As our holiday season winds down, give thanks that America is destroying religion


We atheists really can’t take credit for it — years of shaking our fists at the churches and patiently explaining that religion was all bullshit did nothing. What’s finally killing the churches is the one-two punch of the pandemic (turns out prayer doesn’t cure disease after all) and the hateful ideologies of the far right that have corrupted the churches in a way no one can ignore any more.

I predict an unfortunate side-effect, however: it’s the good people who honestly care about their congregations, and the people who actually believe in those radical Christian ideals of community and sacrifice and helping the poor who are giving up. The libertarians and the fundamentalist fanatics and the con artists are doing just fine. The WaPo has some anecdotes about various clergy abandoning their churches.

Aldape is part of an exodus of clergy who have left ministry in the past couple years because of a powerful combination of pandemic demands and political stress. Amid fights about masks and vaccine mandates, to how far religious leaders can go in expressing political views that might alienate some of their followers, to whether Zoom creates or stifles spiritual community, pastoral burnout has been high.

The past few years have jostled and rocked the labor market overall, with many millions losing and changing jobs either by force, by choice or a combination of the two. But some research and anecdotes suggest this period is a crisis for American clergy.

A Barna survey of Protestant pastors published last month found 38 percent said they’d considered quitting full-time ministry in the past year.

I sympathize with the pandemic stress, I’ve been feeling it too. I think a lot of teachers are reconsidering whether this job is worth it. We’re generally spared the follow-up punch, though, since we’re fortunate to live in a bubble of the well-educated, where we’ve already filtered out many of the assholes who afflict the citizenry. I think churches tend to select the other way.

Gustafson found himself at odds with higher-ranking clergy.

“I felt like, if people care more about their individual rights than caring for their neighbor, then it’s a matter of discipleship,” he recalled. He was told to “focus on Jesus,” he says. Then came fall 2020, and President Donald Trump’s comment in a presidential debate to right-wing extremists that they should “stand back and stand by.”

Gustafson posted to his Facebook page that he was disappointed in Trump.

Soon, he said, he was getting pushback from some congregants and clergy. One told him, he said, that half the church members were Trump voters and that his problem was that he didn’t love them.

He put in his notice at the end of 2020 and left in March.

Now it’s just not the clergy, but some members of those congregations are abandoning the church. Those departures are usually unsung and unnoticed, unless the apostate happens to be really, really rich. Those are the lost souls that really sting the church.

An advertising-technology billionaire has formally resigned his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and rebuked the faith over social issues and LGBTQ rights in an unusual public move.

Jeff T. Green has pledged to donate 90% of his estimated $5 billion fortune, starting with a $600,000 donation to the LGBTQ-rights group Equality Utah, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Green said in a Monday resignation letter to church President Russell M. Nelson that he hasn’t been active in the faith widely known as Mormon for more than a decade but wanted to make his departure official and remove his name from membership records.

That’s a good start, giving up on a repressive church and giving up most of his fortune (giving away 90% of $5 billion leaves him with $500 million, so he’s not exactly a modern day Siddhartha, but it’s commendable), and you have to appreciate his motivation.

“I believe the Mormon church has hindered global progress in women’s rights, civil rights and racial equality, and LGBTQ+ rights,” he wrote. Eleven family members and a friend formally resigned along with him.

Oh, he noticed? My years of living in Utah made me highly aware of the pernicious influence of the LDS church. You meet so many women who have resigned themselves to a life of pumping out babies, some in polygamous relationships that glorify the men, and all you have to do is walk down the streets near the temple to meet homeless kids, many of whom were kicked out of their homes because the church demonizes gay people. Mormonism is good at putting up a straight-laced facade over a broken morality.

It’s not just the Mormons, of course. How can anyone fail to notice Catholic pedophilia or Protestant greed? It’s a testimony to the power of superstition and fear that any religion survives at all.

Comments

  1. tacitus says

    You meet so many women who have resigned themselves to a life of pumping out babies

    A son of friends of mine became a Mormon for the love of a young Mormon woman (much to the despair of his parents). After he followed her to college, she dumped him, but he remained a Mormon and ended up marrying someone else. His parents were not even allowed to attend the wedding.

