My co-author John Marriott has been academically studying and publishing on deconversion for over seven years. In this post, he wrestles with the question of what the data shows about young people leaving the faith. Please check out his insights and consider getting a copy of our book Set Adrift: Deconstructing What You Believe Without Sinking Your Faith.
Hemorrhaging the Faith (by John Marriott, Guest blogger)
I’m sometimes asked what the data shows about the number of young people who at one time identified as Christians but now no longer do. My response is always the same,
“The data shows that young people are hemorrhaging faith at an alarming rate.”
For example, in 2015 the Pew Research Center reported that for every one person who converted to Christianity, four people renounced their Christian faith. In 2022 Pew reported that nearly one-third of Christians under 30 years of age will no longer identify as Christians by the time they reach 30. Ryan Burge a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University, notes that the rise in Nones (atheists, agnostics and the religiously unaffiliated) doesn’t come from being born in homes to parents who identify as Nones, rather the majority are defectors from a faith community. In a 2015 CNN article Greg Smith, the Pew Research Center associate director of religion research commented that "We've known that the religiously unaffiliated has been growing for decades. But the pace at which they've continued to grow is really astounding."
The 2022 General Social Survey data supports Smith’s observation. It predicts that if the number of those identifying as Christians continues to fall and the number of those identifying as Nones continues to rise, within one generation there will be more individuals in the United States who identify as “Nones” than who identify as Christians. In terms of percentages, Pew calculates in 40 years if current rates continue that it’s possible 52% of the US population will identify as Nones while only 35% will identify as Christians. That’s stunning, given that in the 1990s only about 5% of the population identified as having no religious affiliation. Perhaps the most ominous statistic comes from a study conducted by the Pinetops Foundation who claim that:
"the next 30 years will represent the largest missions opportunity in the history of America. It is the largest and fastest numerical shift in religious affiliation in the history of this country. Even in the most optimistic scenarios, Christian affiliation in the U.S. shrinks dramatically, and in our base case, over one million youth at least nominally in the church today will choose to leave each year for the next three decades. 35 million youth raised in families that call themselves Christians will say that they are not by 2050.”
Why Are They Leaving?
The above statistics raise several questions, not the least of which is, why are so many young people leaving the faith? The answer to that question, as you might expect, is very complex. There are multiple streams – each contributing to varying degrees – to the deconversion torrent. However, one factor that stands out among the others is the impact the Internet has had on faith loss. The Internet has allowed people to access information that they otherwise would never have been exposed to. This is especially true when it comes to objections to the Christian faith. Prior to the Internet, and outside of a philosophy or comparative religion course at a public university, there were few places one would ever encounter the most difficult and powerful challenges to the truth of Christianity. However, those days are long gone.
When I was a teenager nearly everything in my experience reinforced my faith, but I never had access to anything that challenged it. For example, I had a supportive community. Each week I went to church with like-minded individuals who reinforced what I believed. There were Christian radio stations I listened to that broadcast programs dedicated to defending the truth of Christianity. There were also Christian television networks, dozens of television programs I used to watch, and a Christian bookstore I could ride my bike to. It had dozens of books from numerous publishers that reinforced the truth of what I believed.
Given that my faith was constantly reinforced by my experience it’s not surprising that the only questions about the truthfulness of Christianity that ever crossed my mind were the ones raised by the apologetics books I read, and which in turn decisively answered. Faith was an easy thing to have. If you wanted to have it.
It's not such an easy thing to have today. Even if you want to have it. The Internet has leveled the playing field by allowing a thousand atheist apologists to bloom. Podcasts, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube – not to mention Amazon self-publishing – have provided the opponents of Christianity with what they had always lacked, an ability to congregate, strategize, and disseminate their message.
As Hemant Mehta, known as the Friendly Atheist, says, “Until the Internet came along, we didn’t have our version of [church]. Now that we have a space where we can talk about our (lack of) religious beliefs, it’s that much easier to communicate our views.” Brandon Peach at RELEVANT magazine noted that on Mehta’s website a question in the forums asked if former believers would have left their faith if the Internet didn’t exist. Interestingly, a significant number said they would not have. The data supports Mehta’s comments.
Paul McClure’s 2018 study “Tinkering with Technology and Religion in the Digital Age: claims that internet usage may account for as much as 20% of religious decline. Likewise, The MIT Technological Review citing a study by Olin College professor Allen Downey published an article titled, How the Internet is Taking Away America’s Religion. The article’s conclusion was that using the internet can destroy your faith.
Social websites like Facebook make it possible to communicate and form meet-up groups that never could have existed prior to the World Wide Web. The reason is that it provides an opportunity for atheists – who are relatively small in number compared with the general population – to find each other and form communities for support and encouragement. “A lot of millennials who are coming of age have found that the Internet is a fantastic place to talk about their doubt,”7
says Jesse Galef, communications director for the Secular Student Alliance. “Before the Internet, there was no place for young people to do that. The only place to go was really church, and that wasn’t always a welcoming place.”8
Where we Go Next
So where does this leave us? Well, it’s clear that individuals are leaving the Christian faith at rates that we’ve never seen before. Although it’s nearly impossible to show that the Internet is causing faith loss, it’s clear that the two are correlated. How should we respond? In the next post, I’ll suggest several ways to counter the impact of online atheist apologetics.
 The majority of those identifying as Nones come from Mainline and Roman Catholic faith traditions.
 Burke, Daniel. Millennials Leaving Church in Droves, Study Says. (CNN. Cable News Network, May 14, 2015), https://www.cnn.com/2015/05/12/living/pew-religion-study/index.html.
 Pinetops Foundation (2018). The Great Opportunity: The American Church in 2050, 9.