, which encourages atheists to donate to charitable organizations, just celebrated raising $1 million for worthwhile causes. (Disclosure: I serve on its board of directors.)

Moreover, blogs and websites espousing non-religious viewpoints and criticizing Christianity draw tons of Internet traffic these days. For every Christian apologist's argument, it seems, there's an equal and opposite rebuttal to be found online. I call that "Hitchens' Third Law.”

READ MORE: Why millennials are leaving the church 

Christians can no longer hide in a bubble, sheltered from opposing perspectives, and church leaders can't protect young people from finding information that contradicts traditional beliefs.

If there's an open comment thread to be found on a Christian's YouTube video or opinion piece online, there's inevitably going to be pushback from atheists.

There has also been a push by atheists to get non-religious individuals to "come out of the closet" and let people know that they don't believe in God.

Among other things, this proves that anti-atheist stereotypes aren't accurate and, just as important, that atheists aren’t alone in their communities.

There's the Richard Dawkins Foundation's Out Campaign, with its Scarlet A badges.

There are atheist-encouraging billboards in 33 states financed by groups like the United Coalition of Reason.

There's even going to be an 1-800 hot line for people "recovering" from religion.

READ MORE: Atheists to start 1-800 hot line for doubters

And last year, an estimated 20,000 atheists turned out for the Reason Rally in Washington, a tenfold increase from the previous atheist rally in 2002.

But more than anything else, atheism's best advertisements may be the words of Christian leaders themselves.

When Pastor Mark Driscoll belittles women, Rick Warren argues against same-sex rights or Rob Bell equivocates on the concept of hell, we amplify those messages for them - and it helps us make our point.

(It goes without saying that the pairing of Pat Robertson and YouTube has been great for atheists.)

Pastors are no longer the final authority on the truth, and millennials know it.

Even if they hold Jesus' message in high esteem, the Bible as it has traditionally been preached by many evangelical pastors is becoming less and less attractive to them.

A 2012 study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PDF) showed that many Christians aged 18-24 felt that Christianity was hypocritical (49%), judgmental (54%) and anti-gay (58%).

In addition, Christianity Today reported last year that fewer than half of born-again Christians under 35 opposed same-sex marriage.

When millennials' pastors and hearts are going in different directions, church leaders should be worried.

Can churches win back the youth?

Barring a complete shift in beliefs, that may not be possible. Some of the proposed solutions seem ludicrous to millennial atheists like myself.

For instance, there's been talk of finding a better way to reconcile science and religion. Whenever that battle takes place, religion loses.

There are some questions we may never know the answer to, but for the ones we can eventually answer, the scientific explanation will devour the religious one. Mixing science and religion requires a distortion of one or the other.

READ MORE: Behold, the six tribes of atheism 

What about focusing on the message and life of Jesus?

While this sounds good philosophically, the myth surrounding Jesus is part of the problem with Christianity.

To believe in Jesus means believing that he was born of a virgin, rose from the dead and performed a number of miracles.

There's no proof of any of that ever happened, and atheists place those stories in the same box as "young Earth creationism" and Noah's Great Flood.

To be sure, if Christians followed the positive ideas Jesus had, we'd all be better off, but it's very hard to separate the myth from the reality.

In short, there are many reasons the percentage of millennials who say they've never doubted God's existence is at a record low, and nearly a quarter of adults under 30 no longer affiliate with a faith.

The church has pushed young people away, yes, but there are also forces actively pulling them in the other direction.

It appears that atheists and Christians are finally working together on the same task: getting millennials to leave the church.

Hemant Mehta blogs at The Friendly Atheist. The views expressed in this column belong to Mehta. 

Photos: Famous atheists and their beliefs

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Church • Culture & Science • Faith • Internet • Nones • Opinion • Science • United States

soundoff (5,653 Responses)
  1. Buddy

    Atheist evangelists are so silly. And untruthful.

    July 31, 2013 at 10:01 am |
  2. Mountaineer49

    Albert Einstein once had this to say about the plight of the church of England: "In its infancy is it upon the end, for demise is inevitable to the incredulous myths of sorrow."

    I first read it 37 years ago and it has always stuck with me.

    July 31, 2013 at 10:00 am |
    • thomas

      yeah well so why did people think he was so stupid when he was young?

