10 Bogus Explanations For Millennials’ Lack Of Religion

Christians — especially mistaken authors like “Doctor” Alex McFarland — are pretty worried about the Pew survey which shows younger U.S.ians are leaving religion in droves. Logically, for anyone concerned with the longevity of religion, there have to be two immediate goals: (1) find out what’s driving millennials away from the church, and (2) figure out how to get them back.

Interestingly, that’s exactly what McFarland tries to do in his new book, some of which he repeated in a recent column published by Fox News. Perhaps unsurprisingly, McFarland immediately engages in what we atheists call “lying for Jesus” — inventing alternate reality and claiming it’s true.

Let’s take a look at his “ten reasons”.

Note: I put “doctor” in quotation marks above, because McFarland is not a doctor in the most normal sense of the word, but is allowed to call himself one because he was awarded two honorary doctorate degrees — from Southern Evangelical Seminary and Louisiana Baptist University; his website doesn’t say which field(s) the degrees cover. His master degree, from far-right Liberty University, is in “Christian Thought / Apologetics”.

Before offering his 10 “reasons”, McFarland claims he’s conducted “research”, including “dozens of interviews with teens, twentysomethings, professed ex-Christians, and religion and culture experts”, and then goes on to show how pointless such research was.

Note early that McFarland never says in his Fox News op-ed why it’s so worrisome that young people in our country are less religious than their older counterparts. It’s just assumed that’s it’s a bad thing. You’re supposed to know that this is scary and/or sad.

• Lack Of Brand Loyalty

Seriously, this is the first argument McFarland trots out. Millennials are less likely to stick with one brand, one genre, one category — of anything. “Brand loyalty” has to be the absolute worst reason to stick with religion. Even religious people should be ashamed of this argument.

• No Families

Yep, it’s the old “breakdown of the family” trope, again with zero evidence. I can’t find a single study (and McFarland doesn’t mention one) that shows non-religious people are less likely to come from stable families. Every atheist I know personally was raised in a two-parent Christian home without divorce. About half the Christians I know come from what we used to call “broken homes” — yes, this is anecdotal, but it’s more than McFarland offered.

• The Rise Of Militant Secularism

“People today are subjected to an enforced secularism”, he claims, while he freely writes Christian tripe for the most-watched news network in a country where 91% of Congress is Christian (and the rest are Jewish, Muslim, and “other”), every president of my lifetime has claimed Christianity as his religion, and the U.S. Supreme Court is comprised of six Christians and three who claim Judaism.

The example he lists to support his claim is public education, which he complains is too concerned with “methodological naturalism”, a phrase that simply means “the scientific method confines itself to natural explanations without assuming the existence or non-existence of the supernatural”. In other words, until public schools are straight-up teaching Christian dogma as fact, McFarland will claim they’re “militantly” secular. And he will continue to ignore that it was Christians who fought for this country’s government to be secular (which simply means it doesn’t espouse any particular branch of religion).

• Lack Of Christian Adult Role Models

“Many youth have had no — or very limited — exposure to adult role models who know what they believe, why they believe it, and are committed to consistently living it out”, McFarland claims. This is a weird thing to say, because we’ve already established — and McFarland agrees — that older generations are much more religious than these young whippersnappers. Almost every U.S. atheist was raised in a Christian home and attended church during childhood. (And they know plenty about religion — major studies show that the average atheist or agnostic knows more about religion than religious people do.)

But if you check McFarland’s specific phrasing here, I actually agree with him. He didn’t limit his “role model” remark to “Christian adults”; he specifically said they had to know what they believe, why they believe it, and be “committed to consistently living it out”. The first requirement leaves out most Christians — most of them have never read the Bible and can’t recite their church’s statement of faith. The second requirement leaves out a bunch more; it’s rare to meet a Christian who can express why they believe, beyond meaningless phrases like “I just feel it’s true in my heart”. The third requirement is so subjective that it’s ridiculous. If I point out my Christian parents, will McFarland dismiss them as not being committed enough to “consistently living it out”?

So maybe he’s right on this one. If we atheists had known more Christians who could clearly express exactly what they believe, then give us good reasons for why they believe it, and then prove that it’s worth believing by living it every day, then maybe fewer of us would have begun exploring other options.

• The Church’s Cultural Influence Has Diminished

This, I think, is a symptom — not a cause — of people leaving religion. People don’t leave religion because the Church has grown weaker; the Church has grown weaker because people are leaving religion. But it could certainly be part of a downward spiral — the fewer people influenced by the church, the less likely they are to raise their own children in church, thus weakening the Church further in the subsequent generation.

