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Atheism/Why do young people move away from religion? - Research


Dear Mr. Eldred,

My name is Luca Hensel, I am a german exchange student. I am a journalism student at Sharon High School in Sharon, Massachusetts. I am writing a long-form piece in my honors journalism class about why young people move away from religion and I came across your name as I was conducting my research.

I thought you might be able to contribute a valuable perspective to my article. Some of the sub-questions I am exploring are:

What will it be replaced by?
Would religion have to change to stay relevant?
Would the world be more peaceful without religion?
Why is religion so important to many older people?

I thank you in advance,

Luca Hensel

Hello Luca, interesting subjects! I'm happy to help with your journalism project, I only hope that my comments are not too late.

Atheists and Irreligion:
Let start with the question “Why is religion so important to many older people?” The answer is that “Religion used to be more important than now is”. That is the answer for the US, at least. Its true that the people in the US right now who are older are more likely to be religious, but its not true that people in the US become more religious as they get older. The Pew Forum has the most exhaustive and well-respected data on nonreligious demography in the US, and a plot on this page [1] is particularly instructive. Each generation is less religious then the previous generation, and religion is a relatively stable identity across an individuals lifetime. However, some generations (Boomers and earlier) seem to be becoming slightly less religious as they get older.

Actually I should mention that what the Pew Forum is tracking most closely is “unaffiliation”, what they call “nones”. 88% of them are not looking for a religious affiliation, 65% say religion is “not at all important”, 58% “seldom/never” pray, 49% “seldom/never attend religious services”, 42% consider themselves “neither religious nor spiritual”, 32% say they don't or don't know if they believe in “God or a universal spirit” and only 5% call themselves “atheist” or “agnostic”. You see, depending on how you ask the question the religiosity of the “unaffiliated” can look differently. I would approximate about half of the nones as essentially spiritual and about half to be essentially secular. But I think the fairest things to say are that 1) the unaffiliated represent a spectrum of opinions 2) As a whole, the rise of the unaffiliated represents a turn away from religion. Pew Forum unpacks the opinions of the unaffiliated in different ways to make it clear what exactly it means.

Something to understand is that the word “atheist” has so many negative connotations [2][3] that people are highly reluctant to identify as nonreligious even as they increasingly live their lives that way. As Dan Dennet surmises, even more popular than “believing in religion” is having a “belief in believing in religion” [4]. Many atheists, like myself, are highly optimistic about what the “nones” portend for the future of atheism. If atheism ever becomes sufficiently mainstream that identifying as an atheist is more socially acceptable (or even socially advantageous!) than we may reach a turning point that allows secular nones to openly embrace their nonreligious views. Indeed, many atheists organizations view these individuals as their target audience [5].

The Rise of American Atheism:
The recent rise in American atheism has generally been described in three terms. The first is the Internet, a correlation which has some empirical support [6]. As young people got access to the Internet they started learning about other religions, debating the existence of God, debunking religious claims, and finding communities that they could safely express themselves. This is very much how became an atheist - I started doubting the existence of God and turning to the Internet for the best arguments for and against finalized my decision.

The second cause of American atheism is as a backlash against American creationists. When modern creationists such as Ken Ham [7] make the case that Christianity necessitates creationism, the natural consequence is that people stop believing when they learn about evolution. But more importantly, it was the development that led nonreligious scientists to speak out against religion directly, rather than relegating themselves to just science education. As I explain in a previous post [8], the previous consensus/truce was formed with the belief that de-emphasizing the conflict between religion and science would cause religious antagonism to dissipate but instead it emboldened them. Compare Stephen Jay Gould Non-overlapping Magisteria [9] in 1997 to Discovery Institute's Wedge document [10] leaked in 1999. While the percentage of Americas who believe in creationism is still a depressingly high number [11][12], I believe the polarization causes by this culture war continues to generate a steady stream of nonbelievers.

The last force contributed to American atheism is 9/11 and the global war on terrorism. Sam Harris' 2004 book End of Faith [13][14] interprets these events as demonstration of the danger of premodern ideas in a modern era and calls for a new rationality movement. In the Cold War era the American identity, defined in opposition to the Soviet Union, require Christianity and capitalism; In the post-9/11 era passionate support of American constitutional freedoms and opposition to Islam has become a way to engage in wartime “patriotism” that is accessible to atheists. Moreover, the success of Harris' book paved the way for subsequent authors to connect with large publishers and communicate in the mainstream. Subsequently there was Dawkins' “God Delusion” [15] in 2006, Dennet's “Breaking the Spell” [16] in 2006, and Hitchens' “God is Not Great” [17] in 2007. These would come to be known as the Four Horsemen of New Atheism, first articulated in this classic Wired article [18]. These books broke the taboo on criticizing religion and helped launch a genre of atheist books [19].

