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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. Dyslexic doG

    If I was powerful enough to have created the universe, I wouldn't allow priests to molest innocent little children. That’s the difference between me and your God.

    July 30, 2013 at 11:10 pm |
    • Anton

      You do not need to post 3 times same thing, just makes your case weaker....

      July 30, 2013 at 11:12 pm |
      • Deb

        Three times same thing? Three times same thing? Three times same thing? Want some rice with that?

        July 30, 2013 at 11:19 pm |
  2. Dyslexic doG

    If I was powerful enough to have created the universe, I wouldn't allow televangelists to use my name to steal money from poor people. That’s the difference between me and your God.

    July 30, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
  3. Dyslexic doG

    If I was powerful enough to have created the universe, I wouldn't let three innocent girls be held and abused for 10 years. That’s the difference between me and your God.

    July 30, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
  4. Dyslexic doG

    If I was powerful enough to have created the universe, I wouldn't let tornadoes kill innocent little elementary school children. That’s the difference between me and your God.

    July 30, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
  5. Pedophile Hater

    Praise 6'3" blonde-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian Jewish Jesus!

    July 30, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
    • Gorsh

      That's actually funny. If you travel, you will see most countries portray Jesus as their race.

      The weirdest I ever saw was the enormous Hawaiian warrior Jesus on Maui.

      July 30, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
  6. Dyslexic doG

    If I could stop a child from starving, I would. That’s the difference between me and your God.

    July 30, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
    • Gorsh

      So, exactly what portion of your income do you donate to charity?

      You could save hundreds of children, so how many do you save?

      July 30, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
      • jsad

        I donate my money to buy children unicorns, nutella and bananas. Jesus is in my closet and told me to.

        July 30, 2013 at 11:12 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        30% of my total annual earnings. and I'm just a mortal.

        If I had the powers your imaginary sky daddy has, I would feed 100% of the world population ... with a click of my fingers.

        why doesn't your sadistic god help the millions?

        July 30, 2013 at 11:13 pm |
        • Gorsh

          Well I give 92%. Wait no. I actually go into debt so I can donate 105%.

          July 30, 2013 at 11:21 pm |
    • Zeus_z

      This is a fallen world we live in. Adam and Eve... This world and life is full of bad things.

      I see your point but from what the Bible says, God doesnt let these things happen. Things just happen in this world. Free will, chance, etc.

      This is indeed a terrible world. And I can understand why people lose faith and fall. I pray to Jesus all the time to open our eyes so we can see him.

      We need him in our lives.. We need not push him away. We have to seek him. Dont lose faith, dont give up.

      July 30, 2013 at 11:13 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        so your god really has no power at all!

        July 30, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
  7. Dyslexic doG

    If I could stop a person from raping a child, I would. That’s the difference between me and your God.

    July 30, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
  8. Austin

    Ali
    "No, you meant it exactly as you wrote it. You would rather see the world destroyed than let others believe as they wish. The fact that you reposted it above without editing it tells me that you meant every word as written.
    People like you are *precisley* the reason that articles like the above are being written: myopic views and the "my way or the highway" mindset."

    Ali,, I would rather get in to it with an atheist than a Muslim. but in your case, neither at this point have you i.d with but if you try to tell me what i meant "literally" when i used a common figure of speech, a sloppy figure of speech, then you are exploiting a mistake that was not ever the perspective you want.

    perfect example of these mental issues you cant have both ways if i use this word here, you cant apply the word Christian to Adolf Hitler or Crusaders.

    July 30, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
  9. us_1776

    Try religions revealing their true colors.

    Try there is no Sky Fairy. Get over it.

    .

    July 30, 2013 at 11:04 pm |
  10. Dyslexic doG

    If God is powerful enough to create the universe, don't you think he'd have a more foolproof way of getting his exact message across to future generations than this endlessly translated, edited, confused, modified, twisted, corrupted book of stories that is changed by religious power brokers to suit each generation?