On the other hand, I find very little evidence that Christianity’s hold on our culture has weakened. It’s difficult to find a movie or show these days that doesn’t feature God in some way, at some point. For crying out loud, I went and watched the latest “Fast And Furious” movie this weekend. It ended in a prayer — I’m not making this up. Every single day, when I read the news, I see another “news” story that mentions religion — often as if it’s true. Just this morning, I saw three or four storm damage stories in national media outlets, each quoting residents who said God saved them from disaster (right after God allowed their home to be destroyed).

• Abandonment Of Morality.

McFarland says our “cultural abandonment of morality” is “pervasive”, explaining: “The idea of objective moral truth — ethical norms that really are binding on all people — is unknown to most and is rejected by the rest.” It’s almost as if no one has ever shown that there are objective moral truths, and almost as if his own religion has subjectively changed its own moral standards throughout history and is continuing to do so today, kind of disproving his point.

• Intellectual Skepticism

Okay, so he got another one right. That makes two so far.

I think everyone reading can agree that one of the reasons for people in the U.S. being less religious these days is that they’re skeptical of the claims of most/all religions. Christians take note: if your religion is true, the skepticism should be what you want. Skepticism doesn’t mean “I believe nothing” or “I’m willing to believe anything”. Both are absurd. Skepticism means being skeptical of huge claims that offer no evidence.

All of you are skeptical to some degree. If a TV ad tomorrow claimed that a new pill could return you to your physical prime — including weight loss, memory repair, energy levels, wrinkle/mole removal, etc. — would you go buy it that very day? Sure, a few people would. But I like to think that most of us would wait to see at least a news article or a friend’s testimony before spending our own hard-earned money on it. Personally, I’d believe it only if I saw that it was working for people I already know and trust, and if I read peer-reviewed studies showing it to be true (and without worrisome side effects).

The only reason anyone ever discourages skepticism is if they have something to sell and their claims can’t be backed up.

• It’s Now ‘Cool’ to Be An Atheist

I’ve heard that in some circles, it is indeed “cool” to be an atheist. Perhaps in Portland or Austin, among a certain age group. But in most circles I’m familiar with, it’ll get you immediately branded as the weird one, the fallen one, the one who can’t be trusted around children. I don’t mention it when I leave the house. There are more churches in my city than schools, libraries, and bookstores combined. God is on bumper stickers, billboards, and TV commercials. No one’s ever knocked on my door to tell me the “good news of atheism”, but religious folk do it weekly (no exaggeration).

McFarland refers to the “rise of a fad”, and names a single dead atheist author who rose to (some) fame a few years ago as an example of how popular atheism is now. But I’ll bet a dollar that fewer than one percent of all the Christians I know have ever heard of Christopher Hitchens (until now). I’ve never read a book by him. McFarland conveniently leaves out that Christian books, talks, and music are orders of magnitude more popular in the U.S. Every bookstore has a religious section, yet I’ve never seen one with an “atheist” section. I’ve never heard of a TV show with the sole purpose of convincing people gods aren’t real, but there are dozens airing every week with the sole purpose of spreading Christianity in our country.

If he thinks atheism’s growing popularity is responsible for there being more people who don’t believe in God, and is willing to say that out loud, then you already known how backward his thinking is.

• Tolerance

McFarland makes this claim: “It is now impossible to rationally critique any belief or behavior without a backlash of criticism.” I’m not even sure what he’s trying to say here. In my understanding of life, if you’re going to critique something that someone else holds valuable, then yes, you can expect some “backlash”. (Try telling a pet-owner: “It’s immoral to own animals” and see if they mutely accept your critique. Ha.) In fact, I believe he has it backward; it seems to be religion that is most immune to healthy criticism. In quite a few nations, including several “western” and “industrialized” places, it’s actually illegal to criticize religion. Fortunately, that is not yet the case in the U.S.

• The Angst Of Youth

Unable to come up with a solid 10th point, McFarland falls back on the old trope about youthful rebelliousness, the “desire for autonomy felt in young adulthood”. For all I know, this is at least partly true.

Statistically, we can be certain that many of the “nones” (not affiliated with any religion) currently in their teens and twenties will eventually return to one religious group or another. Most often, they return to the same religion they left; Christians to Christianity, Muslims to Islam, etc., though their eventual settling place might be of a different specific organization than the one they left.

• Conclusion

Two years ago, I wrote about the “rise of the nones”, and addressed several suggested reasons and then provided a few of my own: (1) the combining of right-wing politics with evangelical church groups, (2) more “weak identifiers” now more willing to identify as “no affiliation”, (3) today’s hot-button political issues often highlight the negative reactions of prominent Christians, and (4) the Internet — which I identified as the biggest factor.

