Why Do People Leave the Church? January 2, 2010

Why Do People Leave the Church?

I enjoy reading David Hayward‘s blog because he’s constantly critical of the church and Christian faith he loves.

He explains the 10 challenges of religious communities — problems that drive people away from the faith, problems which he is trying to fix in his own church community.

I wonder how many of them you’ve experienced and if any one or two of them specifically made you walk away from your faith.

Here are just a couple items from David’s list:

3. Questions, unless they complement the accepted tradition and dogma, are not welcomed.

8. Exclusion trumps inclusion. Gays, for example. Diversity is scary and deemed impossible.

I went through the whole list to see if any of them could be applied to atheist groups. I’d like to say we don’t have those particular problems as a whole (though specific groups may have their own issues).

It might be tough to make a case for being pro-life or Republican among a group of atheists, but I don’t think people are shunned for holding those minority beliefs as they would be if they were pro-choice or Democrat in a Christian church.

A lot of atheist groups are overwhelmingly male, but I don’t think anyone is opposed to women holding positions of power. Indeed, several national organizations have been (and are currently) led by women. We just need to work on making women feel more welcome in the organizations.

What challenges should atheist groups be addressing in the new year?


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  • Be more family friendly. We’re part of a local freethinkers group, and the other members are all very nice to our kids, but there’s nothing for them to do at the meetings. We have to get a babysitter or take turns going or spend the meeting trying to keep our kids occupied as quietly as possible, which makes it difficult to pay attention to anything else.

  • gski

    Two strengths of the church are the feeling of belonging to a community and the ability to mobilize people to aid the community. Atheist groups need to provide the same group atmosphere and be seen contributing to the community.

  • Brian Gregory

    I think it depends upon the group. I’ve encountered atheists that tend on the skeptical side, and others that are what I’d call “emotional” atheists. Skeptical atheists may get hostile if you question AGW or other current hot-buttons, and emotional atheists can get hostile if you try to point out the difference between hating the church and rejecting religion. If either of these are involved in running a group, well, I’m not going to be around much.

    Of course these aren’t problems ‘in general’ with free thinking groups, but with personalities within the groups, and are the same kinds of personality clashes that happen in any group.

  • Richard H

    I’d like to see us building more communities for skeptical humanists.

    Things like Foundation Beyond Belief seem like a great idea. They bring the focus back to the things that we support.

  • What challenges should atheist groups be addressing in the new year?

    Obviously it depends on the group, but I would say that we need to continue not only making solid arguments against supernaturalism, but offering positive naturalistic alternatives. I say continue, because this is already happening, but I think it needs to accelerate.

    This is sticky however, because a common cry from atheists is that we don’t have any model of our own, only a lack of belief in gods. I think it is time to move beyond this position and state that atheists, at least in general, do hold a naturalistic and quite often humanistic orientation. I consider these positions to be a strength and we would be well served by advancing them and their benefits in easy-to-grasp language.

  • I just joined a group called american humanist association.
    Truly wortwhile. They have projects galore helping people.
    Kindly go to their website to see it for yourselves.
    http://www.americanhumanist.org

  • Angie

    First, the list of reasons why people become alienated from church communities is spot on. I experienced most of these in spades when I was a Catholic.

    With regard to nonbeliever communities, I think atheists and agnostics need to (1) find ways to appeal to younger demographics, and (2) become more active in community/charitable activities.

  • liz

    1. I’ve experienced enough abuse, intrigue, exploitation and alienation within the church, and have heard enough first hand testimonies from others, to realize that it isn’t rare within this institution.
    4. I’ve found that friendship within the church is not based on love for the person, but on a conditional compatibility.
    6. Success, in terms of money, numbers, appearance and reputation, is the gauge of choice. If you redefine what true success is and live by that, you’re considered a failure.
    7. Creativity has difficulty finding a home here. Unless it is religious art.
    8. Exclusion trumps inclusion. Gays, for example. Diversity is scary and deemed impossible.
    9. Male dominated. The fascination with power, authority, strategy, chain of command, visions and goals, reflect this.

    The leaders at my church (priests, teachers) always seemed understanding. they would take any question i had and praised me for being ‘unique’. occasionally they would agree with me, other times they wouldnt…but they didnt try to shove their beliefs in my face

    the ‘people’ on the other-hand were cruel. i was looked down upon for the way i dressed. i had no friends in our teen group. i actually brought my jewish friend to six flags or somewhere with my church…we got stuck on a ride and were 15 min late to our bus…when we got back a bunch of the kids told us they decided to crucify us as punishment…not very friendly.

  • Peregrine

    We can be champions of reason without being enemies of faith.

    We fight with words, and not with weapons. It is therefore that much more important that we choose our words carefully, so that they do not fall on deaf ears.