      ...all this talk about God...I don't think we are very good at recognising who people really are

      July 31, 2013 at 10:05 am |
  3. Al

    So now atheists are doing what many complain that believers do... Obnoxiously stick their noses into other people's beliefs and badger with their own. And Mehta is proud of it? I do believe I'd hold off on the superiority dance, Mr. Mehta. Seems kinda sad really. And why take such obvious delight in attempts to tear down something that could give a person's life meaning or help them be a better person? Distasteful at the very least. I don't get it. I'm a non-traditional Christian, but I don't care for anyone (whether believer or non-believer or in-between) browbeating others. I try to be open to and respect others' beliefs. What's important is what gives your life meaning, what works for you.

    July 31, 2013 at 9:59 am |
  4. gandfs

    The Great Falling Away is upon us. Those that know what I'm talking about it will recognize the truth in my words. Assuming this is discussing the States specifically, I'd like to know globally the number of people embracing unbelief

    July 31, 2013 at 9:59 am |
  5. Jim

    Oddly enough, as our population continues to become less and less educated, the ranks of 'atheists' grows. Most of those that call themselves atheists don't fit within the definition of atheist and attempt to make the silly claim that it is a disbelief that makes them an atheist. The term itself makes it clear that an atheist is one who makes a truth claim that there is no god – not that there isn't enough proof or that it is still possible that there is a god – that is agnosticism.

    The 'educated' ones who call themselves something they are not and don't even know what the term means are really quite funny.

    July 31, 2013 at 9:58 am |
    • oddly enough

      The funny thing is that, at least in America, the states with the worst education also happen to be the most religious. Mixing words like Athiest and agnostic just make dumb people confused. It's just splitting hairs to say things like "truth statements" and stuff like that because obviously no one, religious or not, can definitively say there is/isn't a god.

      July 31, 2013 at 10:09 am |
    • T

      If by "truth claim" you're referring to a positive assertion, then you're mistaken.
      Atheists simply lack belief. There's three possible positions of belief on a subject: Positive (theism), neutral (atheist), and negative (anti-theist, sometimes called hard atheism).
      Theists and anti-theists are asserting a belief, atheists simply lack a belief.

      Agnosticism and gnosticism address knowledge, not belief. So if I'm asked what I believe and I say I'm agnostic, I haven't answered your question. All I've done is address what I know, not what I believe.

      July 31, 2013 at 10:14 am |
    • cedar rapids

      'Oddly enough, as our population continues to become less and less educated, the ranks of 'atheists' grows.'

      less and less educated? interesting claim seeing as the percentage with degrees increases at a steady rate. Its education that drives atheism. its being kept uneducated that drives religion

      July 31, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  6. Shirogami

    Why Millenials are Leaving The Church followed a few days later by this article. Another coordinated attack on religion on CNN's "Belief" blog...

    July 31, 2013 at 9:57 am |
    • Buddy

      You should know by now CNN is the anti-Christian anti-American anti-conservative Democrat party propaganda machine.

      July 31, 2013 at 9:59 am |
      • Just Call Me Lucifer

        ... and yet since Fox News closed their blogs the likes of you show up here to whine that no one thinks exactly like you do.

        July 31, 2013 at 10:06 am |
    • thomas

      god is merely the mis-application of human's social ability – namely to infer intent and expectations of others – to try to explain the natural world.

      when we can't explain nature, we create a being and talk about intent and expectations of that being

      actually this phenomenon explains your conspiracy tendency too - you look for an explanation of things as always stemming from intent ... that is why you see a coordinated attack

      July 31, 2013 at 10:01 am |
    • Just Call Me Lucifer

      If religions would keep to themselves instead of trying to impose their beliefs on everyone else maybe they would be more tolerated by those who deal in reality.

      July 31, 2013 at 10:04 am |
    • cedar rapids

      you speak as if there arent pro-christian articles in the belief blog

      July 31, 2013 at 11:21 am |
  7. ProCatholic

    "Yet in speaking of the light of faith, we can almost hear the objections of many of our contemporaries. In modernity, that light might have been considered sufficient for societies of old, but was felt to be of no use for new times, for a humanity come of age, proud of its rationality and anxious to explore the future in novel ways. Faith thus appeared to some as an illusory light, preventing mankind from boldly setting out in quest of knowledge." Sec 2. "Lumen Fidei" by Pope Francis

    July 31, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • thomas

      wow profound ... is that from Harry Potter?