Atheism, the New Normal:
Who becomes atheists and why do they leave religion? One of my AllExperts posts has been about the demography of atheism [20]. I wrote another AllExperts post on why I expect irreligion to increasing in the long-term [21] (a claim I defended here [22]). Two detailed statistical models indicates that a lack of religion is associated with education, financial resources, social capital, and a sense of security [23][24]. In the near term, these models predict irreligion to become increasing polarized along levels of economic development, but in the long-term (or long-long-term) irreligiousity will only increase as the world continues to progress. The value-neutral explanation these models use for their data is that religion provides some sort of coping mechanism [23] or that irreligion helps individuals network with elites [24].

In my view, however, its more than that. Atheism is right and therefore its growth is inevitable result of human progress. I expect its trajectory to proceed in the same fashion as the historical spread of abolitionism or the contemporary knowledge of Calculus. With education, atheism (or a sentiment nearly identical) is the inevitable conclusion.

The most obvious way religion is obsolete is in its claim to knowledge about the natural world, see this previous post for an overview [25]. We know the scientific method is the way to learn about the world, rather than revealed knowledge [26]. Modern society is realizing that religious ideas are entirely unhelpful on evolution [27], cosmology [28][29], death [30][31], climate change [32], psychology [33-35] and even history [36][37]. Consequently, this will require religion to retreat to the borders delineating in Stephen Jay Gould's Non-overlapping magisteria [9]. But the problem is that religion needs the supernatural to function. If Jesus (or Muhammad etc) was not a miraculous entity, why would we expect him to be an absolute authority on metaphysical or spiritual matters? If Adam & Eve was just a metaphor that what was Jesus supposed to be saving us from? And if there is no evidence for God in the natural world, doesn't that rule out the possibility that God intercedes on behalf of prayer?

What you have left after cutting out the supernatural parts of Christianity is the Jefferson Bible [38]. Jefferson found the supernatural elements of the Bible superfluous, but the moral lessons still valuable. However this version of religion is no longer tenable either, because the moral contributions of religion are also obsolete. I discuss some of the horrendous acts the Bible participated in here [39], but actually the main thing that comes to mind is GLBT rights. Every age group, ever region, both political affiliations came around on gay marriage within 20 years [40]. Much of this work involved reinterpreting religion, but it also involved ignoring religious morality and rejecting religious morality. The important thing was that it that it is an example of moral progress exogenous to religious morality. Although editorials and church pews across the country are already re-writing history to say that the tolerance was part of “true religion” [41] all along, the growing disappointment in religious wisdom can be seen in the coinciding rise of nones [1]. Islam, with its stronger contingency of religious conservatism [42], will find generally a starker contrast between many of its archaic values and the secular improvements. One can invoke the “Moderate Muslims” at this point (and they clearly do exist), but I think the 21st century will require us to do better than even that [43].

God is no longer a very useful subject even in philosophy [45][46]. Could world religions abandon all supernatural claims and become exceedingly responsive to the self-consistent factions of contemporary ethical philosophy and other philosophy? Maybe, but would that even mean? The group of atheists that worry about the dangerous of AI [47] versus the group of atheists with particularly permissive bioethics [48]? Such things defy the imagination, as they would no longer resemble anything like what we mean when we say the word religion.

The one thing I'd know I'd miss about religion is the source of community. Few other organizations are as successful at connecting people of all age categories, a variety of income categories, and similar cultural background. This community can play a vital role in sharing resources and gathering socially than can be a powerful force against poverty and other adversities. Echoing this sentiment, the thesis of Sikivu Hutchinson's Moral Combat [19] is that the atheism will need to replace the role of the church especially in black communities. There have been some motions to create atheist churches [49][50] and summer camps [51], I've not experienced either of these and its hard to tell if these will take off. Some atheists flock to Unitarian Universalist churches (I have both considered this and recommended this [52]), which are not explicitly atheist but are not intolerant of atheists either and generally have a generic liberal moral/political sentiment. I certainly believe UU churches, and institutions like it, could be a transitional place for religious individuals that liberalize rather than reject their religious views. All of these examples serve as a source of community, but I also feel that if we reinvent the religious service we can do better than simply singing songs that omit the references to God. Charitable projects would already be there [53], but services could also be both more educational and more entertaining than they currently are. Couldn't atheist churches host colloquiums by academic members, vocational workshops by skilled members, contemporary music concerts by members in bands, and theaters scenes by members who act? None of these services would have to be about atheism, they just have to be wholesome community activities. I think there is enough precedent for these activities, but the social infrastructure may take some time to build.

