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. Uyi Iredia

    Another interesting one. The irony is undoubtedly lost on many here. We've forgone talking snakes to believe fish sired fishermen, and abiogenesis is 'plausible'. It's folly to believe God made the universe but Krauss proposing 'A universe from nothing', Kaku talking of a multiverse and_the big one_space expansion is okayed. Science is always pit against religion, yet it is a historical fact that Christians initially started the enterprise out of their worldview: not to mention the fact that while they do intersect (a lot) it's easy to note they have varied scopes: for example, religion is metaphysical in nature while science is materialistic.

    December 15, 2013 at 9:46 pm |
  2. Former Xtian

    People are leaving because science has become the pillar of modern society and its denial is ridiculous. Basically people are becoming smarter and showing more scrutiny over fairytales.

    December 3, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
  3. Fr33th1nk3r

    Ever notice how science is not concerned with how popular it is– or how much public support there may be for a particular theory? Why is that? Why is science so unconcerned about popularity, while the church is constantly counting numbers?
    The answer is because religion is not based on anything empirical or concrete that can stand on its own in the absense of public support. Scientific theory is based on empirical testing and observation– and the facts remain true regardless of who or how many people "support" it. Religion on the other hand– has to rely on gimmicks, slogans, and exaggerations of reality to stay afloat– it has nothing concrete to offer society in the form of technological innovations, applicable truths, or discoveries of merit.

    December 1, 2013 at 6:27 pm |
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    November 19, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
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    October 15, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
  6. Sanity

    Invited to Sanity -
    “We are fond of talking about 'liberty'; but the way we end up actually talking of it is an attempt to avoid discussing what is 'good.' We are fond of talking about 'progress'; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about 'education'; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.

    The modern man says, 'Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace unadulterated liberty.' This is, logically rendered, 'Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.'

    He says, 'Away with your old moral standard; I am for progress.' This, logically stated, means, 'Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.'

    He says, 'Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.' This, clearly expressed, means, 'We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”
    ― G.K. Chesterton, Heretics

    October 12, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
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    October 5, 2013 at 4:01 am |
  8. exothermal

    The impassioned commenting over the weeks has been interesting but still just two camps pointing bottle rockets at each others' camps. Those who have already embraced religion have too many reasons not to examine their beliefs critically and too many disincentives to leave their social structure. Similarly, too many Athiests are still very unskilled at speaking about their lack of faith in positive, pleasant, engaging ways.

    Two camps: Two different value systems: Two different approaches to communicating those values.

    As Athiests we can do better.

    September 27, 2013 at 7:53 pm |
  9. josh m

    I don't know who you talk to or where you get your information but I can honestly tell you that the church is still thriving with millenials who are passionate and love God. You seem to make a lot of assumptions about the church that just isn't true. There are plenty of Christians who know what they believe and can defend it just find. The church isn't going anywhere.... we are anti-women and anti-gay?? mature Christians love everyone. I love everyone and I know exactly what I believe in so don't get it twisted. God's not dead. He's surely alive and he sustains the church and he is in control

    September 24, 2013 at 4:10 am |
    • truthprevails1

      Too bad you're gullible and can't prove your god exists outside of the bible. Christianity like all other dead belief systems before it is dying. You need to join the 21st century and realize that life can be good without the need for imaginary friends. An education outside of Mommy's dining room table and away from the back-40 is usually a good start and maybe read the bible fully-it is the quickest way to disbelief.

      September 24, 2013 at 5:03 am |
      • joshtheapologist

        Of course, like the close-minded and hypocrite atheist you are, you have neglected the evidence said by Christian Apologists.

        January 15, 2014 at 7:19 pm |
    • Andy

      Statistical assessment shows that churches are dying and closing their doors at an accelerating rate. There is an ever-opening age gap, with many churches only attracting silver-haired old timers who aren't able to get with the times. And, on top of that, there is an ever-opening gender gap, with many denominations showing over a dozen women for every man in the crowd. Statistics don't lie, cousin.

      And, most of all. Not anti-woman? Not anti-gay? You haven't read the bible, have you?