    We are not afraid to speak, and that is our strength. Do not be afraid to listen. Even if we don’t agree, we can still make the effort to understand.

    Continue to defend ourselves, our opinions, and our position, and defend the rights of others to their position and opinions. Be cautious when acting without provocation. Respond within measure.

    By all means be critical of religion when they deserve it. Where possible, try to frame criticism as constructive criticism.

    Be aware of your audience. Resist the tendency to paint believers with the same brush. Know that we have allies among the faithful, be careful not to alienate them, and be watchful for opportunities to cooperate with them for the common good.

    Become aware of our own absurdities. We have no business laughing at anyone else, if we cannot laugh at ourselves.

  • absent sway

    The items on that list were rather familiar. The points about lack of support for creativity, the promotion of codependency, and things being male-dominated (specifically with an unhealthy, worldly emphasis on leadership roles which overlaps with his point about success) especially resonate with my experience in the church. I can’t say that these were what made me leave–they weren’t the straw that broke the camel’s back but let’s say they were straws that were bruising it quite a bit over time. I initially left the church (long before leaving my faith convictions) because of witnessing two ugly, alienating, heartbreaking church splits in less than ten years’ time. There are many lovely, genuine people I developed strong friendships with during my time in church and many beautiful experiences I was glad to be a part of but it became clear to me that something was seriously wrong with the sort of churches I was attending if they were consistently beset with this sort of malice–Jesus said Christians are to be known for their love, and I was feeling more love elsewhere. I saw nothing that would indicate God’s grace or special blessing or redemption of the turmoil within these congregations, just garden variety immature backbiting and suspicion.

  • muggle

    Wow, all 10.

    Sadly, however 3, 4, 6 & 8 have also moved me away from both American Atheists and the Secular Humanists.

    I can’t remember what I dared question Ellen Johnson about when I belonged to American Atheists but her attitude was how dare you even ask. All I remember is that it was about some church-state problem I was having. When I wrote back to her rather snotty e-mail dismissing my inquiry for information on how best to handle the issue with wow, you should at least disagree politely after all American Atheists existence depends on members, her attitude became don’t let the door hit you on the way out. I didn’t. I don’t need that crap.

    I took advantage of her appearing on The Infidel Guy’s radio show to call in and ask her about her shitty attitude. She actually said I was lucky I answered her at all, Barry Lynn never would have. What she didn’t know was that Americans United did and helped with the problem, not Rev. Lynn but their top attorney which was pretty cool. When I pointed out that they had in fact helped me instead of treating me like dirt and blowing off my concerns, she just started telling The Infidel Guy I know who this is and she’s just wacko. I said wow, why do I even belong to your organization if you’re not there to help American Atheists? Don’t worry, you won’t get any more membership dues from me and hung up.

    The new president looks better but I can’t be drawn back because of my bad experience with her. That was right before the first Godless March on Washington and I still went but I didn’t renew my membership.

    I had a house fire and lost everything just before my memberships came up for renewal in both FFRF and the Center for Inquiry. As I, fortunately, had a PO box at the time, I called them both because I hated to miss issues.

    FFRF was beyond understanding and happily said you’ve supported us for years and we send Freethought Today issues for free upon request anyway. We’ll be glad to float you for a few months. (They did for six or close to if memory serves while we got back on our feet.)

    CFI, who I was already not liking some of the articles I was reading and I had a problem with a set of rules but thought they did good work took a real snotty attitude, like they were too good for me. It made me think of Dawkins “brights” article in one of the recent isssues frankly. I run hot and cold with Dawkins but I find that whole “brights” idea snobby and condescending as hell and that’s what I found when I called. They said rather haughtily that’s too bad, we’ve got a business to run. I had called them after FFRF and had been feeling optimistic especially recalling the 10 humanist rules they put on the inside front cover of every issue and reminded them of it, specifically one that had something to do with charity. They said we are charitable but we aren’t going to give free issues to everyone who calls with a sob story. I said okay, so you’re just a bunch of hypocrites then? Guess you don’t need my membership dues in a few months then. Good-bye and good riddance.

    They are still sending me through 12 years and several changes of address junk mail begging me to become a member again but you know what they are frigging hypocrites and they’ll never get another goddamn dime from me. I was starting to question some of the things appearing in the monthly magazine. The total display of selfishness while telling me to be giving and charitable pushed me away for good. I mean what would it have cost them to float me a few issues? Less than a tenth of a year’s membership dues and by refusing to do so, they’ve lost 12 years, provided they wouldn’t have disgusted me to the point I would have dropped them anyway. It cost them at least that year’s membership and probably more given the good will showing me some small charity would have generated. FFRF was much smarter about it. I’d been a member with them only one year longer than CFI, a couple of years instead of one.