Violence & Religion:
Do religious books provide justification for abhorrent behavior or do abhorrent moral standards drive how individual interpret religious books? The two sentiments held in the atheists community are pretty well-represented in this discussion between Sam Harris and Cenk Uygur [54]. Sam Harris (like the late Christopher Hitchens) represents the atheists who take ideas at face-value and find references to the environmental factors to be an exercise in excuse-making. To see the role of religion in violence, they argue, one need only to read historical interpretations of Christianity [55] or listen to the world of contemporary Islamic radicals [56][57]. Nonviolent religion is irrelevant to this case, because these cases of violent religions are still cases clearly caused by religion.

Cenk Uygur takes the opposing position, that people do not always understand the reasons they do what they do and we should look to environmental factors to explain human behavior. After all religion, especially radical religion, is irrational so we shouldn't expect the reasons for the behavior of religious radicals to be found it what they say but in the events that brought them to this point. A traumatic past and clime of civil unrest lead men to turn to violent paramilitary gangs; Financial compensation for their families cause men to become suicide bombers.

I sympathizes with both sides of the argument. I think ideas matter and I think environments matter. I have my own way of describing the connection between violence and religion [58]. Human civilization has come a lot way from the commonplace brutality and superstition of ancient times [59][60]. But one unfortunate feature of all religious books is the reverence of ancient understanding, which becomes a preservation of ignorance whenever there is any moral or scientific progress is made. One can reinterpret the religious books or ignore them, but both take effort. Whatever else may be said about religious books, they are conservative forces - forces that drag us back into our barbaric pasts. The relative degrees of success that various societies have had at this involve their complicated histories - economic factors, political factors, social factors, etc. So from this analysis its both clear that religion is a problem and clear religion is not THE problem. I also believe the development of a universal peace will coincide with the decline of religion.

[19] Victor Stenger:
Ayaan Hirsi Ali:
Dan Barker:
John Loftus:
Sikivu Hutchinson:
Richard Carrier:
Greta Christina:
Hemant Mehta:
[26] (Science as Prophecy section)
[28] William Lane Craig's argument:
Origin of Physics:
Origin of Existence:
[33] Visions:
[34] Dreams:
[35] Prophecy:
[43] This isn't about a moral contest between a typical American atheist and a typical American Muslim. Indeed, in many cases, the latter is a more reliable supporter of peaceful and sensible geopolitical strategy that I believe has the ethical high-ground [44]. My point is that the right answer requires both a peaceful political demeanor and a de-privileging of clergyman (in this case, literal men).
[55] (section 2)
[57] (contains some graphic content)
[60] “Better Angels of Our Nature” by (atheist) Stephen Pinker discuss humanities violent history and its contributing factors at length:


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Jeffrey Ellsworth


I am well versed on the arguments for both sides about the existence of God and am especially aware of the philosophical ramifications and psychological reactions to atheism. Also, if you have a question about atheism as that pertains to Science or Skepticism, I may be an especially good pick. However my knowledge of non-Judeo-Christian religions and Biblical archaeology is generally limited to knowledge about directions to more informative resources.


I've been an atheist for 14 years now, open about it for 9 years after being raised in a Roman Catholic family. In that time I have held many different philosophical perspective on the subject and had different emotional and psychological reactions to atheism. I have absorbed many internet articles, video debates, atheist publications, and secular podcasts in my process of understanding and supporting the atheist movement. I routinely hold conversations on the subject.

One article in If Journal, an interfaith publication.

I have a BS in Physics and Mathematics from the College of William & Mary I am pursuing my Ph.D in Physics at Indiana University at Bloomington. I have very little formal training in philosophy or sociology.

Awards and Honors
I was president of the William & Mary Students for Science & Secularism before graduating.

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