      September 24, 2013 at 8:55 am |
  10. Frank Mondana

    Why do people think atheism is just another "belief"? Sure there are those of us who attend meetings and work to create "converts" but we are not just another type of religion. We simple do not believe in supernatural beings and/or powers. If we don't understand something we don't just fall back on "It's God's/Allah/Buddha's will". The best of us use critical thinking skills. We don't use that omnipotent company/group/individual "they" as a source.
    We can't be grouped as a religion as we don't have a dogma or ritual.

    September 10, 2013 at 12:26 am |

    What I like the most is when they threaten us that we will burn in hell if we don't except Jesus, Like that is going to convert me and make me a believer again.

    September 6, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
  12. joe

    The thought that some God put you here and then plays cat and mouse with you trying to make you figure out how to get back close to it, all along while it tortures you with pain and suffering, I mean can there be any dreadful creature as the God of Christianity?

    September 4, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
    • Former Xtian

      God's acts of genocide (as per bible), make Hitler Stalin and Hussein look like hippies.

      December 3, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
    • Former Xtian

      If god is going to judge my soul and send me to heaven or hell for ETERNITY based on what religion I guess to be true, then I want no part of him. People don't realize how long eternity is. If god actually exists he's the devil and has no regard for his own creation, playing with their souls and not even having the common courtesy to let us know what he expects.

      December 3, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • joshtheapologist

      Well ,you are here for one.

      January 15, 2014 at 7:20 pm |
  13. mungo

    There is so much evil in the world that to believe in an all powerful deity is an endorsement of evil.

    Only morally responsible Atheist will go to heaven, because they are the only people who reject the evil God has unleashed on the earth.

    September 4, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
  14. Dave

    My opinion as to why millennials are leaving the church, is because "The Church" is becoming non-existent. "The Church" anymore is just a platform for "Hateful" older people to gather. I am a Christian and I believe Christ died for me. I however do not attend "Church as in the building down the street" myself anymore due to all the hate and backstabbing going on. According to The Bible, to Hate another person is the same as committing Murder in Gods eyes. Christians are supposed to love the sinners and hate the sin. They hate the sin, but I believe hate the sinners even more. Just my $.02 worth. Peace!!!

    August 30, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
    • joe

      I am a Christian and I believe Christ died for me.
      Time for you to grow up and use your reasoning skills. Saying a God died for you sounds good if you say it real fast but if you analyze it you should be able to quickly realize that it's an absurd claim. First, gods don't die rather they are immortal. Secondly, a God dying is nothing to It as the God can do anything including coming back from death at will. And both of these are proven by the Christ allegedly coming back from death 3 days later. If Christ can come back any time he wants, where's the sacrifice? It's the equivalent of Christ saying I'm going to the doughnut shop and I'll be back in an hour. The Christ supposedly invented death, invented pain, knows everything so It knows what pain and death feel like so logically there is no sacrifice and no need to play such a senseless parlor game.

      August 30, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
      • Dave

        @ Joe –

        OK! Grow up? I don't care who or what you worship if anything. Your choice. My choice is to believe in Whom I do so choose. I believe in Jesus Christ and that's my belief. I am not putting you down for believing what you do. I don't care what you do. Now take your ball and go home!

        August 30, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
        • joe

          I am not putting you down for believing what you do.
          Maybe not your personally, but certainly your kind does. Your kind constantly tries to recruit new believers and regularly tries to brainwash the young. It's unbelievably offensive if you think about it.

          Your kind is just as bad as the Muslims in the middle east (not talking about the crazy radical ones, just the true believers). I'm sure you can see how bad they are. And they can see how bad you are. But you can't look in the mirror and see it in yourself.

          August 31, 2013 at 9:05 am |
      • CommonSense

        Finally, someone who can think, but your analysis of scripture is inaccurate. You are partially correct. God cannot die. Which is why Jesus was fully human and fully divine. It is a mystery that cannot be resolved by human reasoning. It doesn't not mean that it isn't true. There are many scientific assertion that human reason cannot yet resolve but it is true. He lived within sin which made the sacrifice sufficient. If you studied the sanctuary system and the abrahamic covenant in Genesis 15, you would understand why it had to be fully God fully man situation. Not enough room to explain.

