So I've been reading some interesting conversations lately about why millennials are leaving the church. I have my own answer to that question. Really, it's a conglomeration of a lot of the ideas bandied about, but I think it's nearer the mark than any one on its own.
1. If the church was something more than a combination mutual ego-stroking and witch-burning festival, millennials might be more inclined to stay...
Millennials, and every one else who can't stand that behavior. This is an obvious one, but it cannot be overstated (and, sadly, seems to fall on deaf ears). The petty, back-biting, judgey one-upmanship that is prevalent in church communities; the obsession with attacking “others”, like gays, while ignoring all the things that the Bible says that apply to our own circumstances; the insistence that we should ignore passages like Matthew 7:1 (“do not judge, or you too will be judged”), the showmanship of the church, the church politics, the drama, etc., etc.: these are all extremely off-putting.
What passes for “substance” is often just a way to feel better than the “other” group: “God condemns homosexuals and women who have abortions and women who show cleavage and Democrats, and they will surely burn in hell; only his beloved, though they are condemned by the world and mocked by the fools who think themselves wise, will sit by the right hand of the Father, will live on for all eternity in paradise. Amen!” It amounts to little more than theologically-based intellectual-masturbation in a group setting.
The church spends little time exhorting its followers to make real and significant, positive changes to their own behaviors, but rather spends great amounts of time focusing on how evil other people are – and, by contrast, how holy they are. Thus you hear frequent condemnations of gays and “immorally dressed”, “promiscuous” women; lots of raging about what's on TV, and all manner of things that don't affect (or are quietly covered up by) the congregation. But how often do we hear passages like these covered in detail?
1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
To follow this passage, of course, would cut deeply into the culture of sanctimony that so much of the Christian world embraces. Gone would be the incessant droning on social media, at every church function, at every opportunity, about the parishioners' righteousness, about their unending love for God, about, ultimately, what damned fine Christians they are. Or, more accurately, gone would be the parishioners – to a church that was content to stroke their egos.
Likewise with the “judge not” passage, from Matthew 7. Too many congregations are rife with petty vanities, gossip, backstabbing and self-righteousness; too few take to heart passages like these:
1 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.
2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?
5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
And when these are quoted, pastors go to extraordinary lengths to assert that judging is actually peachy-keen (for instance, the quote of Paul Washer's, “You say, ‘Judge not lest ye be judged.’ But I say, ‘Twist not Scripture lest ye be like Satan’,” which gets bandied about frequently in such discussions). It's particularly irritating to see unabashedly cruel, bigoted and callous people defend their sanctimony in such a way. How could that not disenchant people with the church? How could that not drive people to, and through, the doors?
As to the generation in question...why does this urge to leave manifest more in millennials? That I think has a relatively simple answer. There are fewer incentives to comply, and fewer penalties for failure to do so. You can have a rich, intellectually fulfilling social life without ever stepping foot in church; and you're no longer going to be ostracized if you choose not to attend church. Which means the church has to work harder and smarter to retain millennials (and, I would hazard a guess, subsequent generations). Instead, though, the church is stuck in “indoctrination mode” – whereby children were raised in the church, sufficiently frightened into remaining there, and severely penalized if they did “fall by the wayside” so as to serve as a warning to anyone else. The church has failed to evolve, and is only recently beginning to wake to the possibility of eventual extinction or irrelevance.
2. Atheism and agnosticism do present appealing, intellectually honest alternatives
When you're talking about something that no one has seen, no one has witnessed, no one can reproduce – and the only “evidence” in its favor is an ancient manuscript that has been altered, re-translated, and mistranslated a thousand times – is it really a puzzling thing that so many people are saying, “to be honest, I just don't know”? Factor in that information has become more easily accessible – a person can become well-informed on many topics with but an internet connection, a tablet, and a discerning eye – and the exclusive “truth” of any given religion seems to fade. The morals that religion today tries to attribute only unto itself have existed long before the faiths of the current era, in those hated and feared “pagan” faiths. The moral precepts that the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead puts forth, rules by which the worthy dead are supposed to have lived, are as good as those found in any religion nowadays: do not rob the orphan, do not murder, do not speak in anger, do not cheat or lie, do not defile the temples of the gods, etc., etc. Christians like to believe they have a monopoly on virtue; and yet such ideas existed thousands of years before the birth of Christ. The parallels between creation stories can also be quite disconcerting for someone who has been raised, as so many American Christians are, to believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, complete and exact. Furthermore, the Bible is full of stories of magic and witchcraft, to say nothing of a violent, vengeful God who commands genocides and kills willy-nilly. The church has offered little to counterbalance these decidedly unsettling realities.