      July 31, 2013 at 9:59 am |
      • cdub

        Did you not see where he cited his source? And you want to speak of intellect...

        July 31, 2013 at 10:26 am |
  8. elcidd

    If man was created in god's image, man repaid the compliment in spades.
    In other words man simply created gods in his own image.

    July 31, 2013 at 9:54 am |
  9. Jim

    The most annoying sentence in the history of mankind.

    "I would like to talk to you about Jesus."

    July 31, 2013 at 9:51 am |
    • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

      Mmmm, change Jesus with Beyonce and I'd agree.

      July 31, 2013 at 9:53 am |
  10. atlwmn

    Honestly, I don't really care if someone is a believer or not (with the exception of picking a significant other). I'm a Christian but Atheists do not bother me in the least, if they are respectful of others' beliefs and act genuinely kind on a consistent basis. I've seen plenty of hateful Christians, and plenty of kindhearted atheists. Other people's afterlives does not concern me, nor should mine concern them. If someone does not respect your views and are mean-spirited, kill them with kindness. The act does not fall on deaf ears, and people remember those who do that. No one here knows the real truth, so both sides should stop arguing about it and believe what you want to believe, and let others do the same. The religion-baiting on these sites should also cease, as all they do is bring out the hatred in people.

    July 31, 2013 at 9:49 am |
    • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

      Would you not consider a non-Christian partner? Genuine question.

      July 31, 2013 at 9:52 am |
      • thomas

        Jews in NY are famous for that according to the NYT. (not all of course )

        You have to choose someone you think you are compatible with right?

        July 31, 2013 at 9:56 am |
        • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

          Well, practicing Jews have to marry other Jews (I believe). Christians aren't compelled within most Christian churches to marry other Christians.

          July 31, 2013 at 10:00 am |
    • Just Call Me Lucifer

      Hmmm.... why on earth would atheists be mean spirited to christians? Just because christians are fighting to control a womans
      reproduction? Just because they consider gays to be an "abomination"? Just because christians and muslims have been killing in the name of their gods for centuries?

      July 31, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • Ron

      You are a credit to your religion. I wish this thought process would spread. Also just so you know, the only reason athiest speak out against religion is due to the religious trying to impose their views on others. No religious push = no athiest push back

      July 31, 2013 at 10:05 am |
    • Kalib

      Faith is misunderstood and is the opposite of belief... To abandon what you think you know or possess and fallow truth no matter the consequences. Let go of anything. Suffering is the compass. The highest form of the knowledge of God is to know him as unknowable. The bible is merely spiritual poetry pointing to something that is uncomprehendable and makes no sense to the unenlightened. When the sage points at the moon, all the idiot sees is the finger.

      July 31, 2013 at 10:46 am |
  11. WachetAuf

    Religion is merely the collective will of the herd in which it is practiced. And, herds always, always, take direction from the most primitive instincts of the herd. The herd's standards are those which appeal to the lowest common denominator, those with the lowest intelligence, those who ask no questions, those who are fearful of the unknown. It maintains the stability which is required for the herd to survive. This doe s not mean, nevertheless, that the messages of the great prophets are not important or have no meaning. Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohammed, and others all gave us profound messages for managing relationships and controlling primitive instincts. Herds have corrupted these messages.

    July 31, 2013 at 9:47 am |
    • thomas

      nice try

      god is merely the mis-application of human's social ability – namely to infer intent and expectations of others – to try to explain the natural world.

      when we can't explain nature, we create a being and talk about intent and expectations of that being

      July 31, 2013 at 9:49 am |
    • Billy

      Mohammed? I see his message every day. Anyone following Mohammed is an idiot.

      July 31, 2013 at 10:01 am |
  12. wizzard

    One of organized religions failings is its inflexibility and (stated) infallibility. In light of opposing evidence, science can alter its conclusions while religion is dictated by dogma and faith to retain a contradictory stance. As more and more information is made available to the individual thru technology, it becomes easier for the faithful to see the failings of/in religion. Unfortunately I think some of the more moral and humanistic teachings in religion are also lost with the shrugging off of the myths, and not replaced with an alternative avenue for these necessary lessons.

