When asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “antihomosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers. (The next most common negative images? : “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too involved in politics.”)
What makes this all the more fascinating is that the Barna Group is a pro-Christian research firm. They exist to provide data with an eye towards growing and strengthening Christianity. These aren’t a bunch of rowdy atheists saying, “So there.” Neither are, I would add, Jamelle or Rachel. Both are Christians and both are deeply disturbed this information, and by the results:
Later research, documented in Kinnaman’s You Lost Me, reveals that one of the top reasons 59 percent of young adults with a Christian background have left the church is because they perceive the church to be too exclusive, particularly regarding their LGBT friends. Eight million twenty-somethings have left the church, and this is one reason why.
Close to 60% of teenagers who go to church drop out after they leave the nest. Obviously, as an atheist, I can’t see this as a bad thing. I appreciate that liberal Christians like Rachel and Jamelle find spiritual solace in having faith, but by and large, the historical purpose of religion is not to comfort but to control. Religion’s primary function is, if you look at the whole of history, about creating rationales for unjust power hierarchies. Kings have used “god” as their excuse for absolute power, and religion is the primary reason that men in a diverse array of cultures over cite as the reason they should be the lords of their wives and daughters. Even liberal Christians are tied to the long history of power-grabbing through religion, using the language of submission and calling believers a “kingdom”. When it comes to fighting against gay rights and feminism, the church is functioning as it was designed to do: Support existing power structures, guilt and shame people considered inferior, and demand the right to ultimate control. This fits in neatly with, oh, all of history.
It’s also worth noting that situations like this undermine the religion apologist argument that states that morality comes from religion. It clearly doesn’t. Instead, what you see is that people have an existing moral system and they evaluate their religion by it, rejecting the faith if it conflicts with their morality or embracing it if it’s conducive to their morality. People whose moraly systems are built around establishing strict power hierarchies, and stomping out sex and other forms of pleasure they see as subversive, well, those folks fucking love religion. It’s a self-perpetuating system, but one thing it absolutely demonstrates is moral decision-making isn’t something granted us by religious power, but something we do for ourselves, based on input from a variety of sources, including internal ones.
Situations like this demonstrate, however, that while the appeal for many to most ardent believers in a faith is that it gives them power and control, that power is not, in fact, absolute. The church needs people in the pews to survive, and while those people are constantly told their role is to submit and obey, if they just decide they don’t want to, the church is shown to be an emperor with no clothes. Thus, religion throughout history has had plenty of takebacks. The churches that used to preach segregation and white supremacy don’t do so anymore, at least as openly. A lot of churches, especially more mainstream ones, are giving up on the argument that women are just support staff, and many are even letting them be ministers and priests. Either they get with the times on gay marriage, or they find their ability to exert power diminish. Since churches are about power, most of them will adjust over time. That’s why they’re freaking out now; they know what’s coming.
In the meantime, every time a situation like this arises, where progressive change is demanded and churches resist mightily before giving in, a chunk of believers walks away, never to return. I think that’s great. Good to see people realizing that in a fight between morality and faith, morality should win.