    But my friends were just as much concerned for the future of their son’s first love. She was a lovely girl and immensely gifted academically, always top of the class in school, and I remember them saying she could rise to the top of any profession she chose, except, she was a Mormon…

    Hopefully she escaped, otherwise it would be a tragic waste of talent.

  2. tacitus says

    I am reasonably optimistic that one of the slim silver linings of the pandemic will be that many people, especially young people, will have discovered they’ve quite enjoyed their Sunday mornings without church by the time things get back to normal.

    Pew’s most recent survey has the percentage of unaffiliated Christians at 63%, down from 78% just 14 years ago, though there doesn’t seem to be much of a drop off in the last couple of years. They don’t split it out by age, but unless something has dramatically changed, the vast majority of the decline is caused by young people leaving religion behind, which bodes well for the continue decline over the next few decades as us oldies die off.

    Of course, decline in religion is not the same as decline in conservatism, and there is nothing more clear about the Trump years than how easy it is for conservatives to find non-religious reasons to hate and discriminate against people they don’t like. The demise of religion will transform the bigotry, not destroy it.

  3. Akira MacKenzie says

    It’s a testimony to the power of superstition and fear that any religion survives at all.

    Superstition, fear, AND the satisfaction that comes with believing that all of the people you think are “bad” are going to be punished for all eternity. I think that third one plays a much, much larger role in religious belief than most are willing to admit.

  4. Allison says

    years of shaking our fists at the churches and patiently explaining that religion was all bullshit did nothing.

    Does that come as a surprise to anyone?

    For one thing, from what I can see, most atheists seem more interested in feeling superior to those who aren’t like them and don’t see things as they do than in actually convincing anyone of anything. Richard Dawkins is the poster boy for that aspect of atheism, but he’s hardly alone. Oddly enough, people tend not to listen to you if you ridicule and mock them.

    For another, they do nothing to address some of the biggest reasons people join up with organized religion: (a) a need for a community for mutual support and (b) wanting to be in a community of people with similar values, in the face of a capitalist culture that does its best to isolate people and subvert morality. While there are people for whom “belief” is a big part of why they are in a church, I think most are there because that’s where their friends and neighbors are, or at least people who share their outlook on life, and they profess the beliefs and follow the practices of their church mostly because it makes them feel a part of that church community. If atheists truly wanted to wean people away from churches, they would need to create non-theist communities that provide that kind of community.

  5. Rich Woods says

    @Akira #3:

    Superstition, fear, satisfaction in eternal punishment AND an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope!

  6. JM says

    Several decades of sex scandals and other scandals in churches have set the stage for this. Covid has just given a lot of people a reason to stop going to church. I do think very public atheists have helped in one sense, they made people aware of the idea that you could be an atheist. When I was growing up most people upset at a church just switched churches the idea that atheism was an option was mostly alien.

  7. Nemo says

    I predict an unfortunate side-effect, however: it’s the good people who honestly care about their congregations, and the people who actually believe in those radical Christian ideals of community and sacrifice and helping the poor who are giving up.

    I’m not sure that’s unfortunate. Those people will either start working with secular charities, or realize that some of these things should’ve been government functions all along, and vote accordingly. Meanwhile, the radicalized churches will only accelerate their own decline.

  8. tacitus says

    @7: Churches are very good a mobilizing people though. My parents are lifelong members of the liberal Methodist church in the UK and were always involved in local charitable efforts organized by the church. There are plenty of alternative organizational mechanisms out there of the secular kind, for sure, but it’s harder to motivate people to join the cause when they are not already part of a community like a church congregation.

  9. says

    @3:
    Superstition, fear, AND the satisfaction that comes with believing that all of the people you think are “bad” are going to be punished for all eternity. I think that third one plays a much, much larger role in religious belief than most are willing to admit.

    No, I really don’t think it does. And I don’t think fear is nearly as big a motivator as a lot of atheists assume, either.