    July 31, 2013 at 9:45 am |
  13. Polar Bear

    Well bravo for the Atheists! Not! Ever notice that for the most part, they are pushy, self-absorbed, miserable people that have a "mean drunk" air about them. I'll take God – in His many definitions – over these whiny weanies any day.

    July 31, 2013 at 9:42 am |
    • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

      Why not take The Flying Spaghetti Monster, or is He and all His Noodly Appendages included in your definition?

      July 31, 2013 at 9:44 am |
      • ensense

        So the spaghetti monster is the god of atheists, the one who created the matter of the big bang.

        July 31, 2013 at 9:49 am |
        • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

          No, he's the Pastafarian deity. Do you still not understand the definition of atheism?

          July 31, 2013 at 9:50 am |
      • wawawa

        Athiesm is becoming as organized and pushy as religion once was...

        Organized athiest too will be viewed as an "oppresive evil" in 100 years time. Keep your beliefs to yourself, whatever they are.

        July 31, 2013 at 10:03 am |
    • NoReligionThankU

      You seem very angry Polar Bear. I wish you well and I hope you have a fantastic day! (From and uncaring, self-absorbed atheist).

      July 31, 2013 at 9:46 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Most children prefer their imaginary friends over reality.

      July 31, 2013 at 9:48 am |
      • ensense

        And why do they? because nothingness cannot explain every thing.

        July 31, 2013 at 9:50 am |
    • ironman59

      The "gawd" that smites people at every turn. Turns out plauges, asks for sacrifices? The same "gawd" that is used to justify every evil on the planet?

      July 31, 2013 at 9:50 am |
    • Just Call Me Lucifer

      .... and for the most part, theists are idiots who buy into the fear-based manipulation of pedophiles in womens' clothing.

      July 31, 2013 at 9:50 am |
    • mk

      I'm betting you don't know one atheist.

      July 31, 2013 at 9:52 am |
    • George Scott

      Yeah, nothing pushy, self-absorbed, or miserable about your comment. You don't sound like a mean drunk at all! Good job promoting religiosity!

      July 31, 2013 at 9:53 am |
    • Angela

      It is interesting to me that the majority of posters who are believers or claim to be Christians tend to always resort to name calling and belittling of another's beliefs as part of their argument. This type of argument in my opinion is not the sign of an educated, thoughtful opinion and does nothing to further the Christian cause. As someone who was raised to believe but now doesn't I am pretty sure if there were a "God" he or she wouldn't approve. I think we should all be capable of sharing our beliefs and our reasons for why we believe the way we do without calling one another names. For me, I am simply thankful we live in a country that is accepting of our right to have an open-mind without persecution.

      July 31, 2013 at 10:08 am |
      • rapierpoint

        Angela, I also find the majority of anti-christian posts here to resort to name-calling and ridicule. So which side is more civil again. 🙂 Problem is that both sides have vocal jack@$$es.

        July 31, 2013 at 10:59 am |
      • cedar rapids

        ' I also find the majority of anti-christian posts here to resort to name-calling and ridicule. '

        sure but they dont have a book that says to be hateful and judgemental is to be anti-christian and will get you a path to hell.

        July 31, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • cedar rapids

      Oh dear PB. bearing false witness and spouting hate in one post.
      Guess that makes you a false christian on his way to hell.
      sorry, but i dont make the rules you understand.

      July 31, 2013 at 11:24 am |
  14. CoughCoughHack

    There they go yet again. Corrupting the idea of theologic faith by trying to make it as if it had a specific connection to any individual religious ideal. Sorry, Theology isn't an article of religion and its philosophy doesn't support any current religious doctrine outside of the idea of a source for the origin or a causal effect. I guess now you all should know why your answers are denied. You don't need to know. If you did and dismissed them, your fail would be magnified. And the most important reason of all. You can neither handle the truth nor should you be allowed to decide what is and isn't true.GG

    July 31, 2013 at 9:42 am |
  15. Andrew

    Most likely caused by a rise in education levels, Athiesm cannot exist without people who are highly educated and perceptive and for the first time in the history of the world these numbers have risen to a sustainable level.