    Wouldn't god's word be carved on the moon, unchangeable and for all to see? Wouldn't it be spoken unchanged by a species of animal? Wouldn't it be written microscopically on every stone or every tree? Wouldn't there be some space age material that had god's voice recorded, uncorrupted over the centuries and there for everyone to hear.

    Wouldn't there be parts of God's word that reflect computers or artificial intelligence or DNA or modern medicine or future medicine or electricity or space travel to other parts of this amazing universe he created? Wouldn't there be talk of gender and race equality? Wouldn't there be talk of Asia and Australia and the Americas and Europe and Africa?

    Instead the bible is limited to horses and carts and herbs and grain and swords and shields and misogyny and racism and slavery all set in the deserts of the middle east. The Bible is so obviously a product of bronze age man, you must be in denial to even argue that it is the word of god. There may or may not be a god or gods, but this book of bronze age voodoo and oppression has nothing to do with him, her or them.

    And stop it with this "not the word of god but words inspired by god" cop out. That just means it was written by greedy, evil men who got their way by claiming that god told them to do something. That's a self serving scam that should be scorned, especially by anyone claiming to love an omnipotent god. That scam is an abomination and an insult to your god ... as is the bible!

    July 30, 2013 at 11:03 pm |
    • allenwoll

      .
      Mr Dy doG - Just so ! !
      .

      July 30, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
    • Zeus_z

      Ineresting questions... and valid

      Reminds me of the how Satan was trying to make Jesus prove he was the son of God, when Jesus was in the desert fasting for 40 days. Even then, Jesus did not do a thing to "prove who he was".. Yet he performed miracles for those he loved, and those that had faith in him..

      Is it ironic that Jesus said 'Blessed are those that believe without seeing"... Or is that really a message he had for all of us, not just doubting thomas...

      July 30, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        should have been 'gullible are those that believe without seeing"

        July 30, 2013 at 11:15 pm |
      • OTOH

        "he performed miracles for those he loved, and those that had faith in him.."

        Did he? Really? How come Paul of Tarsus didn't know about them - he supposedly talked right to the guy?

        I don't need to be "more blessed" than this legendary Thomas.

        July 30, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
      • R.M. Goodswell

        The first 4 commandment deal specifically with God and his worship.....Clearly the most important concern for the almighty. He admits in the bible that hes a jealous god....destroys the world once – kills the first born of an entire nation, destroys two cities, engages in genocide of at least two tribes...and we are to do as he says (as his church says) or we burn FOREVER...

        But he loves us....he wants us to have free will .....he is all knowing...all powerful, exists in all places and spaces though every possible point in time – yet exists outside of time. Even if the ID guys were right thatd mean after 13,7 billion years, this being is still kicking around....HUGE PARADOX.

        schizophrenic madness......

        July 30, 2013 at 11:23 pm |
  11. Amy

    Fundamental Atheists

    July 30, 2013 at 11:03 pm |
    • Anton

      logic is tough to hear sometimes

      July 30, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
      • Amy

        nothing logical about pushing your beliefs onto others no matter who you are

        July 30, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
        • Gorsh

          That is what got me. This guy is basically bragging about his success in doing exactly what he likely hates religion for doing.

          July 30, 2013 at 11:15 pm |
      • Amy

        See that is where you atheists will get it wrong thankfully you are just as ignorant as fundamental religion and have no understanding about millennials...

        July 30, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
      • AE

        We have 2 sides of our brain.

        A logical, reason based side. And a creative, imaginative side.

        Perhaps to know God you need to use your whole brain?

        July 30, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
        • OTOH

          Imagination and fantasy are quite pleasurable and are even useful at times, such as in brainstorming for solutions to problems. Until reason verifies them, we cannot live them. They remain fantasy.

          Enjoy yours, if you wish, but they cannot be called facts.

