Switched Out, Switched In, Switched Off

01 Sep

A Barna Group poll of 2,004 American adults, revealed that 12.5% of American adults have “switched out” of Christianity and into atheism, agnosticism or another faith. In the meantime, only 3% of American adults have switched into Christianity.

The former Christians who switched out of their childhood faith cited several reasons – none of which will surprise you – for doing so:

  • gaining new knowledge or education
  • feeling disillusioned with church and religion
  • feeling the church is hypocritical
  • having negative experiences in churches
  • being in disagreement with Christianity about specific issues such as homosexuality, abortion or birth control
  • feeling the church is too authoritarian
  • wanting to express their faith outside of church
  • searching for a new faith
  • wanting to experience other religions

American adults who switched into Christianity did so for familiar reasons:

  • going through difficult life events
  • getting older and seeing life differently
  • wanting to connect with a church and grow spiritually
  • discovering Christ
  • wanting to know what was in the Bible

Now, before we non-Christians get too excited about these statistics, we’ve got to remember that there are still many Christians in the USA. Tens of millions of them. Their numbers may be declining, but they’re not in danger of going extinct anytime soon. Furthermore, even though adults are leaving Christianity at a rate 4 times higher than they’re entering it, millions of child-replacements are being indoctrinated into Christianity every day. Some of those children will likely leave their churches when they become adults, but many of them probably won’t. After all, for every American adult who switched out of Christianity, seven others didn’t flip their switches at all. Assuming that at least some of those people were reared in a religious tradition (a pretty safe assumption in the USA), one conclusion is ineluctable: many Americans are still sitting in the dark.

— the chaplain


Posted by on September 1, 2010 in atheism, deconversion, religion, society


36 responses to “Switched Out, Switched In, Switched Off

  1. Ugly American

    September 1, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    Most cult members are indoctrinated as children. Sadly, most never fully recover.

    Cults also prey on people who have had major loss or trauma in their life.

    That’s how cults work. From the Catholics to the Branch Davidians.

    Every so often somebody spits it out, stands up and walks out of the cave.

  2. Jim

    September 1, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    All children are born atheist.And then most of them get forcibly indoctrinated into the prevailing religion of their family and community.

    • Mark

      September 1, 2010 at 10:21 pm

      I like that and rings true.

  3. Sarge

    September 2, 2010 at 8:00 am

    People “discover christ”, huh?

    No one seems to be able to tell me the mechanics of this action, so I am left with envisioning it on my own:

    Joe gets up in the morning, does his ablutions, comes back to dress, opens his closet (in his slothfulness he had neglected to lay his clothing out the night before…tsk, tsk…)
    and, lo!

    “Marge! There’s a guy in our closet! And he’s nailed to a CROSS!! What’s he WANT??!! What’s he WANT”??!!

    While christians I know cannot seem to explain the process coherently, they have all given me their solemn word that it doesn’t happen MY way… although some of that suasion seem to “find christ” in oddly marked pieces of toast, painting errors, etc.

    I have always thought that it was merely an identity: like in the “Cat Who Walks By Himself”, the man and the dog perform an action, “…and so shalll alll proper men/dogs after me…”

    Sort of a legacy-club. Our “tradition”.

  4. the chaplain

    September 2, 2010 at 8:22 am

    Ugly American, Jim & Mark:
    Childhood indoctrination has enabled religion to survive in the modern world. Children reared in a religious tradition are force-fed – from infancy – the notion that a special set of ideas must not be expected to conform to ordinary laws of logic, but accepted on faith, lest dire consequences ensue. The habit of compartmentalizing certain ideas is instilled at a very young age and is hard to break. Also, the compartmentalized ideas are constantly reinforced via social networks, religious media, etc.

    I chuckled when I read the “discover christ” line. Some people may “discover” him entirely through their own reading of scriptures, but I suspect that most of these “discoveries” take the form of “being led to” Jesus by a Christian, most likely a fundogelical.

    • ed13666

      September 2, 2010 at 9:27 am

      Re: “Discovering Christ”

      I suspect that most of these “discoveries” are just people “returning”. I’ve met a handful over the years and they all seem to have been raised in religious households to begin with. These weren’t “new” conversions.

      PS Chaplain: please add the subscription widget. I’ve tried to figure out how to subscribe to your site and noticed that posting a comment was the only way to do so :-(


  5. hippieprof

    September 2, 2010 at 9:08 am

    Interesting stats, Chaplain…..

