While fewer Americans and Europeans are attending church regularly, more non-believers, including atheists, are showing up for services, according to a cold-case detective who has been investigating the weird trend.
The detective, J. Warner Wallace, who is also a senior fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview and the author of “Cold-Case Christianity,” says fewer Americans claim Christian affiliation than ever before, and those who don’t are the fastest growing group in the country.
Wallace says he has been collecting data on this trend for more than 10 years.
Perhaps the most surprising trend he has spotted is the one that has Christians leaving churches and atheists starting them.
“‘Atheist churches’ have been formed across the country,” he says, apparently aiming to offer some features of a religious congregation (fellowship, collective enjoyment, a stimulus to moral behavior). These congregations often meet on Sundays and some “include ‘Sunday School,’ where children go while parents attend ‘services.’”
When asked if these “atheist churches” could be described as a form of religion, the founder of the Seattle Atheist Church responded with a “definite ‘yes.’”
Dozens of gatherings dubbed “atheist mega-churches” by supporters and detractors are springing up around the U.S. after finding success in Great Britain several years ago. One example is the Sunday Assembly in Los Angeles, which attracted more than 400 attendees for its inaugural service. Similar gatherings are taking place in San Diego, Nashville, New York and other U.S. cities where atheists seek the camaraderie of a congregation without religion or ritual.
Sunday Assembly’s motto is “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More” and taps into the growing universe of people who left their faith but now miss the community church provided, said Phil Zuckerman, a professor of secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont.
“In the U.S., there’s a little bit of a feeling that if you’re not religious, you’re not patriotic,” Zuckerman said. “I think a lot of secular people say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. We are charitable, we are good people, we’re good parents and we are just as good citizens as you and we’re going to start a church to prove it. It’s still a minority, but there’s enough of them now.”
But while fewer people may belong to Christian churches or communities, Americans will likely retain some form of religious identity, says Wallace, who looks to Europe where the trend is more advanced.
“In the United Kingdom, for example, there are roughly three times as many non-practicing Christians (55 percent) as there are church-attending Christians (18 percent),” says Wallace.
In Bavaria, there’s a new order to hang a cross in the entrance of every state building. Religious symbols are also making a comeback in Germany, Wallace reports.
He says one official suggested “the cross is not a sign of religion” but of identity and culture – perhaps even the fact that Europe has opened its doors to more than a million immigrants and refugees, most from predominantly Muslim countries.
“But something else may also be responsible for our hesitancy to jettison religion altogether, both in Europe and America,” says Wallace. “We may just be innately religious.”
He suggests American millennials are not so much abandoning organized religion to become secular, science-loving humanists. Instead, his research shows they still cling to belief in the soul, divine energy, and “mystical realities.”
A recent American Pew Research Center study found that of those who claim no religious affiliation, 17 percent still said they believed in the God as described in the Bible, and 53 percent said they believed in a higher power or spiritual force.
More shocking? Even 18 percent of self-proclaimed atheists said they believed in some kind of higher spiritual power.