Why People Abandon Religion

Last night I was flipping through the TV channels, and I stumbled across a preacher on our local Evangelical channel. He mentioned that 80% of children raised in Christian homes will abandon their parents’ religion sometime during young adulthood. That sounded about right to me, but what I thought was interesting was his stated reason for losing the younger generation.

In my view, people will stick with a religion if it meets their spiritual needs. If they have made a connection with the religion and it adds to their lives, they are not likely to leave it behind. Generally, people–not just the younger generation–will not adhere to a religion that is not meaningful in their lives, that does not improve the quality of their spiritual lives. But that’s not what our preacher friend identified as the problem.

The culprit, he gravely pronounced, was the public school system, which he described as a system of “madrassas for secularism.” He advocated home schooling for concerned Christians, if they want to keep their children within the flock. But such an approach is doomed to failure, in my judgment.

First of all, I don’t see public schools as hell-bent (literally?) on destroying faith. For one thing, an awful lot of public school teachers are people of deep and abiding faith who presumably would recognize it if they were being used as tools of secular jihadism. But that’s neither here nor there (in other words, if you want to argue about the schools’ hostility to religion, I’m not going to respond).

Let’s say the preacher is correct, and our kids face constant challenging of their faith. It’s true that pulling them out of public schools and home schooling them (or enrolling them in one of those religious “academies”) will protect them in the short run. But eventually, they will be challenged in their faith, either in college or in the broader world. Kids who have been sheltered from any questions or challenges about their faith for 18 years will find themselves dealing with challenges they are ill-equipped to resolve.

True faith involves constant questioning and re-evaluating. There’s a reason that people speak of faith as a “walk”: it’s a continuous process, and when you stop and think you are finished, you are wrong. Some people believe that questioning and doubting are bad and poisonous to faith. For example, LDS (Mormon) Church president Thomas Monson has said,

Remember, faith and doubt cannot exist in the mind at the same time, for one will dispel the other. Cast out doubt. Cultivate faith. Strive always to retain that childlike faith which can move mountains and bring heaven closer to heart and home.

Should doubt knock at your doorway, just say to those skeptical, disturbing, rebellious thoughts: “I propose to stay with my faith, with the faith of my people. I know that happiness and contentment are there, and I forbid you, agnostic, doubting thoughts, to destroy the house of my faith. I acknowledge that I do not understand the processes of creation, but I accept the fact of it. I grant that I cannot explain the miracles of the Bible, and I do not attempt to do so, but I accept God’s word. I wasn’t with Joseph, but I believe him. My faith did not come to me through science, and I will not permit so-called science to destroy it.” (Ensign, Feb. 2001)

But doubt does not dispel faith; rather, struggling through difficult questions and doubt strengthens faith. Doubt is the essential ingredient in faith, as the apostle Paul explained: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).

If you know something without a doubt, that is called “knowledge,” obviously. Faith, however, involves hope and conviction of things we can’t see, but which we believe to be true. True faith, then, is accepting that certain things are so and living our lives accordingly. When we “cast out doubt,” we are saying that we don’t need faith anymore; our walk stops, and our faith dies.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In the same way, unexamined faith is not true faith. We can keep our children sequestered away and unchallenged by “worldly” influences, but sooner or later they will confront the wider world. Those whose parents have taught them to accept and deal with doubt as it comes will be far better prepared when the inevitable challenge comes. Parents who think they are protecting their kids by not exposing them to challenges are just harming their children’s potential to develop a strong and lasting faith; at the same time they are seriously short-changing their kids’ education by “sheltering” them from science and history that conflicts with religious dogma.

Note: I don’t have a problem, per se, with home schooling. Some people can and do provide a better and more appropriate education for their children at home. But fear of outside influence is a really bad reason for home schooling.

Again, it’s pretty clear to me that the reason people abandon their faith is that it does not relate to them in a meaningful way. That’s not going to change, even if they get homeschooled.

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7 Responses to Why People Abandon Religion

  1. Dan says:

    I think the public school system reinforces patterns of thought that strengthen religious beliefs. That includes giving credibility to authority and not questioning, regurgitating information without understanding, and seeking to earn the approval of others.

    • runtu says:

      That’s an excellent point. When I was teaching freshman composition, it drove me crazy that a lot of students would just take what I said at face value and never challenge me, so I specifically started doing lessons that would provoke them. I’d get them to agree with me and then start deconstructing their position. It was fun, but a little frustrating.

  2. Diane Sower says:

    My husband has been a Christian since the age of 17, and he’s now 59, and a public school teacher. This kind of trash talk by some “out there” fundamentalists does the children no good. My husband works around 60 hours a week during the school year, and in our early years of marriage added two Master’s degrees as well, at our expense. There is nothing I’ve ever found in his curriculum that deserves the crap he takes from parents, especially the home schooling bunch that believe in conspiracy theories, and that all teachers are godless idiots. I’ve seen some of the home schooling curriculum, watched friends see their children get passed by intellectually because they won’t have them tested at school, and don’t know any decent type of teaching method, other than worksheets and computer programs.

  3. kuri says:

    IME, fundamentalists have little faith — ironically enough — in their own ideas. They try to keep their children away from competing ideas, because they’re afraid of them. They don’t have enough confidence in their own ideas to believe that their children would choose them if they’re exposed to other kinds of thinking.

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  5. The Monson quote is really disturbing. No wonder so many young Mormons are leaving the faith of their parents.

  6. FamilyFirst says:

    I don’t think the point here was about homeschooling or public education but the feeble attempt of a pastor to blame something other than himself and his failing institution for young adults to leave the faith they were raised in.

    Monson’s quote is beyond unbelievable. Anyone who would tell you what to think or what not to think is someone to be avoided at all costs.

    If people are leaving the LDS church, they are doing so for good reasons. I know I left and there are many reasons to leave but there was one final straw that broke the camel’s back and that was it became crystal clear that they don’t follow the gospel but rather their own agenda.

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