          July 30, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
    • Athy

      Wow, profound comment, Amy. Perhaps a little too detailed, but profound.

      July 30, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
      • Amy

        Well no one likes a bully do they? doesn't matter what kind of bully

        July 30, 2013 at 11:13 pm |
      • jsad

        I completely agree. It was very moving. In fact, it moved me into some nugget action.

        July 30, 2013 at 11:13 pm |
  12. Gorsh

    I don't mind secular humanists, as long as they keep their secular humanism to themselves and out of government.

    July 30, 2013 at 11:02 pm |
    • John

      Funny. They say the same thing about christians.

      July 30, 2013 at 11:04 pm |
  13. taotd

    "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

    -Mahatma Gandhi

    July 30, 2013 at 11:01 pm |
    • AE

      "Atheism is a denial of self. No one has succeeded in its propagation."

      -Mahatma Gandhi

      July 30, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
      • Anton

        Nice
        AND that is coming from an atheist

        July 30, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
      • jsad

        I believe in unicorns and nutella on bananas.

        July 30, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
  14. kzooresident

    And while the rest of the country wrings it's hands about the "Muslim problem", the real moral cancer quietly grows under the protection of public education.

    July 30, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
    • Rabidmob

      While they're both issues facing Christianity today, the Muslim problem is much more severe. There are over 1 billion Muslims. They believe they have the right to kill in the name of God and they will kill their own people that choose to dissent.

      When the Atheists begin to kill people for not sharing in their beliefs (again), then they will be an equal problem.

      Mostly it's a human problem, it seems like we haven't outgrown tribalism yet.

      July 30, 2013 at 11:28 pm |
  15. Dyslexic doG

    the reason people are leaving Christianity is the freedom of information. Christian parents and priests can no longer keep kids in a bubble of misinformation and fantasy. 10 minutes on the internet and any sane person can see what abject foolishness Christianity is.

    today's Christianity is tomorrow's punch line.

    July 30, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
    • Amy

      Wrong, its because people realize they can have a personal relationship with God..People still go to gatherings they just know that you don't need a church to access Jesus.

      July 30, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
  16. Reality

    Hammering it home:

    As good students, you have read the reiterations of the "fems" (flaws, errors, muck and stench) of religion. Therefore the seeds have been planted in rich soil. Go therefore and preach the truth to all nations, reiterating as you go amongst the lost, bred, born and brainwashed souls of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism as Rational Thinking makes its triumphant return all because of you!!!!
    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    July 30, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
  17. Gorsh

    Cute anecdotes aside-

    "The typical no-faith American donated just $200 in 2006, which is more than seven times less than the amount contributed by the prototypical active-faith adult ($1500). Even when church-based giving is subtracted from the equation, active-faith adults donated twice as many dollars last year as did atheists and agnostics. In fact, while just 7% of active-faith adults failed to contribute any personal funds in 2006, that compares with 22% among the no-faith adults.”

    July 30, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
    • Reality

      Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are either agnostics or atheists depending on which bio you read. Their charity, the Gates Foundation, is the largest in the world.

      July 30, 2013 at 11:04 pm |
      • Gorsh

        That's nice. So you guys are riding on the giving of a few very rich men? Okay. This poll referred to average people.

        July 30, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
        • Athy

          Gates and Buffet were average people before they became wealthy.

          July 30, 2013 at 11:13 pm |
        • Gorsh

          Again Athy, they are two people.

          On average, atheists and agnostics are seven times less charitable than religious.

          And in all honesty, I'd be willing to bet that we agnostics are bring that average up.

          July 30, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      church based giving is just religious marketing budget.

      churches only ever give when they can work on brainwashing the poor receiver to their voodoo fantasy.

      July 30, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
      • Gorsh

        If you had read the post, you would see that even after subtracting church donations, the religious give more.

        July 30, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
    • Realist

      That information is derived from falsified tax returns of individuals claiming that they gave $1,500 in charitable contributions to a church ... to lower their taxes.