    I’ve got to say FFRF, Americans United and the ACLU have all been exemplary and I remain a loyal member because they have. Feminist Majority is somewhat but not quite as warmly and I don’t always agree with them but so far they’ve maintained balance enough to not display the kind of hypocriscy that CFI did and haven’t pushed me away. I toy every year with dropping them but keep them because I want some feminist organization too and NOW is horrendous in their hostility, male bashing and, yes, also #’s 3, 4, 6 (to some extent anyway) and 8.

    But I haven’t found even one of these to fault in FFRF, AU or ACLU and because I haven’t they have my loyalty, my membership dues and occasional donations or buying of products when I can. They have my support, plain and simple, because they unflinhingly give me theirs — respectfully, not like I owe them something for it.

  • I think we need to do what we’re doing here— acknowledging that we are atheists. Show people that we’re perfectly normal, we’re not angry at god or the church or what have you. We have jobs and friends and families. I think there are a lot of people who have drifted from faith but not made any kind of definitive break. We can show that we’re out there and be welcoming when they find us.

  • i find he is missing quite a few

    Churches/mosques are sexists as all out doors. Even the mythology is ….

    Personally, as atheist, we need to do better in convincing people that we can be moral without God. That is usually the first question people ask me.

    Secondly, we have to somehow convince people that we can hold public office just as good or as better as anyone else (remember most people will not vote for an atheist to hold office)

  • Kahomono

    Comment #1 on David’s post is also not to be missed.

    It doesn’t have to be Xian to be like that — the shul is every bit the same as the church in all ten aspects.

  • I always thought it would be interesting for an atheist group to get together every Sunday morning and do good works. Help older people with shopping, lawn care, etc., find that run-down house and paint it. Clean up a patch of land for a community garden. Clean a park, plant a tree. Something like that. I give blood and volunteer at the library and am signing up for Red Cross disaster training, all with my red “A” pin on, but it would be impressive to see a group of non-believers out in the community every week, while the believers were all in church.

  • Jeff Dale

    I always thought it would be interesting for an atheist group to get together every Sunday morning and do good works.

    Good idea. The reason we secularists don’t have customs like this, or much organized community generally, is because the religions have had centuries to develop them while nonbelievers were (*ahem*) discouraged from organizing. Even modern secular societies uncritically defer to religions on questions of values, as though various and contradictory conceptions of the divine will should take precedence over common public interests and civic virtues. As a result, secular people, generally speaking, don’t have established, time-tested, and widely accepted institutions for instilling values in their kids and participating in values-based community, unless they belong to a religious organization.

  • I left the Catholic Church when I realized that the whole religion was false. Nothing more, nothing less.

  • We need to make sure the women of atheism aren’t invisible. I don’t know why this is happening, buy it’s been particularly bothering me lately.

  • Julie

    These are the top two from the list that resonate with me:

    “I’ve found that friendship within the church is not based on love for the person, but on a conditional compatibility.”

    My husband and I have chosen to not have children and I have chosen to have a career. We never went on visitations…strike three, we’re out.

    “Success, in terms of money, numbers, appearance and reputation, is the gauge of choice. If you redefine what true success is and live by that, you’re considered a failure.”

    I absolutely do not have the gift of poverty (if I read this correctly).

    As for challenges, I like what Ash Bowie says.

    My “deconversion” is still relatively recent, and at this point, I am hesitatant to call myself either an athiest or agnostic. I would prefer to define myself by what I am and believe in rather than what I am not and don’t believe in. I’ve recently begun exploring humanism via the American Humanist Association.

  • It might be tough to make a case for being pro-life or Republican among a group of atheists, but I don’t think people are shunned for holding those minority beliefs as they would be if they were pro-choice or Democrat in a Christian church.

    Well, Christopher Hitchens is a Bush-loving neo conservative, and he’s one of the biggest names out there for atheism. Meanwhile, Dawkins is unabashedly liberal. So I’d say this assessment is accurate.

  • Christopher Hitchens is a Bush-loving neo conservative…

    That’s not quite accurate. Hitchens is more of a libertarian Marxist; he has called himself a Marxist several times within the last few years. He has been highly critical of Bush, especially as regards voting irregularities and illegal wire tapping. He favors legalizing pot. He is “pro-life” but supports the right to choose. He has flatly denied being a conservative.

    I am not really defending Hitchens…I don’t like his hawkish positions especially. But he is not a Bush-loving republican, not by a long shot.

  • Atheists should define truth outside of God that would be an acceptable answer to most people. Religious or not. Truth is linked to meaning, and meaning is found mostly in belief in God. If atheists could nail it down, more people might join them.