    I mean, I can’t speak for why anyone else stays in religion, of course, but I can at least speak for my own case. I was raised in the LDS (“Mormon”) church, and while I did eventually get away from it and get free of those beliefs, it wasn’t till relatively late in life. Why did I stay in the church for so long? Well, it definitely wasn’t due to gloating over the suffering the damned (the Mormon version of eternal damnation is much milder than that of other Christian sects anyway), and it wasn’t due to fear either. As for superstition… eh, obviously there’s superstition bound up in religion, pretty much by definition, but in my case I wasn’t really superstitious about much of anything else. As a matter of fact, even while I was still a faithful Mormon, I read and enjoyed books on pseudoscience and skepticism by James Randi and Martin Gardner. I was a skeptic about pretty much everything except my religion.

    So what did keep me in the church? Well, I think largely the community aspects and social ties. When you grow up in the church, there’s strong pressure to keep going to church and be an active member, especially if you’re complimented on the strength of your testimony and told that you show a strong spirituality and may be a leader of the church one day. Which wouldn’t have been enough to keep me in the church if I didn’t think I had a reason to believe it was true, but the Mormon church, in particular, holds a little bait out for skeptics in that members are explicitly told that they’re not supposed to just go along with church doctrine because the church leaders say so; they’re supposed to pray about the matter and find out for themselves by getting the testimony of the Holy Ghost (the “burning in the bosom”, as they frequently say) and receiving a personal revelation about the truth of the church. That, of course, paves the way for self-delusion; if you already have a strong motivation to want to believe the church is true, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’ve felt this spiritual testimony and received divine confirmation—but obviously I didn’t admit that to myself at the time.

    As for how I finally did escape religion, I can’t point to a single smoking gun. One factor was my reading a nonfiction book about dreams, of all things, and noticing some marked similarities between the description of things like hypnagogic states and the supposed “burning in the bosom”, and so at last coming to terms with the fact that the supposed testimony of the Holy Spirit I’d convinced myself I’d felt really didn’t mean much after all. Another was my interest in science, and my concern that, for all the strong evidence of evolution, a lot of religions seemed to be in harmful denial. Unlike some fundamentalist churches, the Mormon church never came right out and said that evolution was a lie… but it never came right out and said that it wasn’t, either, and its wishy-washiness in the face of what seemed to me like such an important matter bothered me. I started reading blogs about the fight against creationism… most of which blogs happened to be written by atheists, and so exposed me to atheist viewpoints.

    Anyway, like I said, I can only speak for my own experience. Maybe my case is exceptional, and most other people stuck in religion are there because of fear, or because they take sadistic glee in anticipating their enemies being cast into the torments of hell. But I don’t think so. I think it’s too easy to oversimplify people’s reasons for their “faith”, and I think saying that most people stay in religion only because of fear or malice does them a disservice and makes it harder to understand them and harder to help them escape from it. I think matters are a lot more complicated than that.

  10. simonhadley says

    Today’s churches are ecumenical distilleries steadily boiling out all of those pesky and unwanted things such as reason, compassion or patience leaving behind a toxic witch’s brew of pure 200 proof insanity.

  11. John Morales says

    Allison @4:

    For one thing, from what I can see, most atheists seem more interested in feeling superior to those who aren’t like them and don’t see things as they do than in actually convincing anyone of anything.

    From what I can see, most goddists are just the same regarding atheists.

    Oddly enough, people tend not to listen to you if you ridicule and mock them.

    What does that matter, if you aren’t interested in convincing them of anything? ;)

    If atheists truly wanted to wean people away from churches, they would need to create non-theist communities that provide that kind of community.

    Oh yes, atheist chaplains and such. Bah.

    (Besides, you’ve already claimed atheists aren’t interested in convincing them of anything)

  12. stroppy says

    What’s finally killing the churches is the one-two punch of the pandemic (turns out prayer doesn’t cure disease after all) and the hateful ideologies of the far right that have corrupted the churches in a way no one can ignore any more.

    I don’t know about the pandemic, but check out Donald Trump Jr. undoing the lord’s work at a Turning Point USA gathering on December 19:

    “If we get together, they cannot cancel us all. Okay? They won’t. And this will be contrary to a lot of our beliefs because—I’d love not to have to participate in cancel culture. I’d love that it didn’t exist. But as long as it does, folks, we better be playing the same game. Okay? We’ve been playing T-ball for half a century while they’re playing hardball and cheating. Right? We’ve turned the other cheek, and I understand, sort of, the biblical reference—I understand the mentality—but it’s gotten us nothing. Okay? It’s gotten us nothing while we’ve ceded ground in every major institution in our country.”
    https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/opinion/the-gospel-of-donald-trump-jr/ar-AAS9DLM?