    July 31, 2013 at 9:40 am |
    • ironman59

      Actually it is religion that cannot survive with an educated populace. Why do you think that religion and conservative politicians attempt to limit education. They know well that with education comes enlightenment and the reality that religion is nothing more than mind control by a few eltie.

      July 31, 2013 at 9:48 am |
  16. WisePatricia

    People have been doubting organized religion, and with good reason, long before any millennials were conceived. Organized religion has traditionally been part of childhood, moving in on the child, with his or her parents' approval, to inculcate a set framework for dealing with the presumed existence of a supernatural, or extra-natural world and all questions of a philosophical nature that might arise on one's lifetime. This is both a very good thing and a very bad thing.
    Most of the churches never provided a space for dialogue on the questions that an ordinary thinking individual would have when presented with a rigid group of presumptions and directed to believe in them. Add to this the gradual revelation to the individual over time of what these beliefs actually consist of, and actually mean in real life, the recent ultra-aggressive drive to politicize organized religion, establish a sectarian religious domination of secular government, establish certain humans as authoritarian leaders of church organizations, and purge these organizations of all dissent, and people naturally will stampede toward the door.
    Atheism is based on a very firm conclusion that there is no conscious deity. Not all of us can come to this firm a conclusion. However, there are many of us, not just the millenials, who end up either in the netherworld of agnosticism, which is not intellectually dishonest, or turn to other beliefs in what the extra-natural world, assuming there is one, is all about.

    July 31, 2013 at 9:39 am |
  17. Wag

    One of the great hypocrisies of religion is that it claims people must live by faith and yet, religious pundits constantly attempt to find proof of god.

    The human hunger for answers to every mysterious thing in the world is a good thing but the propensity of so many to accept any B.S. answer preached to them from the pulpit is abhorrent. Does atheism have all the answers? No. The difference is, atheists are okay with that. Religious believers seem to think that if a person doesn't have "the" answers, there is something wrong with that individual.

    Very unfortunate.

    The only true religion is this: Treat people well.


    July 31, 2013 at 9:38 am |
  18. Austin

    the proof that I have in Christ, the Holyb Spirit, is bigger than a college professor, bigger than a lie, bigger than a nation.

    What i have is from God. its supernatural.

    July 31, 2013 at 9:36 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      The greatest hypocrite on the blog using his delusions again...lol. Seek help Austin, you are in serious need of it.

      July 31, 2013 at 9:43 am |
    • ed dugan

      What you really have is an incredible ability to delude yourself, a hallmark of christianity. That's okay though, keep believing whatever you desire. Just shut up about it because, as the article implies, your audience is fleeing by the milliions.

      July 31, 2013 at 9:46 am |
    • Roche

      Well then, by all means do share your "proof" oh enlightened one.

      July 31, 2013 at 9:55 am |
  19. VTer

    I've got nothing against God, it's His fan club I can't stand.

    July 31, 2013 at 9:36 am |
    • Buddy

      Anti-theists are the "new racists."

      July 31, 2013 at 9:37 am |
      • thomas

        I am not anti-anything

        GOD does exist because we create it!!!!!

        god is merely the mis-application of human's social ability – namely to infer intent and expectations of others – to try to explain the natural world.

        when we can't explain nature, we create a being and talk about intent and expectations of that being

        God is whatever belief we choose

        that does not mean God created earth or there is a heaven you know.

        my imagination exists too and if any of you atheists suggest it does not, I will tell you a story about how God gave his only son and you will agree

        July 31, 2013 at 9:39 am |
      • Truth Prevails :-)

        Theism is a belief nor a race.

        July 31, 2013 at 9:44 am |
      • Sue Anne

        Racism and other bigotries like h0m0ph0bia are based on criticizing people because of something they're born with. Nobody is born a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or any other religion. That gets taught to you, like being a racist. You can criticize people's ideas in this, the land of free speech. If not, Republicans and Democrats are both wrong for pointing out each others faults, right?

        July 31, 2013 at 9:52 am |
    • YoungOldBeliever

      Well stated VTer ... but remember, fan clubs in the secular sense are usually made up of fanatics. However, all fans are not fanatics.

      July 31, 2013 at 9:43 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.