The Church’s Fan Base Is Slipping Away

Christian sins, intolerance, and confusion are largely to blame

It has been said that the Internet is a place where religion goes to die. That’s because it’s an easily accessible portal to ideas and information that clergy would prefer to keep hidden from their congregations. Of course, deeply committed religious believers have their presence on the Internet as well, but atheists have achieved a level of prominence, for example, Hemant Mehta (The Friendly Atheist), Seth Andrews (The Thinking Atheist), John W. Loftus, prolific author and founder of the Debunking Christianity Blog, Annie Laurie Gaylor (author and co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation), Valerie Tarico, author and blogger, Greta Christina, author and blogger—to name but a very few. It would seem that Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris—with their devastating critiques of religion—provided the impetus for the atheist publishing surge we’ve seen since the turn of the century.
This is no doubt one factor in the increase of the “nones”—that is, people who no longer claim affiliation with any particular religion or church. The Wikipedia page on the “nones” provides a breakdown by state in the US, i.e., what percentage of “nones” in 2014 versus 2007. This is not to say, however, that the “nones” are comfortable identifying specifically as atheists. For many Americans, that word is just too ugly, has too many sinister connotations. According to a Pew Research Center report published in February 2024, people who self-identify as atheists are 4% of the US adults, compared with 3% in 2014 and 2% in 2007. Nevertheless, the “nones” represent an important trend; they are having a major impact on the churches. That is, the church is losing its fan base. 
The Pew Research Center report listed 8 facts about atheists that are worthy of note. Fact Number 3 is about the search for meaning.  Obviously, atheists don’t look to a god in their search for meaning in life; instead “…finances and money, creative pursuits, travel, and leisure activities….” play major roles. That is, evaluating what life has to offer. But religious folks who see meaning primarily in the worship and adoration of a god commonly fail to notice how carefully their idea of god has been shaped and curated by the clergy they trust to know about their god. The ideas can be farfetched, even absurd. Catholic claims are especially so. In 1854 Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that is, when Mary was conceived, her soul escaped the taint of Original Sin.  Thus the cult of this Catholic goddess was enhanced:
“…there has been a close link in the minds of modern Popes between Mary and papal authority. In short, the unfolding of human history depends not on communitarian and societal action and responsibility but upon miraculous interventions mediated by Mary and endorsed by the papacy.” (p. 273, John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pope Pius XII)   
Really? The unfolding of human history depends on Mary’s miraculous interventions? Pope John Paul II apparently believed it. He was the victim of an assassination attempt on 13 May 1981, which happened to be the 64th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin Mary at Fatima, 13 May 1917. The Pope had one of the bullets that struck him placed on Mary’s crown at Fatima. He was confident that Mary had guided the bullet to miss a crucial artery. Was she just having a bad day? Why not guide the bullet to miss him entirely? And why not appear whenever a priest is about to rape/abuse a child—and put a stop to it? A few years ago when an earthquake struck Italy, killing hundreds of people, Pope Francis assured the survivors that Mary was there to comfort them. Why didn’t Mary intervene miraculously to prevent the earthquake? 
These are examples of carefully curated beliefs that Catholics appear to accept—and are grateful for. There seems little inclination/motivation to ask their priests for reliable, verifiable, objective evidence that these beliefs are true. 
I admit that the search for meaning in this life can be tough. When we contemplate the horrors that humans are capable of committing against each other—because of the flaws in our brains, e.g., aggression, territoriality, hatreds—it’s hard to believe that a god (who supposedly designed our brains) can be a source of meaning and comfort. And yet, the human brain is capable of creating so much spectacular beauty—for me, that’s a source of meaning. Without needing a god to account for it. Here I am stuck on this brutal planet for a few decades, yet there’s plenty to be amazed by, and draw meaning from. 
An example. My oldest brother, born in 1930, twelve years before I was, turned out to be a musical prodigy. So one of my earliest memories, in rural northern Indiana, was listening to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts from New York on Saturday afternoons. As well as the operas of Verdi, Puccini, and Rossini, my brother introduced me to the symphonies and piano sonatas of Beethoven, and to the stunning symphonies of Gustaf Mahler. Here were creative geniuses who could imagine—in their heads—how 80-100 musicians in an orchestra could be coordinated to product magnificent sound. There is meaning in that for me: the wonders that can emerge from human creativity. At my advanced age (81), my most productive study/reading time is commonly from 10:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m. —my alarm clock is on permanent vacation. While I study/read, in the calm of the night, I listen to the Beethoven piano sonatas, and still marvel at their subtle, intricate construction—their delightful elegance. 
The same applies to the visual arts. Any vacation destination I choose must have museums, hence my favorite cities include Florence, Milan, Rome, Paris, and London. Here is meaning: the capacity of human minds to transfer vivid images of experience onto canvas—or into sculpted marble. Michelangelo was 23 years old when he carved the Pietà, now at the Vatican. Caravaggio painted one version of The Supper at Emmaus, which is at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan; another version is at the National Gallery in London. He depicted all the characters as common folks; he had moved away from idealized religious images. Here was a man who was deeply disturbed, inclined to brawling, yet there was that part of his brain that was superbly creative.  
Fact Number 5 about atheists mentioned in the Pew Research Center article is that they worry about the negative impact of religion on society. Hemant Mehta said this in a recent essay:

“Why are so many religious people leaving the religion as they get older? The obvious answer is that they come to their senses and just stop believing all that nonsense. Indeed, 63% of the ‘Nones’ said exactly that, more than any other individual answer. But people leave religion for many reasons, and the other top responses are worth looking at. 47% of the Unaffiliated cited anti-LGBTQ teachings, a huge jump from just seven years ago. 32% said it was bad for their mental health. 31% mentioned clergy sex abuse scandals, which have become major problems in the Catholic Church, Southern Baptist Convention, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and damn near everywhere else. 20% said their churches had become too political, and I predict that number will only get larger in the years to come.” 

In my article here last week, Why Aren’t Christians Obsessed with Throwing Out Their Trash?, I described the alarm expressed by John Pavlovitz and Obery Hendricks, Jr. that evangelicals have taken a dangerous turn in openly advocating theocracy. 

Fact Number 6 is that atheists are commonly well informed about religion. This aligns with my own experience that devout Christians really don’t want to learn about their own faith, don’t want to take a careful, critical look at the gospels. Chances are, they’ve read parts of the gospels and discovered the alarming, disturbing elements. Over the years I have asked believers to read and critique some of my writings about Christianity—and they have refused, stating honestly that they don’t want to risk damaging their faith, i.e., “Please don’t ask me to think about these things, I trust that the clergy have told us the truth.” But many atheists have admitted that reading the Bible—with so much horrible stuff—was a major factor in the deconstruction of their faith. Or as Hemant Mehta put it: “…they come to their senses and just stop believing all that nonsense.” The New Testament authors couldn’t even agree on how to get to heaven!

Fact Number 4 is this reality: atheism is more common in some European countries than in the U.S. The horrors and suffering brought by two world wars are, no doubt, a major reason for this. It’s hard to insist that “God is good, God is great” when tens of millions of people died in the wars, especially since it was Christian nations that fought each other so savagely. In what theology does that possibly make sense? It’s pretty obvious that no good, caring, powerful god was paying attention. Of course, for centuries Europe had been soaked in devotion to Jesus, and the promise of eternal life: that age-old gimmick promised by so many religions. According to the Pew report, 12% of Brits identify as atheists, 23% of the French, 10% of the Spanish. But the percent of “nones” is probably much higher is all these countries, reflected in the number of people who no longer make a habit of church attendance. 

If Christians want to grasp why their fan base is slipping, they need to do some deep introspection. Does their confused theology (come on…thousands of bickering Christian brands!) match the realities of the cosmos as we understand it today? Do the extreme Christian fanatics (anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-feminism, intolerance of other faiths) cause just too much damage, putting the faith—ironically—beyond redemption?  
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, now being reissued in several volumes, the first of which is Guessing About God (2023) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available. 
His YouTube channel is here. At the invitation of John Loftus, he has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.
The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here