3. Science answers questions that used to be the province of religion
The earth was flat; the sun revolved around the earth; illness was God's judgment; storms, chaos, and death were the evidence of the disfavor mankind had curried with the Supreme Being. As in most cultures, the Christian world attributed what it feared and could not understand to some supernatural judgment or force. (Even today, every time there's an earthquake or tsunami we still hear this mega-preacher or that televangelist assuring us that God massacred however many people half way across the world, because gays are allowed to roam about gayly gay-ing at will, and God doesn't like gaying gays, so he'll kill a bunch of unconnected folks, just to teach the gay-coddlers a lesson. Because, God is love). Now, science has replaced superstition, giving concrete answers in lieu of self-serving ones. Anyone genuinely curious to understand how a given illness works, can find out. You can still simply resort to, “sin! Judgment!” of course, but that argument no longer holds the persuasive force it once did simply because we know better. Back in the day, superstition provided an answer, no matter how bad; and until such time as there was a better answer available, it held sway over people's minds. But those days are gone. Science has provided the better answer, and religion, which was content simply to reap the benefits of people's fears, is obsolete in this respect.
4. The church no longer has a monopoly on thought
This is closely linked to the point above. We live in an age where ignorance is ever more a deliberate choice rather than anything else. With answers to a thousand questions but a few taps or clicks away, falling back on “because, God!” or “demonic possession; quick, an exorcism!” or “how dare you question the will of God?!” is a cop-out. When information was scarce and questioning dangerous, people had little choice but to content themselves with the church's position. Not so anymore.
The irony of this, of course, is that this is a “problem” for the Christian world inflicted largely by the Christian world; the Martin Luthers of the past showed that dissent could bear fruit. Granted, the Calvins of the world brutally oppressed it when it conflicted with their own supremacy, and that response still exists in church communities and families, but the seed was planted and flourished. The holy men of the Church were not infallible. They could be challenged – and the challenger might be right. Combine that with a shift toward representative government, where every man had an equal say, where the old ideas of ruling classes that could not be questioned gave way to a more inclusive system; an influx of information and a boom in scientific discovery; philosophical thought that offered good alternatives to strict religious adherence, by providing a measure of worth for the average man equal or greater than what religious thought of the day afforded; and you have the “perfect storm” for skepticism to take hold. The Church was not unassailable; its leaders were fallible, wrong, sometimes wicked even; the worth of men could be discerned – and protected – by secular measures; and science provided provable answers to questions that had long netted “the wrath of God!”-type answers. Why look to an aging, corrupt, oftentimes seemingly morally bankrupt power structure for answers that reason, scientific inquiry and secular thought can provide?
5. The church has lost its moral authority: people can be good without religion, and people can be evil in spite of religion
This is another point closely linked to the preceding ones. Not only does religion no longer have a monopoly on thought, but many of its thoughts have been proven wrong. Once upon a time, good and the church were unalterably linked in everyone's mind: you either were a believer in good standing, or you were evil, possibly a servant of Satan, definitely deluded by him, always deserving ostracism and often brutal death. Not so anymore. Just as a recognition that gay people aren't scary “others”, but our own friends and family – forced into the “closet” by exactly the bigoted thinking that gay equals evil – has precipitated a shift toward acceptance of the LGBT community, the recognition that people we know and love, not scary “God haters”, are atheists or agnostics, is signaling a shift in the way the “godless” are perceived. Most people know an atheist, or two, or ten – and they're good, even great, people. It's hard to credit the church's idea that good only comes through belief in God, or that anyone who lacks that belief is evil, when the evidence of our own experience contradicts such thinking.
That's only one facet of this point, though. There's the competing notion that a belief in God does not equate to goodness. Christian history, for a glimpse into the past; the Catholic sex abuse “scandal”, for a current example; and, of course, individual encounters with self-serving, cold-hearted, malicious “good Christians”: these are but a few of the instances when belief in God has done absolutely nothing to limit evil. Now, Christianity explains why people can be evil and still believe in God (while also giving them a “get out of jail free” pass for doing so, through faith); but it doesn't lessen the overall point: if godless people can be as good or better than “Godly” ones, what “good” is Christianity?
At this point, many Christians will argue that “good” is irrelevant, that everything comes down to a belief in God – that is, the saintly atheist (and, oftentimes, Christian of another denomination) will burn in hell for his lack of belief, but the hard-hearted, lecherous, abusive Christian will sit at the feet of the Lord in paradise, simply because the Christian had faith in God while he went about his evil (and was thus “forgiven”), but the atheist did not (so was not “redeemed”). That's an issue for another post, but not an easy theological argument for many to accept. For the point of this discussion, it comes down to this: goodness is more or less irrelevant, and Christianity may have no bearing on goodness. This is a significant loss of moral weight. If goodness can be obtained from other sources, and if goodness isn't a prerequisite to eternal life anyway, all that the potential Christian is left with is a husk of creation stories, miraculous tales, talking animals, lineage lines, judgmental hypocrisy, etc. Strip away the moral authority, and require only literal belief in stories that oftentimes seem beyond belief, and it is no wonder that people fall away.
I have not touched much on the obsession with “hot button” social and political issues in our own time, more because I think those tend to fall in the categories above than anything else. It should be noted, however, that – much like getting drunk and insisting on arguing politics at every holiday function – the obsession with overriding the separation of church and state in order to force religious opinions into law isn't an endearing trait. There are many others, but I think I've hit the main ones here. I do think that this is an interesting and potentially productive debate, so I look forward to the continuation of it.