  13. says

    Allison @ #4:

    If atheists truly wanted to wean people away from churches, [blah blah blah]…

    Religious affiliation and church membership have been steadily declining in the US for the past two decades, right up to the present.

    Oddly enough, people tend not to listen to you if you ridicule and mock them.

    In contrast, they tend to listen intently to people who begin by suggesting most of them “seem more interested in feeling superior to those who aren’t like them,” continue to insult them, and conclude by offering unsolicited, fact-free advice.

  14. says

    The decline in religion and church membership is largely driven by younger people, and many have formed and found communities online and IRL, as seen in the popularity of the EmptythePews and Exvangelical hashtags. It’s not simply a matter of people falling away from or dropping out of religion – it’s a major social movement.

    It’s interesting to me that the churches have for the most part responded to this by ignoring and belittling their concerns. I’m not at all sure they could respond differently even if they wanted to, but they really don’t appear to want to.

  15. Rob Grigjanis says

    SC @13:

    In contrast, they tend to listen intently to people who begin by suggesting most of them “seem more interested in feeling superior to those who aren’t like them,” continue to insult them, and conclude by offering unsolicited, fact-free advice.

    I don’t know about “most”, but you and John certainly exhibit the smugness Allison refers to. As well as a rather thin skin.

    @14:

    It’s interesting to me that the churches have for the most part responded to this by ignoring and belittling their concerns.

    For the most part? Really? That seems rather fact-free to me.

  16. John Morales says

    “I don’t know about “most”, but you and John certainly exhibit the smugness Allison refers to.”, Rob said smugly.

    “As well as a rather thin skin.”, added, unaware of the irony.

  17. says

    I don’t know about “most”, but you and John certainly exhibit the smugness Allison refers to. As well as a rather thin skin.

    I was pointing to the discrepancy between Allison’s words and actions, not taking offense, LOL.

    Anyway, I know how pissy you get on this score, so don’t expect me to engage with you again.

    For the most part? Really? That seems rather fact-free to me.

    There’s a link in the sentence you quoted, dingus. And the second link in that post touches on the same subject. Oh, hey – here’s another, right to the point.

  18. Rob Grigjanis says

    John @17: I love you, man. You are a model of consistency. Anyone who calls you smug must be smug themselves. And there would be irony about “thin skin” if I felt insulted. I don’t. Just mildly amused.

    SC @18: Thanks for not engaging! But there’s nothing you’ve linked to that justifies “for the most part”.

  19. says

    But there’s nothing you’ve linked to that justifies “for the most part”.

    Yes, I’m sure you’ve read an article and its links and listened to two podcasts in the past 15 minutes. Bye.

  20. Rob Grigjanis says

    Yes, I’m sure two bloody podcasts can justify “the churches have for the most part…”. Ta-ta.

  21. DanDare says

    I have created several non theist communities over the past 20 years. They put being a community first, activism later. They thrive.
    In 2022 I’m embarking on a new humanist community, starting with just regular meets at a cafe and home movie nights. My plan is to document so that others can replicate.
    I’m at odds with Humanists Australia over this. They seem to be heading in a top down, managed network. I disagree with the approach. I don’t think it can flourish and is vulnerable to the personalities at the top.

  22. billseymour says

    My experience is similar to what JSNuttall expresses @9:  I believed in God for no better reason than it was something that “everybody knew.”  I never read the Bible until later in life and so had no idea what a jerk and a bully the god of the Pentateuch is.  I was raised Episcopalian, and I stuck with it because I enjoyed the theater of “high-church” services.

    I eventually lost all belief in anything supernatural, and I’m not sure why; although reading the late Robert Todd Carroll was certainly a start.