      July 30, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
    • Anton

      You find to meet someone moral, giving, find an atheist: they often are the most in those categories.

      July 30, 2013 at 11:10 pm |
      • Gorsh

        Problem is that statistically they are seven times less charitable.

        I always thought atheists liked facts.

        July 30, 2013 at 11:13 pm |
    • DDM

      How would you know when, where, or how much atheists donate? Did you check the Santa bell ringers, do the conservancies & others collecting donations record who is atheist & who is not, etc? I doubt that many atheist donations come marked as 'from an atheist.' Maybe you are just counting church collection plates, which isn't where atheists would be attending. Many philanthropist atheists as well as other atheists make donations privately. Reveal your statistics, please.

      July 30, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
  18. allenwoll

    .
    Unfortunately, BOTH sides - Theists and Atheists - err in exactly the same way : NEITHER can objectively prove their position. . They each demonstrate FAITH in their beliefs.
    .
    In my opinion, that simply dumps BOTH philosophies into the category of mere religions : Religions, Miscellaneous.
    .

    July 30, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
    • Anton

      u know zero about aeithism

      July 30, 2013 at 10:57 pm |
      • allenwoll

        .
        I can spell it !
        .

        July 30, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
        • Athy

          But you erroneously capitalize it.

          July 30, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
        • Anton

          you're right, my bad, my computer is acting funny.

          It does not change the fact THAT you know zero about a subject you are attempting to explain

          July 30, 2013 at 11:01 pm |
        • John

          You capitalized "that". Was your computer acting out again?

          July 30, 2013 at 11:03 pm |
    • Edweird69

      Atheism is no more of a religion that bald is a hair style. Atheists need not "prove" anything, they are not the ones making an extraordinary claim. The burden of proof relies on Christian's who make the claim. Atheists can't prove there aren't invisible unicorns on the moon either...does that mean there might be?

      July 30, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
    • Zeus_z

      Jesus was on this earth.. he was denied then.. and the Bible says times like these we see here, people falling away from God, and loss of faith would happen

      All you need to do is google "prophesies before Christ"... Thousands of years before, there were prophesies of details..that came true to be.

      Im a Christian, although a bad one..im nothing better in any way because I say I am a Christian..The Bible says near the end of times, this exact thing going on in this thread, and the story itself- would happen- People will be drifting away from believing...Its amazing when you read the Bible and see how many signs it points to that are coming to be.

      Dont hate others, love one another. Jesus will find a way to open your hearts.

      He died for us, he was beaten and spit on, and all he said was he loved us, and forgave all those that did that to him.. amazing...

      Wish I could forgive and not get angry about day to day stuff..

      July 30, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
      • CommonSensed

        So be good, for goodness' sake.

        Sigh.

        Did you enjoy when the catholic church used the inquisition to drive it's faith and sharia law amongst it's lands? Did you enjoy when they invaded central america and completely subjugated an indigenous people to steal their land, gold and other resources in the name of your god?

        If not, do you enjoy when your god let's these things happen – over centuries – yet does nothing and let's corrupt and pathetic men speak in his name?

        July 30, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
    • grafactor

      "NEITHER can objectively prove their position"

      Sigh.... Nobody can objectively prove that Bigfoot doesn't exist either. But do you really think that those who believe in Bigfoot and those who don't believe in Bigfoot are equally blameworthy and are yelling at each other from either side of some artificially constructed dividing line? No. The burden of proof is on the person claiming that a thing (whatever that thing is) exists. It's perfectly reasonable to default to the null hypothesis until such time as evidence is presented.

      August 1, 2013 at 8:56 am |
  19. L.S.B.

    Dogs(=gods) bark, caravan moves on.

    July 30, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
  20. Dyslexic doG

    When did I realize I was God?

    Well, I was praying and I suddenly realized that I was talking to myself ...

    July 30, 2013 at 10:54 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.