  • billybobbibb

    It might be tough to make a case for being pro-life or Republican among a group of atheists, but I don’t think people are shunned for holding those minority beliefs as they would be if they were pro-choice or Democrat in a Christian church.

    Actually, I’m a pro-life Republican atheist. My pro-life stance has nothing to do with religion, it is because the fetal DNA is NOT the same DNA as its mother’s, and the fetus is a separate human organism. I don’t think abortion should be completely illegal, but I think it should be harder to obtain than it currently is.

    The only reason I’m a Republican is because there are more philosophical libertarians in the Republican party than the Democratic party, and the “official” Libertarian party has no teeth to speak of. To me, the Democrats seem to push too socialistic of an agenda for my tastes.

  • Jeff Dale

    meaning is found mostly in belief in God

    For theists, this might be true, though I suspect that many of them (especially toward the liberal end of the spectrum) actually find more meaning elsewhere, whether they recognize the fact or not.

    Religion is an extrinsic source of meaning. That is, it doesn’t arise out of an individual’s natural self but is superimposed upon that self. Religion asks us to imagine that our lives have a transcendent and eternal meaning, which on the surface may seem helpful in shielding our eyes from the humdrum of daily life, but in fact (I think) just holds us back from finding intrinsic meaning that would actually help us make the most of the time we have.

    We can all find meaning in our lives just by knowing ourselves and recognizing the true nature of things. No divine guidance is needed for me to see that I love my family and to discover things that fulfill me. And divine guidance (of the kind usually on offer) is decidedly unhelpful if, say, one wants to enjoy one’s sex life or raise kids with healthy doses of curiosity and skepticism.

    We atheists just need to keep spreading the message, despite pushback from religious people who feel threatened by our confidence and inspiration.

  • Kris

    I really dislike the “pro-life” trope and I wish people would stop using it. I support abortion and yet I wouldn’t call myself “anti-life”. Those terms just color the issue in ways that are absolutely unhelpful to any kind of meaningful discussion.

  • GribbleTheMunchkin

    Kris, thats exactly why the “pro-life” side of the debate use the term. By being “Pro-life” their opponents are necessarily “Anti-life”. Crafty framing. Very dishonest too. Movement republicans are masters of this kind of branding. Moral majority for instance. If you don’t agree with them, surely that makes you the immoral minority? Its a deeply wrong way of debating issues but it works surprisingly well.

    I kinda feel sorry for athiest conservatives (and conservatives in general, but thats a post for another day). There are many good things about conservative philosophy (although for the record, i’m a flaming liberal) but with the current republican party being ruled by the crazies, they have no where else to go. The lack of an effective and sensible conservative party s a great problem in the US.

    Of course, from a European perspective, the democrats are conservatives, the republicans are lunatics and America lacks a liberal party entirely.

    As for the church problems, the Iron Law of Institutions comes into effect once again. Organisations will always contain a few people who make the organisation their identity and these people sadly will atack those that criticise/question/oppose/try to reform the organisation as they would a personal slur.

    Sad but seemingly inevitable.

  • Kris, thats exactly why the “pro-life” side of the debate use the term. By being “Pro-life” their opponents are necessarily “Anti-life”. Crafty framing. Very dishonest too.

    Agreed, but the opposite can also be said. By labelling yourself “pro-choice,” you imply that the opponents are “anti-choice.” I feel like the vast majority of Americans are both pro life AND pro choice…they just happen to be for or against abortion.

  • Richard H

    @Nate

    ‘Anti-choice’ seems entirely accurate, and not especially loaded.

    I’m anti-letting people choose to steal stuff. They’re anti-letting people choose to get legal abortions.

    In practice, I say pro-legalized-abortion and anti-legalized-abortion to sidestep the issue of people who disagree with abortion but feel it ought remain legal.

    But, I don’t see that there’s much wrong with ;pro-choice’. The people you describe are pro-women having a legal choice. They also have an opinion about what people should choose, but that has little bearing on the question of legality.

  • I think atheist groups can be just as exclusionary, when they adopt the fundamentalist idea that anyone who doesn’t feel the need to be atheist is wrong. Certain motives and arguments are privileged while others are looked down on, and the end result is something like a room full of asexuals ganging up to tell someone who’s bi that sex doesn’t make sense.

    From a distance, that’s stupid and wrong, but the reasons why aren’t so obvious when you either a) don’t experience sexual feelings, or b) have never been in a position where you needed to justify yours. “I don’t know, I just do” makes you sound moronic, when the presumption is that having those feelings at all is stupid and dangerous.

    Then the atheists leave, self-assured that those who disagree with them are stupid. And the theist leaves either convinced that y’all are jerks, or depressed because she’s been invalidated, by having a vital part of her stomped on.