Why the Nones Left

A friend of mine shared a link from Crossway titled “The Dying Away of Cultural Christianity.” In it, the author proposed (as evangelical authors so often do) that the rise of the Nones* happened because the Nones weren’t real Christians to begin with. Nope, they were just members of that boogeyman religion Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

They weren’t really Christians; they just faking it, because of Reasons. Maybe because Christian = American, or something. It couldn’t have anything to do with the actual reasons people who left Christianity said they left. (Click the “actual reasons” link; that’s Pew’s research on reasons why they left).

Reasons like learning about evolution and realizing it wasn’t compatible with the faith they had been taught, because they (like me) were taught that if Genesis 1-3 aren’t literal history the way we think of history now, we can’t possibly believe in the resurrection.

It couldn’t have anything to do with “Christians doing unchristian things,” like the 81% of evangelicals (the ones who voted) voting for a serial liar and self-bragged sexual assaulter. It couldn’t be because evangelicals are the group least likely to believe the United States has an obligation to accept refugees.

It couldn’t be that they assume all churches are anti-LGBTQ. Oh wait, “the church’s teaching on homosexuality” was actually listed as a reason some of the Nones disliked organized religion.

And it certainly couldn’t have anything to do with our apologetics that insist the Evidence Demands a Verdict, which is great until that the evidence doesn’t always point toward essential Christian doctrines.

It couldn’t be because we’re dogmatic and have turned Christianity from a living relationship with Jesus into a religion about checking the right “I believe x” boxes. (Yes, there are essential Christian doctrines, but many of the “required checkboxes” aren’t that).

Oh wait. That’s pretty much exactly what the Pew survey found.


This interpretation, that they were just nominal Christians, especially moralistic therapeutic deists, doesn’t make any sense at all in light of the Pew results.

Here’s how the Crossway article describes MTD:

National identity was conflated with religious identity in a way that produced a distorted form of Christianity, mostly about family values, Golden Rule moralism, and good citizenship. The God of this “Christianity” was first and foremost a nice guy who rewarded moral living by sanctifying the American dream: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (i.e., a substantial 401(k), a three-car garage, and as many Instagram followers as possible). This form of Christianity—prominent in twenty-first-century America—has been aptly labeled “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a faith defined by a distant, “cosmic ATM” God who only cares that we are nice to one another and feel good about ourselves.

Learning about evolution doesn’t break that. There are no unchristian things Christians can do based on that definition, other than fail to get instagram followers or pursue the American dream, that would turn people off from Christianity unless people were doing them en masse.

You wouldn’t need “scientific evidence for a creator” to believe in a “nice guy” deity – nor would you even care. Something clearly happened for those people that made them ask if God was there. Who questions a cosmic ATM God who only cares that we are nice to each other and feel good about ourselves? This is the God of country music, but I get the sense that that God isn’t the one the Nones are rejecting.

They’re rejecting a god who they were taught needs scientific evidence to exist, a god whose existence is threatened if evolution is real. They’re rejecting a faith of Christians who say they’re supposed to love their neighbors but often appear pretty darn hateful (thanks in no small part to media narratives that make the Westboro Baptist Church look a thousand times bigger than it is).

One person told Rachel Held Evans that they had “became an atheist for theological reasons,” and I don’t think that person was alone. Some ditched Christianity because of bad press, but a disturbing number reject it not because they weren’t ever committed believers, but because they were and what they were taught didn’t fit with reality.


This narrative is really convenient.

It justifies the evangelistic impulse. If the United States is a Christian-majority country, evangelism makes a lot less sense than if most Americans aren’t Real Christians.

But bigger than that, if that’s the case, you can reframe a decline from being a horrifying thing (young people are leaving the faith because they think it’s stupid / wrong / bad” to “Well, they weren’t really Christians anyway,” which ties into the earlier narrative. Then you could even see it as a net positive – now that they’re not even pretending to be Christians anymore, they’re prime targets for evangelism. (This would be a mistake).

But this is the big payoff: It doesn’t require Christianity to reform. I’m Presbyterian (church reformed, always reforming), and when it comes to many of the items on that list, I think the Nones are right.

This narrative doesn’t require change. It moves the problem away from us, to out there, to the Them who left. We can’t possibly be the problem. Nope. We have to get busy doing more of the same. Who knows? Maybe people are leaving because we weren’t MORE the way… they… said… was the reason they left.

Nope. We just stick our fingers in our ears and sing la-la-la-la-la and pretend the problem is with somebody else. Which is really the standard solution.

And which is a pretty terrible solution.

Seriously, it’s like an alcoholic deciding maybe his family left him because he didn’t drink enough, or beat his kids often enough. Maybe the problem was he wasn’t spending enough on alcohol and his family had too much money for food and shelter.


I’ve been having this conversation on my friend’s wall with some evangelicals whom I love deeply and respect greatly, and I would do them and you a disservice if I neglected to note that a few of the responses do fit the narrative. “I just realized somewhere along the line that I didn’t really believe it” would be an example, and so would the responses of the religiously unsure / undecided (about 18%), and the inactive believers (10%). I think a generous estimate would allow for maybe a third of the Nones to fit the narrative.

But other people who may fit this narrative often still attend. Joel Osteen’s stadium church is full every Sunday.

I have to concede, though, that part of this narrative might be accurate for some of those who left, but I do not think it is the case for the majority.

Which means that a huge part of the reason church membership is declining and Nones are increasing is the church’s doing, and the church wants to avoid taking responsibility for it.


*Nones: If you’ve missed it, these are a growing section of the American public who, when asked to identify their religion, said “None.”

David M Schell About David M Schell
I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.

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