The Leavers: Young Doubters Exit the Church
So 20- and 30-somethings are leaving—but why? When I ask church people, I receive some variation of this answer: moral compromise. A teenage girl goes off to college and starts to party. A young man moves in with his girlfriend. Soon the conflict between belief and behavior becomes unbearable. Tired of dealing with a guilty conscience and unwilling to abandon their sinful lifestyles, they drop their Christian commitment. They may cite intellectual skepticism or disappointments with the church, but these are smokescreens designed to hide the reason. "They change their creed to match their deeds," as my parents would say.
I think there's some truth to this—more than most young leavers would care to admit. The Christian life is hard to sustain in the face of so many temptations. Over the past year, I've conducted in-depth interviews with scores of ex-Christians. Only two were honest enough to cite moral compromise as the primary reason for their departures. Many experienced intellectual crises that seemed to conveniently coincide with the adoption of a lifestyle that fell outside the bounds of Christian morality.
The Rest Of The Story
However, in many cases, moral compromise wasn't the whole story. For example, one friend has had distinctly postmodern misgivings. When his father learned of his decision to leave the faith, he rushed his son a copy of Mere Christianity, hoping the book would bring him back. But C. S. Lewis's logical style left him cold. "All that rationality comes from the Western philosophical tradition," he told me. "I don't think that's the only way to find truth."
I also met leavers who felt Christianity failed to measure up intellectually. Shane, a 27-year-old father of three, was swept away by the tide of New Atheist literature. He described growing up a "sheltered Lutheran" who was "into Jesus" and active in youth group. Now he spoke slowly and deliberately, as if testifying in court. "I'm an atheist and an empiricist. I don't believe religion or psychics or astrology or anything supernatural."
Others have been hurt by Christians. Katie, a former believer in her early 30s, had been molested by two members of her childhood church. Her mother occasionally still drags her to church. Once, one of her mother's friends approached Katie with an intense look of concern. She grabbed Katie by the shoulders: "Katie, you've become so hard," she said.
Katie's voice faltered as she recalled the encounter. "That affected me," she said. "I don't want to be hard." She paused to regain her poise. "But you have to be hard, or else life will hurt you."
A sizable minority of leavers have adopted alternative spiritualities. A popular choice is Wicca. Morninghawk Apollo (who renamed himself as is common in Wiccan practice) discussed his rejection of Christianity with candor. "Ultimately why I left is that the Christian God demands that you submit to his will. In Wicca, it's just the other way around. Your will is paramount. We believe in gods and goddesses, but the deities we choose to serve are based on our wills." That Morninghawk had a Christian past was hardly unique among his friends. "It is rare to meet a new Wiccan who wasn't raised in the church," he told me.