For most of America’s history, 80-95% of our population has claimed affiliation with some branch of Christianity. But since the 1960s, that number has plummeted to 70%. Even more alarming, people aren’t switching religions. People are leaving churches altogether. Secularism is on the rise. Worldwide, laws and societies are showing a growing intolerance for religion. The persecution of Christians doesn’t even make the news.
According to a comprehensive study on religiosity in America by researcher Lyman Stone published last spring, one of the key reasons for the rise in secularism has been government policy and political division. He sees the removal of school prayer as the largest contributor. Studies confirm the Biblical notion that the values and beliefs we teach our children stay with them into adulthood; in this case, people are about as religious as their parents. So banning religion in schools can have a lasting effect.
Stone may be on to something.
School prayer was banned in 1963 at a time when most of America claimed a Christian faith. This was a very unpopular decision by one Supreme Court judge and was predicated around the issue of keeping church and state separate. Some argued that constitutionally, separation merely aims to prohibit an official state religion that could become as oppressive as the Catholic or Anglican churches that the Pilgrims had fled from. Adventists themselves have long been strong proponents of this separation, possibly in the hope that we could delay or prevent the anti-Christ (even though the anti-Christ is said to be an “unholy trinity” of Catholic, Protestant, and Occult religions, and a world-wide power).
The ruling may have unintentionally started a cascade of secularism. Stone explains that for some students, school prayer had been their only exposure to anything religious. On the heels of the school prayer decision, civil rights, the feminist movement, and government social initiatives led to more entrenched poverty and skyrocketing divorce rates by the 1970s. Both parents began working, and single parents had less time to take kids to church, leaving more and more of their children’s education (moral or otherwise) up to schools and television. Over the years, schools have sought, in a gesture of “inclusivity” and “reason”, to exclude all religious mention from their curriculum, or at least caution students to its historic and scientific “errors.” As a result, consecutive generations grew up with less and less exposure to religious ideas or experiences.
The next data spike in secularism hit in the 1990s, after two generations had experienced secular education and were now of average voting age. Politicians began taking laser-aim at polarizing voters (a sharp jump in “unaffiliated” on both sides spreads every election year, while the Moderate center has been steadily shifting Left). Although both political parties have equal numbers of Christians, criticism of the Christian Right creates a subtle perception that Christianity itself is the seat of social problems. Religious scandals have only added fuel to university anti-Establishment lectures that blame white Christianity for historic and current social ills, a notion that others have debunked.
Today, a full 40% of Millennials declare they are “unaffiliated” with a church, and 25% of those are turning to the occult to fill the spiritual gap. This generation grew up with an unprecedented number of tv shows about witches and demons, so it may not be surprising that they see astrology, Wicca, and even Voodoo as equal alternatives to Christianity, especially when popular culture openly mocks and slanders Christianity.
But the actual reasons people give for leaving their churches reveal a dissatisfaction that can’t be blamed on schools, parents, governments, or Buffy the Vampyre Slayer.
There are several studies that polled all ages, but for brevity, we’ll look at the poll taken by the Barna Group that asked 18-29-year-olds why they’re leaving church:
The biggest problem, it seems, is less with Christianity’s message, than it is with its messengers (and Millennials may be voicing what older generations who also left the church were never asked). Christians either aren’t very Christian, or they aren’t sufficiently demonstrating the benefit of a spiritual life. Why can’t young people have their world and their religion too? It’s on us to make it clear that living for God is better than worldly values, otherwise what would compel anyone to try it? Too often we talk in religious jargon and abstract phrases that only make sense once someone’s experienced “the peace that passeth understanding” or “grace” or “sanctification” or the “power of the blood of the Lamb to overcome all unrighteousness.” Perhaps the greatest chasm for young people is with current issues around sexuality and science, topics we’ve either ignored or shrugged off with a pat, “because the Bible says so.”
The positive takeaway from all these studies is that we now have a better idea of what we need to do to retain our members and counter secularism.
2) When one church is slandered, all faiths suffer. If we want to preserve religious freedom for all, we shouldn’t engage in mocking or slandering other faiths. And if others do, we need to stand up for all religions. Not every spiritual journey will follow the same path. We must trust that God is guiding people where they are – and we can learn from each other, regardless of affiliation.
3) We seem to be fumbling in a reversed Age of Enlightenment, where the religious are being persecuted for heresey against science. Too many scientists who are Christian remain silent about their beliefs in God or Creationism, lending to the perception that no credible scientist believes in either. Yet it’s increasingly difficult to have any conversation because even overheard speech can get one ridiculed, fired, cancelled or otherwise burned at the stake, even on private religious campuses. This only stops if we speak up.
These studies are good news. Our society is by no means lost; they’re seeking answers. People may have become more secular, but they haven’t become less spiritual. The philosopher Peter Abelard once said, “By doubting we are led to questioning, by questioning we arrive at the truth.” Someone else put it more or less this way: Those who’ve never questioned have never fully believed. If people are doubting, it’s a step in the right direction. And if we haven’t asked the same questions ourselves, maybe we should start, and find answers--together.