    I prefer to call myself a humanist rather than an atheist because the latter puts me in the company of some folks with whom I’d rather not be associated.  Also, like PZ (IIUC), it don’t think that the lack of a god telling me what to do relieves me of the responsibility of getting through the day without being a jerk.  (Too bad “A+” never really caught on.)

  23. John Morales says

    Rob @19:

    And there would be irony about “thin skin” if I felt insulted. I don’t.

    Whereas I do? Along with the smugness, right? Heh.

    It’s a regular thing that whenever I’m less than complimentary to the attitudes of the religious, you butt in with claims about my smugness. Not so much fun when I bounce that back at you, is it? I mean, I have just as much basis as you do.

    Mate, give it up. When it comes to thin skin and smugness, goddists are exemplars.

    Just mildly amused.

    The first few times, that might have flown. Now? Not-so-much.

    Seems to me you’re irritated that I don’t give the religious the respect you apparently think they deserve.

  24. says

    Allison’s observation that may people who go to church do it primarily because it gives them a sense of community, and not because they necessarily believe very strongly in their particular church’s official doctrines in all their intricate and absurd detail, is something I agree with. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t lots of nutcases who do believe, but what it does mean is that there is a not insignificant number of churchgoers which can be peeled off from church going if they were to find other ways to find the same kind of belonging they feel church gives them. (It doesn’t imply that one need reproduce the same kind of structure, with “atheist pastors” (a ridiculous straw man to put forth, about as silly as herding cats) or anything like that.)

    I’ve found that a lot of nominal Christians – and nominal Muslims, for that matter, of whom I’ve known quite a few via my interests in Indian and MIddle-Eastern musics – fall into the category of “Meh, this is what I was born into, and out of inertia, I go along outwardly with the forms, and I get a certain sense of community from it, but, hey, I dunno about what the clerics say, it doesn’t mean much to me, and I like to do a number of things they say I shouldn’t”, whether they consciously articulate it that way or not. (e.g., I’ve watched Arab nominal Muslims toss back several rounds of expensive liquors while they enjoyed a concert at a restaurant concert of the late Egyptian chanteuse Om Kalthoum’s songs. I’ve had beers with Pakistani Sufi singer friends. They don’t drink much, but neither do they shrink from it in self-righteous horror.)

    Absurd beliefs are hard if not impossible to dislodge from firm believers, since they’re based in emotional need, not in logic. Zealots and fanatics aren’t worth trying to dissuade, only worth fighting back against.

    But if someone’s membership in a church isn’t actually based in any strong attachment to the beliefs they’re supposed to endorse, but merely in the more diffuse (and far less chained to particular ideas) sense of belonging they get from showing up and mouthing the words that don’t actually resonate very deeply at all with their day-to-day lives, there’s an opportunity to woo them away into other social structures whose activities do resonate with their day-to-day lives. Then at least some former churchgoers will ask themselves, Why did I bother going to church when this other stuff has turned out to be more engaging, socially satisfying, and interesting to me?

    Those are the people who are part of the statistics of declining church membership.

  25. John Morales says

    kaimatthews:

    (It doesn’t imply that one need reproduce the same kind of structure, with “atheist pastors” (a ridiculous straw man to put forth, about as silly as herding cats)

    Hm.

     + https://religionnews.com/2021/09/02/harvards-atheist-chaplain-is-no-contradiction-its-a-chance-to-grow-as-a-nation/
     + https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-21319945
     + https://www.economist.com/erasmus/2018/05/16/the-elusive-phenomenon-of-churches-without-god
     + https://www.vox.com/conversations/2016/10/6/13172608/religion-lent-atheism-christianity-god-alain-de-botton

    It’s really a thing.

    But if someone’s membership in a church isn’t actually based in any strong attachment to the beliefs they’re supposed to endorse, but merely in the more diffuse (and far less chained to particular ideas) sense of belonging they get from showing up and mouthing the words that don’t actually resonate very deeply at all with their day-to-day lives, there’s an opportunity to woo them away into other social structures whose activities do resonate with their day-to-day lives.

    Like QAnon. Right.

    Those are the people who are part of the statistics of declining church membership.

    The joiners who join other things in preference to churches?

    I doubt that. I reckon it’s more the people who still consider themselves religious (or ‘spiritual’) but don’t like organised religion.

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