        January 5, 2014 at 12:03 pm |
  15. Minnie

    It's interesting to note that not all atheists were always atheist. Some of my atheist friends were once Christian; however, they witnessed so much hypocrisy in the church that they became disillusioned and turned off from Christianity. Others experienced hardships and disappointments to the point where they decided that God no longer existed. One of the problems that the world has today is that human beings are used to looking up to other human beings for their inspiration, their joy, and their guidance through life's mysteries and inconsistencies when they should be looking to Christ.

    When I think about evolution and study aspects of the theory behind it, in my opinion, it all boils down to one thing...People want to continue to live the way they want to live. That includes doing great things as well as sinful things. Many of us don't want to answer to a higher power. One way to get around that and still feel like your conscience is intact is by believing in evolution. That way, you can live as you please under the assumption that you won't have to answer to anyone but yourself at the end of the day. But will that really satisfy you, I mean reeeeally satisfy you thinking and believing that what you see down here is all there is to live for? Not me!

    August 27, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • joe

      Sorry. You suffer from mental delusion. All you are doing is playing a game with yourself trying to pretend there's someone else there with you who you can answer to. I don't know how many times I've heard the "Christian story" where the guy says that he was at the end of his rope and ready to commit suicide when out of nowhere Jesus was with him and saved him. Jesus got no responsibility for putting the guy there in the first place and all the thanks for saving him. And it was totally obvious the guy was just playing a psychological game with himself to get through a tough spot.

      Think about it. You think your God is all knowing and all powerful, right? Then there would be no reason for your God to create man to worship It as it already knows. It knows what it feels like to be worshiped, It had to create feelings and worshiping in the first place. In fact, there is no reason for an all knowing and all powerful God to do anything as it already knows and can already do anything.

      August 27, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
      • Paul

        "Think about it. You think your God is all knowing and all powerful, right? Then there would be no reason for your God to create man to worship It as it already knows."

        Thnink about it: Are you all knowing and all powerful? Then how would you know what God's reasons were for creating humans?

        August 28, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
        • joe

          Thnink about it: Are you all knowing and all powerful? Then how would you know what God’s reasons were for creating humans?
          Good questions. You can't know a God's perspective by definition because you are not a God. All you can know is your human perspective. And from your human perspective you can simply deduce with common sense and logic that a thing that is all knowing and all powerful and perfect wouldn't go through the inane and idle exercise of creating something. Why? Again, because by definition it already knows everything and it is all powerful so it has no unmet needs or desires to do anything. Perfection doesn't need or want something additional. Why create an actual universe when you already know and have experienced everything about the universe in your mind? No reason whatsoever.

          Alternatively, if you do not want to use your human perspective then you can say nothing at all because the human perspective is the only perspective you have. I'm good with you taking that route too.

          August 28, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
    • Andy

      As a former Christian of 11 years, I can attest that Christianity (and other religions) do start to turn people off when they finally decide to "question" and look outside of the church-built box. That said, I'm perplexed as to why I as a human being would want *anything* to do with an invisible sky daddy who I can have no face to face time with, not hold accountable, not study, not have "serious" talks with. You offer prayer. We've already scientifically proven that prayer and "religious experiences" are mere self-induced endorphin rushes. Go read up on the God Helmet. I'd rather have meaningful conversation with someone face to face, or take inspiration from someone I can watch, listen to, and potentially, interact with. We have one life, and after that, your brain stops firing and you're worm food. And I don't have time to waste talking to myself in a vein effort to communicate with a higher power who is clearly not there.

      And please don't patronize me with scripture from a book that has no chain of custody, no proof that any of the folks in the bible "actually" wrote it, and is a clear set of fable and mythology on par with the Greeks, Romans, tribes of central Africa, Incas, and ancient Chinese...

      August 27, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
      • Dave

        Andy, like you I spent time immersed in the christian faith, with the exception that I wasted more than 25 years in a fundamentalist church. In retrospect, it gave me a high degree of insight into the workings of the christian church and how fundamentalists think, but the unrecoverable time spent in a life of hypocrisy is disturbing. One of my biggest regrets is introducing my children to the ugly religion.

        September 8, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
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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.