    One thing I think is missing from the analysis – and something I have mentioned before – a church provides a community for its members and that community is a powerful force, independent of the common religious beliefs held by that community. As long as churches provide such a community I don’t see Christianity going extinct.

    I suspect that atheism/agnosticism would itself grow faster if it provided a similar community. As a faculty member at a university I indeed have such a community – but most do not.

    Personally, I don’t particularly want to see Christianity “go extinct” – people have a right to their beliefs. Christians who quietly live their lives in accordance with their beliefs do not bother me at all. The in-your-face fundamentalists who hold mega-rallies in DC are another story…..

    • PhillyChief

      September 2, 2010 at 10:19 am

      If there’s something you don’t care for, why wouldn’t you like to see it go extinct? Wanting that doesn’t mean you have to act to outlaw it and deny anyone their right to indulge. Take smoking for instance. I’d like to see that go away, but I’m not going to vote for making that illegal.

      • hippieprof

        September 2, 2010 at 12:39 pm

        Philly asks: If there’s something you don’t care for, why wouldn’t you like to see it go extinct?

        Ummmm….. because it has no impact on my life? I don’t particularly care for country music – but I don’t have any particular desire for it to vanish either…..

        Remember – I am talking about quiet Christians who go about their business and do not feel the need to get in your face about their beliefs. I am indeed fed up with the loud fundamentalists – and in fact I believe they are dangerous. I would be quite happy to see them go extinct….

        • PhillyChief

          September 2, 2010 at 1:48 pm

          Ummmmmmm…. I don’t see how anything, even country music, can entirely not affect you. Unless you can completely lock yourself away in a bomb shelter or in a cave atop a mountain, you can never completely escape the affects of people.

          As for private usage of religion, remember that religion fosters an esteem for faith, and that esteem can permeate other facets of one’s life prompting actions which might not be that wise and which subsequently can affect others.

          Even private alcohol usage could affect a teetotaler by causing medical ailments whose treatments drive up medical costs and thus, healthcare premiums for all.

          For whom the bell tollsJohn Donne

          No man is an island,
          Entire of itself.
          Each is a piece of the continent,
          A part of the main.
          If a clod be washed away by the sea,
          Europe is the less.
          As well as if a promontory were.
          As well as if a manner of thine own
          Or of thine friend’s were.
          Each man’s death diminishes me,
          For I am involved in mankind.
          Therefore, send not to know
          For whom the bell tolls,
          It tolls for thee.

  6. desertscope

    September 2, 2010 at 10:59 am

    The religious far outbreed the rational. As such, they can afford to lose a few here and there. Unfortunately, the maladaptiveness of overbreeding only becomes apparent in the form of famine. Ironically, during times of hardship that are caused (at least indirectly) by religion, people turn to religion.

    So, in summary, we are doomed.

  7. Sarge

    September 2, 2010 at 8:08 pm

    Hippieprof makes a good point about the “community” aspect of any religion.

    You at least have the illusion that these people are “like you” or at least more “like you” (which seems to more a factor than a lot of people are comfy with) than those “out there”. “Borg factor”, and not at all confined to religion.

    My wife has read this post, and she has told me that she has been asked just who will comfort her and how will they (assiming there IS anyone) do so when I die.

    Since these are church members where my wife attends, she asks, pointedly, “Won’t YOU”?

    It would seem…not. By being with me she has become seperate.

  8. Astasia

    September 5, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    I’d be interested to see the stats on:

    1) On average, how many children are born to Christian couples.
    2) On average, how many children are born to non-Christian couples.
    3) What percentage of children are ‘Christian’ (in a family that self-identifies as Christian).
    4) What percentage of adults are Christian.

    My guess is that even if adults are routinely ‘leaving the faith,’ that (many? some?) Christians are producing children at a higher rate than non-Christians.

    See: the quiverfull movement. (

    • Eric the rabid non-theist

      September 6, 2010 at 6:48 am

      If religious non-belief (usually syn. atheism) were mostly passed on parent-to-child then we’d see the number of non-believers get smaller and smaller as a proportion of the population, but, the opposite seems to be happening.

      This would lead me (arm-chair quarterback statisticing ;-) to conclude that people rejecting religion and religious belief contribute significantly to the number of non-believers out there.

      Personal experience kind of backs that up for me: my own father rejected religious belief (and, by extension religion); in my extended family I’ve discovered numerous non-believers amongst the off-spring of diligent Catholics; I’ve had friends over the years who came from religiously devout households who ended up non-believers*.

