The latest religion report paints a dire picture for the UK. Secularism has won the day. Only 1% of 18-24-year-olds identify as Church of England, and for those in the most religious age group, those over 75, only one in three associate with the Church of England.
The situation is a bit better in the United States, but the current trajectory suggests it might only be a matter of time before the stats are similar. Secularism is growing, and with it an uptick in atheism. The growth in atheism is not as rapid as the decline in the religiously affiliated, but all too often, the church inspires as much indifference and animosity as it does devotion.
So church, what do we do? Do we wring our hands and curse the rise of atheism (or any other scapegoat)? Or do we roll up our sleeves and do the important work of missions to the fastest growing demographic in America?
To do missions today, we need to understand unbelief. Sure, it is good to track the demographic trends, but it is far more important to understand the mindset of the unaffiliated, the agnostic, and the atheist. There has been a steady stream of literature on this topic, and the social scientific work is continuing to increase.
What do we know about unbelief? Quite a bit, including:
- Most of the unaffiliated are not atheist. And among nonbelievers, most are not angry or evangelical in their atheism. In fact, most unaffiliated still identify as “spiritual” or hold a belief in God while rejecting organized religion.
- We know their numbers are growing, particularly among young adults.
- The decline is largely an American and European phenomena. It is not reflected in the rest of the world or even within immigrant communities in the U.S.
- Atheism still has a stigma attached to it, as shown by the serial killer test.
- Claiming a connection between immoral behavior and atheism is fraught at best. Yet, both believers and non-believers intuitively connect evil deeds to atheists.
- Atheists sense the importance of finding meaning and often do so through values many Christians hold dear, like family and freedom.
- At least a decade ago, according to the National Study of Youth and Religion, the religious beliefs of parents were the key determinant in the beliefs of their children.
- Kids are more prone to leave when parents’ actions don’t mirror their beliefs.
- Few atheists look like the New Atheists. That is while they may not believe in God, most would not rely entirely on naturalistic explanations or be antagonistic towards religion. Some might even be sympathetic or nostalgic regarding faith.
It is not clear that religion is all good and atheism is all bad. The studies show far greater nuance. Lois Lee suggests, “The public image of the atheist is simplification at best, and a gross caricature at worst.” In discussing religion and raising kids, psychologist Will Gervais concludes, “A lot of religious folks assume that religion would be good for kids and atheism would be bad for kids. A lot of prominent atheists assume the opposite. They’re both probably wrong.”
- Can you be good without God? What about your kids?
- How do parents influence unbelief in their children?
- Atheist are not necessarily more rational than the rest of us.
- Nor do they entirely reject the supernatural or objective moral values.
- The Understanding Unbelief project has learned quite a bit about unbelief.
- Barna’s report on atheism and generational views of faith and science.
- Greg often encounters SBNR (spiritual but not religious) students in his classroom and has written about it here and here.
- Reflections from a Christian attending a recent conference on unbelief.
- Vox did their own investigation into American views on religion.
- Science & the Big Questions collates many articles on atheism.
The Mission Field
There’s never been a greater need for evangelism in the U.S. And if David Kinnaman and his Barna data are correct, engaging science in our congregations is one potential corrective to counter the increase of the “nones” and unbelief.
In You Lost Me, Kinnaman outlines reasons young people leave church. One is the perceived incompatibility of faith and science. In 2018, Barna showed that teens (25%) and young adults (25%) are much less likely than Gen X (36%) and Boomers (45%) to see science and the Bible as complementary. That is to say, it is not getting any better. We will continue to lose our children and our children’s children unless we change our posture toward science and can communicate how science relates to faith.
That is precisely the purpose of these newsletters—to give you, the missionaries to a religiously unaffiliated culture, current information and resources on science relevant to ministry.
I have three daughters. I know that the odds of all three staying in the church is low. But I’m doing my best to make sure the church’s failure to engage science faithfully and intelligently is not a reason they leave. I pray the same for you and the children you raise both at home and in your ministry.