Losing My Religion: Why People Are Really Leaving the Church (It’s Not What You Think)

Image via Shutterstock. Used with permission.

Image via Shutterstock. Used with permission.

A new report from Pew Research shows that religion is losing ground as more people drop out of church.  According to the report….

The shrinking numbers of Christians and their loss of market share is the most significant change since 2007 (when Pew did its first U.S. Religious Landscape survey) and the new, equally massive survey of 35,000 U.S. adults.

The percentage of people who describe themselves as Christians fell about 8 points — from 78.4% to 70.6%. This includes people in virtually all demographic groups, whether they are “nearing retirement or just entering adulthood, married or single, living in the West or the Bible Belt,” according to the survey report.

State by state and regional data show:

Massachusetts is down on Catholics by 10 percentage points. South Carolina is down the same degree on evangelicals. Mainline Protestants, already sliding for 40 years or more, declined all over the Midwest by 3 to 4 percentage points. The Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church, the country’s two largest Protestant denominations, are each down roughly the same 1.4 to 1.5 percentage points.Every tradition took a hit in in the West as the number of people who claim no religious brand continues to climb.

Some will attempt to spin this as a victory for atheists, implying that people are “seeing the light” and the light is exposing the lie that religion really is.  That view, however, is not really supported by other research on what accounts for the flight from religion.  In particular,  research by Elizabeth Marquardt and other research by Ken Pargament shows that divorce and the resulting inability to idealize caregivers is behind a great deal of the move to unbelief.

Divorced From Faith

In order to feel at home in a religious community, two things need to happen.  First, kids need to feel like they have a spiritual home, but children of divorce struggle to do this.  As Marquardt explains it, children of divorce rarely end up going to church consistently, or going to the same church from  week to week.  This means, that rather than being able to use religion as a resource for constructing a coherent story for the meaning and purpose of their lives as many children from intact church-going families do, children of divorce have to go it alone.  They can’t trust their parents or their infrequently visited and divergent church communities to help them make sense of their lives.  Marquardt summarizes her data by saying, “When it came to the big questions in life – Who am I? Where do I belong? What is right and wrong? Is there a God? – those from divorced families more often felt like they had to struggle for the answers alone.”  People raised in this environment struggle to let anyone else offer feedback or guidance.  They learn that they can’t trust the sources they are supposed to be able to trust for guidance and formation.  For these individuals church becomes just one more bunch of hypocritical grown-ups who can’t get their own crap together trying to tell other people how to live their lives.

Pargament (who has won major professional awards from both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association for the quality of his research) similarly argues that the source of spiritual ambivalence is not a victory of reason over religion, but rather the result of the too-early failure of the ability of children to idealize parental figures.  All children come to realize that their parents are imperfect at some point–that’s a normal and healthy part of growing up– but if this happens too early, the people who are primarily responsible for helping children make meaning out of their lives lose their credibility.  When parents behave like children themselves, or get caught up in divorce drama, or post-divorce dating relationships, children often feel that they are left to sort things out for themselves.  Children of divorce come to believe that they are the only ones who are qualified to find meaning, purpose and direction in their lives and they come to distrust any external source that wants to help them in this role (i.e., churches).

Another Pew study shows that only 46% of children live in households with their own, married parents.  Honestly, considering that family culture, the only really surprising thing is that religion isn’t losing even more ground.

What Can We Do?

If people-of-faith want to arrest the cultural flight from religion, we’re going to need to get serious about promoting healthy marriages, ministering more effectively to divorced families and children-of-divorce in particular, and finding ways for our churches to be places that provide a sense of family life for members (e.g., by having things like movie nights, game nights, parish meals, and other social ministries that model the kinds of activities traditionally held by families.)

There is a reason the Church teaches that family is the basic unit of society.  As the family goes, so goes the church and politics and the culture as well.

“To Forgive My Father” Children of Divorce and the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Frank Weathers has a tremendously powerful post on his blog about how he came to forgive his father for the affair that ended his parents’ marriage when he was five years old.  It is a truly inspirational story of the power of grace and the fruit of forgiveness.

In reading Frank’s reflection, I was reminded of Elizabeth Marquardt’s important research on the spiritual lives of children of divorce.  One aspect of that research is that she found that adult children of divorce often have a very different understanding of some basic stories or teachings of the faith.  A specific example that emerged from her research is the paradoxical understanding of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) that many adult children of divorce related to her.

The Prodigal Son:  The Story

As most of you recall, the parable tells the story of a son who demands his share of his inheritance while his father is still alive.  Upon receiving the money, the son retreats to a far-off land where he squanders the money on all sorts of immoral pursuits.  Running out of money, the son is forced to work as a pig farmer until he decides that it would be better to be his father’s servant than to continue where he is.  He returns home expecting to have to beg to be allowed to be an employee in his father’s household but his father sees him on the road, runs to him, forgives him, and reaffirms their relationship as father and son even to the point of throwing a party for the son who was lost and has returned.

Most people who hear that story cast themselves in the role of the prodigal son.  We imagine ourselves as the ones who left our father and who are in need of forgiveness.  We experience the story as a powerful witness of God’s mercy and love and we rejoice in knowing that nothing we could ever do could separate us from the love of our Heavenly Father.

Marquardt’s research shows that many children of divorce do not see the story this way.

How Divorce Twists the Story:

Rather, children of divorce tend to cast themselves in the role of the abandoned father.  They see their parent as the prodigal son who leaves the family because of some sin.  Children of divorce tend to hear this parable not so much as a comforting story of the abundance of God’s forgiveness and love, but as a command to forgive the prodigal parent.  As a result, children of divorce often struggle with faith because they are either not ready to forgive that parent or perhaps feel that their faith is commanding them to do something that is not safe (as in the case of an abusive parent).

It’s an eye-opening finding.

I’m glad Frank found the strength to forgive his dad and I’m glad that he also experienced the blessings that come with forgiveness.  His story is truly inspiring.  But I hope that we can do more to help children of divorce step out of the caretaking role and experience that love and forgiveness that comes without cost.

Or, better yet, perhaps we parents can work on our marriages a little harder and stop putting our kids in the role of being our emotional/spiritual caretakers.