      *Not agnostics but non-believers. I often find agnostics to be closeted believers — they can’t always articulate what they believe in but they still accept superstition (though, they may reject religions per se and belief in, for example, god, God, dog, Buddah, etc.).

    • Eric the rabid non-theist

      September 6, 2010 at 7:10 am

      PS Astasia:

      I’m going to modify your one statement — “Christians are producing children at a higher rate than non-Christians”.

      Instead, I’ll suggest that it is the religious that produce children at a higher rate than non-believers. Muslims and Hindus are expected to reproduce like rabbits, no less than are Christians. Given that you find Muslims and Hindus in developing nations they’re even more likely (globally, that is) to reproduce at higher rates.

      Although, if you want an exception look to the US. The power of religion in the US is higher there than in nearly every other developed nation and its population growth shows it (3 children/woman vs <2 children/woman in every other developed nation*,**).

      *Stable population requires 2.1 children/women. Higher = pop increase; lower = pop decrease.

      **Though the US does have rather extensive poverty and inequity compared to most developed nations I seem to remember that it's actually the religious lower-middle class to the middle class that are responsible for the extremely high levels of natural increase (normally family size is highest amongst the poorest and least educated members of a society).

      PS Found something interesting for you…
      Religion and the Ideal Number of Children in Developed Countries

      • Astasia

        September 6, 2010 at 11:36 am


        I think you’ve made a whole bunch of excellent points.

        It was something I wasn’t thinking about, but certainly sounds true, that, in general, believers give birth to more children than non-believers. And I appreciate the link.

        But, I didn’t actually intend to imply that Christian children would become Christian adults. I think that under a certain age (probably pre-teenage hood?) that there is not much ‘choice’ in what religion one is. (Even for myself, who was born and raised atheist, it probably wasn’t confirmed as the right choice for me until I was old enough to analyze it.)

        And, I actually agree with you, in general, re: agnostics. It tends to be a position of “I don’t know what is out there, but there must be something.”

        In conclusion, based on not enough evidence, I think you are a smart guy and should feel all sorts of happy about that.

        (P.S. My girlfriend says “If you’re a polygamist, you have the most babies.”)

  9. quantum_flux

    September 7, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    The key is to explain reality to children before they become indoctrinated into absurdity and way before they reach the age of reproduction.

  10. Ahab

    September 16, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    Fundamentalist religion remains a powerful force in our society, and we must keep a wary eye on it. However, it gives me hope that we live in an age of knowledge, easy communication, and increasingly progressive ethics, which is apparently drawing people away from fundamentalism.

  11. Lithp

    August 16, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    I wouldn’t mind seeing country or rap music go extinct.It does affect me, because people can’t seem to master the concept of the iPod, and even if they do, they might try to sing along…which just makes a bad thing even worse.

    But at the end of the day, bad music isn’t anywhere close to religion, in terms of its influence on society. I routinely question how “moderate” the moderate churches really are. Are they still preaching about some invisible divinity? Do they expect you to accept it based on feelings, rather then evidence?

    Okay…now how does that potentially affect other aspects of their lives? I would guess it perverts their view of their own history, and might affect how they perceive science and politics. Two things that have a VERY REAL effect on everyone else.

    So, on the surface, moderate churches are more accepting of minorities and differing opinions. That’s great. Every small victory counts. It doesn’t mean it can’t affect you negatively. And it certainly doesn’t mean I can’t want to see superstition go the way of the dinosaurs. By turning into birds.

  12. ed cyzewski

    August 21, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    I just wanted to mention that a peer-reviewed sociologist at UConn found that Barna’s methodology and interpretations are lacking. He wrote about it in his book: Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites and Other Lies You’ve Been Told. You can read the short version online in this article:

    I think we all know people who have switched from Christian to atheist and atheists who have become Christians. I don’t think either side is on the verge of giving way or whatever.

    There are so many different reasons why people remain Christian or leave the faith. It’s hard to pinpoint one reason or trend. Speaking for myself, there is no way you can reason yourself into believing into God. God must be experienced, which makes it tricky if you don’t believe God exists. You can always say that I’m delusional or whatever, and I honestly wouldn’t blame you. Before I experienced God for myself, I would have been in the same position, saying that all religion is just a fairy tale. Having experienced God first hand, it would be unreasonable and untrue to what I have observed to deny God’s existence.

    However, the one thing that the data shows us is that Christianity is not on the verge of some major collapse.

