The Real Reasons Americans Are Leaving Religion Behind

A new study by the Pew Research Center revealed the motivations behind the growing number of “nones” in the United States today. The study, released Wednesday, explained why many Americans refuse to identify with a religious group. More than three-quarters of these people grew up in a faith tradition.

“Rational thought makes religion go out the window,” one member of the survey said. Others attacked organized religion: “It’s a business … it’s all about money.” Others were religiously unsure: “I know I can pray to God anywhere. I do believe in a higher power, but I don’t need a church to do that.” Finally, a surprisingly large number said they simply “don’t have the time to go to church.”

1. “I just don’t believe.”

Nearly half (49 percent) of the “nones” in the survey reported leaving religion because they just don’t believe in it. Many cited “science” as the reason they rejected faith. “I’m a scientist now, and I don’t believe in miracles,” one said. Others mentioned “common sense,” “logic,” or a “lack of evidence.”

82 percent of atheists and 63 percent of agnostics said they left religion because they do not believe, while only 37 percent of those who are neither atheist nor agnostic said they rejected religious faith for this reason.

Among this group who rejected religion because they rejected faith, most described themselves as “disenchanted,” with smaller groups saying they are “not interested” or their “views evolved.” Only 1 percent of all religious “nones” said they don’t believe because they “went through a crisis of faith.”

2. “I dislike organized religion.”

One fifth (20 percent) of the “nones” said they rejected their childhood religion because they dislike the organization itself. Some merely did not like the hierarchical nature of religious groups, some considered churches too similar to businesses, and others mentioned the clergy sexual abuse scandals.

“I see organized religious groups as more divisive than uniting,” one respondent declared. Another argued, “I think that more harm has been done in the name of religion than any other area.” Yet another stated, “I no longer believe in organized religion. I don’t attend services anymore. I just believe that religion is very personal conversation with me and my creator.” Others briefly cited “the clergy sex abuse scandal” or “the church’s teachings on homosexuality.”

Of these reasons, 15 percent said they merely opposed institutional religion, 4 percent said religion focuses too much on power or politics, and 1 percent said it causes conflict.

3. “I’m not sure about religion.”

If those two reasons seem natural and almost self-explanatory, the third explanation is where it really gets interesting. We have to remember that religious “nones” include people who consider themselves spiritual, people who believe in God, and even people who pray.

18 percent of the “nones” in the survey classified themselves as “religiously unsure” or “undecided.” 7 percent said they were unaffiliated but religious, 6 percent said they were “seeking” or open-minded, and 3 percent described themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” 2 percent overall said they were uncertain about their beliefs. Fascinatingly, the overall “undecided” group included a full 5 percent of atheists.

Not all of these people are open to religion. “I don’t have a particular religion because I am open-minded and I don’t think there is one particular religion that is right or wrong,” one said. Another reported, “I feel that there is something out there, but I can’t nail down a religion.”

Next Page: What if church is just inconvenient?

4. “Church is just too inconvenient.”

Perhaps the most surprising cohort of the religious “nones” are the “inactive believers.” They account for 10 percent of those surveyed: 8 percent described themselves as “non-practicing,” and the other 2 percent said they were just “too busy.” This group included zero atheists and only 3 percent of agnostics.

These people may not take part in religious practices, but they often have religious faith. Some just “don’t have the time to go to church.” 14 percent of “nones” who would not describe themselves as atheist or agnostic fell into this category.

Even so, not all of them believe. “I just basically stopped going to church when I went to college and never picked it back up. I was never super religious,” one respondent said. “I don’t practice any religion and I don’t go to church or participate in any of the rituals of the church,” another said.

What this means for religious people.

Religious believers — and Christians in particular — have a great deal to learn from these results.

It will not come as a surprise that secular culture and the scientism of people like the “New Atheists” (Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins) is responsible for the disbelief of many in the West. I would greatly encourage Christians and other religious believers to emphasize the deep compatibility between religion and science, and the (albeit controversial) fact that Christians can believe in evolution.

We need to do a better job proclaiming the reasons for what we believe, and how they enable us to live grounded lives in the modern world. Many people do not understand why Christians cannot embrace things like homosexuality or transgenderism, and even The New York Times reported that a verse in Romans commands the murder of homosexuals.

Perhaps the biggest threat to faith — both inside the church and out — is the hypocrisy in how many Christians live their lives. If Christianity is true, believers have been saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and endowed with the Holy Spirit. The love of Christ should overflow in our lives, and bear witness through the good we do for each other and for the world.

To a large and impressive extent, this has happened. Christians abolished slavery in the West during the Middle Ages, and again in the 1800s. The Christian Church invented hospitals, universities, and was instrumental in the development of modern democracy and capitalism.

Unfortunately, Christians are sinners as well. Power — even in the hands of the church — is corrupting. The Catholic Church has fostered sexual abuse, and even though the crusades were launched to be a defensive war, they twisted Christianity to say that war could save souls. Protestants are not immune: Mainline denominations have revealed the hollowness of their faith by embracing sinful elements of the culture writ large, and even churches which hold fast to the truths of scripture can become prideful and alienating.

Churches need to understand that they have pushed people away, and should learn humility from this fact. It is impossible to prevent defections and disbelief, but atheists and agnostics do have some legitimate complaints.

Love, prayer, humility, and a deep investigation of scripture and tradition can help the church respond to the exodus it faces in the 21st century. Let us root out hypocrisy and build our communities on the love and good news of the Gospel.

On the other hand, the Pew study has also found that a revival of sorts is occurring in the church. About one half of those who identify as religious believers are going to church more regularly, which means that churches are growing more than they are shrinking.

The church should reject both a “doom and gloom” atmosphere and a spirit of prideful optimism. In humility, let us understand the problems and the solution, embracing those who have fallen away from the faith and presenting the good news of Jesus Christ to everyone. The modern world may have unique problems, but we have had the solution for 2,000 years. Let us again be transformed by the renewal of our minds.