“Today, unlike any other period in history, we have access to information from all viewpoints. But more than that, we have access to the billions of other people. This is what has changed the dynamic in my opinion.”

As we’ve seen above, most of McFarland’s “reasons” are so much baloney, though a couple of them do somewhat ring true — perhaps not in the way he meant them. Still, I think the worst part of his entire op-ed is the assumption I mentioned near the top that this is a Bad Thing. It’s another example of atheists taking it on the chin in mass media, and we’re expected to stay silent. If we do respond, it has to be a calm and reasoned approach (which I’ve tried to do here), but even then we run the risk of being branded “militant atheists” — just for responding in kind.

  1. Bill H says:

    Agree. I think the Internet is a very powerful tool that young people are using to quench their questions about life and beliefs…

  2. At the end of his article, McFarland writes that culture and a prayerless, powerless church peddling versions of “Christianity Lite” are equally to blame for Millennials’ lack of participation in religion. I had perhaps never been exposed to that ‘lite’ term before and had to do some look it up. Apparently, unless your church enforces a structured devotional, requires a blind obedience to its discipline, and demands an unquestioning belief in its dogma, it’s ‘lite’. Armed with this view, I went back to read his article again. I agree that his ten points are bogus. Like you, I didn’t get very much from his wandering writing. To my reading, it seems that he’s lamenting RELIGION ever let itself be questioned in the first place.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Good points, Michael. I neglected to mention that 11th reason, since McFarland didn’t list it as such, but I think you’re right that it was his main point all along. Of course, he wasn’t writing to US, he was writing to THEM (Christians), and expects them to nod along because they implicitly already believe these 11 points even if they didn’t have words to express them.

      As for “Christianity lite”, I don’t recall exactly when I first heard the term, but it’s been floating around since I was a child and deeply involved in church. Pastors lamented “user-friendly” churches that watered down the message in order to experience growth, and complained that too many “other” churches weren’t preaching the “full Gospel”.

      And, in a weird sort of way, I agree with the charge. At least in the sense that if you really do have a full message that includes “you’re a sinner and are hell-bound”, you shouldn’t leave that part out in your marquee sermons in the faint hope of drawing in new followers. I knew of several churches that nominally had the same “statement of faith” that my church did, yet their pastor would only preach hope and love, help and healing, and other positive stuff on Sunday mornings when the biggest crowds were there. It was only after new converts/members showed up for further lessons that they’d get deeper into the darker stuff that makes less sense (God impregnated an unmarried teen virgin to he could sacrifice himself to appease himself because he was angry over the evil that he invented — the core doctrine of all Christianity.)

  3. Dana says:

    “Fortunately, that is not yet the case in the U.S.”

    You may have spoken too soon. With President Trump’s most recent executive order, the Religious Liberty Act, way are on a slippery slope to State enforced religiosity.

    And wholly agreed that atheism is not popular (I’ll openly admit I’m a criminal defense attorney before I’ll tell a stranger that I’m a “devout” atheist.)

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      I’m holding out hope that the ACLU is correct when it says that the executive order is merely “an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome”. They had announced beforehand that they would likely immediately sue over it, but then upon reading the final text determined that “the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process. The order portends but does not yet do harm to the provision of reproductive health services.”

      But yes, I think it’s obvious now that the Republican party in general is no longer about “fiscal conservatism”, “free market capitalism”, or even a strong military, but is almost entirely focused on two things: (1) strengthening our theocratic tendencies and (2) making sure a certain class of wealthy elites are able to skim more off the top.

  4. Dana says:

    And now, speaking as an atheist – while I have never tried to lure anyone away from the Church (or held atheism out as “cool”) I am happy to hear that fewer people each year consider themselves as religious. But my role in that is merely as a passive observer.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      That’s just it. I don’t know ANY atheists who’ve tried to deconvert anyone. I don’t know very many atheists personally, but I include here even the well-known authors/activists, and even self-titled agnostics (either the “I don’t know” brand or the “we CAN’T know” brand), who are technically atheists if they don’t actively believe in a God or gods.

      I can’t think of any of them who have knocked on doors — or even brought up the topic without prompting.

      Even a few I know on Twitter who regularly engage in debates/arguments with believers are almost never the ones who *start* the conversation. It usually goes like this:

      1. Believer makes a statement that presumes God is real.
      2. Atheist questions the statement, asking if there is any evidence.
      3. Believer reacts badly: “Why are you trying to spread your atheism!?”

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