    • PhillyChief

      August 21, 2011 at 11:19 pm

      Why are Christians so fearful and so easily threatened? Where did you get from the OP that Christianity was on the verge of some major collapse? How do you look at those numbers, and think they’re suggesting that it’s on the verge of some major collapse?

      Look, humans love to indulge themselves and faith is a hugely popular indulgence and has been throughout our history. It’s not going to disappear, however the manner in which one indulges may change. Even the manner in which Christianity is indulged in is far different than it was just a generation or two ago, and a far cry from how it was indulged in 200 years ago, and 1000 years ago.

      • ed cyzewski

        August 22, 2011 at 8:40 am

        Believe it or not, the thrust of the survey and the book that followed it, called unChristian, is that Christianity is on the verge of collapsing within a generation or two. I know it sounds crazy. I’m just responding more to the interpretations that have been latched onto it. I share your frustration. I don’t look at the survey and think it indicates any kind of collapse. I should have been more specific with my comment.

    • Kiwichap

      November 9, 2011 at 5:58 pm

      Hi Ed,
      can you tell us what, precisely, experiencing God at first hand means. I’m guessing that your experience wasn’t along the lines of the “finding some strange bloke in the closet” scenario suggested by ‘Sarge’ earlier in this thread or some Pythonesque “big bearded bloke in a crepuscular sunburst” apparition either. So, what IS experiencing God like? And, how are you able to be positive that your experience couldn’t be explained in some other fashion? Assuming for the moment that supernatural entities do actually exist, how can you be sure that the one you experienced was God rather than just some local djinn? After all, ANY supernatural entity is likely to be impressive enough to a (mortal) human that it could easily be mistaken for God couldn’t it? Or maybe you have special powers that would allow you to differentiate between a fantastically-impressive but still only local entity and the real thing? How can you be confident that your judgement is reliable?
      Or, leaving the possibility of supernatural explanations aside, how can you be sure that what you experienced isn’t just an artefact created by your mind? The ‘suggestibility’ and ‘agency-seeking’ characteristics of human minds are pretty well-documented and it’s also clear that human memory is fantastically malleable so I’m curious as to how you can have any great certainty in the reliability of your perceived experience.

      • ed cyzewski

        November 9, 2011 at 9:11 pm

        I’d be happy to share them. I’ve had a few significant experiences of God. One involved some praying over me. I had one leg that was longer than the other, and as my friend prayed for me, I watched my uneven legs. My body grew warm, far warmer than anything I’d ever experienced. I then watched one leg grow out to meet the other.

        On another occasion I was receiving prayer for struggles with anxiety and fear. Someone prayed over me and I had this overwhelming sense of peace that came over me. I had this kind of vision of a world at peace, and my struggles with fear have not been the same every since.

        So you can doubt these experiences all you want. I’m not trying to force them on anyone. I just know what I experienced. How can I know they’re for real? Well, how do you know what you had for breakfast yesterday? You just know what you experienced. I have had plenty of other experiences of God’s peace, forgiveness, and love, and each time the sensation is something that is outside of what I would conceive on my own. I’d like to think of myself as a creative person, but every time I experience God, he overwhelms me in some way with his love and peace that I simply can’t cook up or manufacture on my own.

        I understand if this seems hard to believe for some. All I can say is that I’m just being as honest as I can with the things I’ve experienced. To deny what I have experienced would be dishonest and illogical from my standpoint. All the best to you!

        • Lithp

          November 9, 2011 at 9:24 pm

          You really didn’t think about what he said at all. That wasn’t a question, I can tell. Freaking bodily transmutations shouldn’t be hard to document, there is no excuse for there being a lack of conclusive evidence of your God’s existance, other than it just doesn’t exist. Beyond that, you did not at all address the possibility of a Djinn, Warlock, Fairy, or what have you fooling you. You also do not appear to be familiar with biases affecting memory, and about that analogy…why is that everyone’s first go-to? Maybe I do remember what I had for breakfast yesterday. Now ask me what I specifically did while I was eating. Then ask me the same questions for exactly one year ago. And all of this is assuming you aren’t just lying, which is frankly a stretch after that “growing leg” nonsense.

        • PhillyChief

          November 10, 2011 at 8:39 am

          To deny what I have experienced would be dishonest and illogical from my standpoint.

          To not question and investigate them, their actual causes, and your perceptions of them and jump to conclusions would be illogical from an objective standpoint.


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