Thoughts on the PRRI Religion Survey

The Public Religion Research Institute released Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion–and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back (Questionnaire). It’s depressing news for us Christians (6% of the US population was religiously unaffiliated in 1991 and that has grown to 25% in 2016) but it is worth looking at in order to understand what is happening, why it is happening, and how we can respond. I’ll add my two cents but I really have no expertise here.

Most Americans who leave their childhood religious identity to become unaffiliated generally do so before they reach their 18th birthday. More than six in ten (62%) religiously unaffiliated Americans who were raised in a religion say they abandoned their childhood religion before they turned 18. About three in ten (28%) say they were between the ages of 18 and 29. Only five percent say they stopped identifying with their childhood religion between the ages of 30 and 49, and just two percent say age 50 or older.

This suggests that any solution to the problem of people abandoning Christianity needs to focus on how we raise our children, both in the family setting and the church setting. Plan ahead when it comes to raising your children. You can’t put things off because it might be too late.

Among the reasons Americans identified as important motivations in leaving their childhood religion are: they stopped believing in the religion’s teachings (60%), their family was never that religious when they were growing up (32%), and their experience of negative religious teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people (29%).

Fewer than one in five Americans who left their childhood religion point to the clergy sexual-abuse scandal (19%), a traumatic event in their life (18%), or their congregation becoming too focused on politics (16%) as an important reason for disaffiliating.

The first thing these numbers tell me is that the church needs to ramp up on apologetics. Reasons to believe Christianity is true need to be heard in sermons, children’s Sunday school, adult Sunday school, Christian schools, Christian camps, and at home.

We need to stress that what matters is the truth, not our emotions or society’s judgments. That some clergy engage in sexual abuse does not mean Christianity is false. That you had a traumatic event in your life does not mean Christianity is false. That your congregation is too political for your tastes does not mean Christianity is false (find another congregation). If someone raised within Christianity is going to leave the church let it not be because they reason so poorly.

Perhaps we need to mention that we all have questions and doubts from time to time. It’s okay not to know everything.

Second, we need to live out the faith. Don’t appear “not that religious” to your children. When teaching that homosexual sex is wrong be sure to stress that we must still love the homosexual. If you know a member of the clergy has engaged in sexual abuse then be willing to turn him over to the criminal justice system. Don’t let someone hide a crime.

Among those who left their childhood religion, women are twice as likely as men to say negative religious teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian individuals was a major reason they chose to leave their religion (40% vs. 20%, respectively). Women are also about twice as likely as men to cite the clergy sexual-abuse scandal as an important reason they left their childhood faith (26% vs. 13%, respectively).

Again, this is why we need stress truth over emotion. Perhaps women in particular need to be taught not to trust their feelings as guides to truth.

Consistent with this research, the survey finds Americans who were raised by divorced parents are more likely than children whose parents were married during most of their formative years to be religiously unaffiliated (35% vs. 23% respectively).

When I said above to plan ahead when it comes to raising your children, this has to go all the way back to who you marry and the level of commitment to the marriage.

Americans raised in mixed religious households—where parents identified with different religious traditions—are more likely to identify as unaffiliated than those raised in households where parents shared the same faith (31% vs. 22%, respectively).

Speaking of who you marry, they better be Christian.

Few unaffiliated Americans are actively looking to join a religious community. Only seven percent of the unaffiliated report they are searching for a religion that would be right for them, compared to 93% who say they are not.

In fact, relatively few unaffiliated Americans report they regularly devote much time to thinking about God or religion. More than seven in ten (72%) unaffiliated Americans say that in their day-to-day life, they do not spend much time thinking about God or religion.

Here is a challenge for missionary work. We will have to seek non-believers if they are not seeking us.


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