Hugh Mackay on why people stop going to church

I am currently reading Hugh Mackay’s book, Beyond Belief, which addresses the question of how people find meaning in life with or without religion.

Hugh is probably Australia’s leading social researcher and commentator, regularly appearing on talk shows and in newspaper article. He is neither a christian nor an atheist, probably best described as having an interest in a vague and positive spirituality, which he sees as the way of the future.

I don’t agree with everything he says, and I think sometimes his own opinions and beliefs may be speaking more than his social research, but the book has lots of good research behind it and lots of interesting things to say.

What leads to people giving up on church?

Early chapters in the book discuss institutional christianity in Australia, which has been in decline for about half a century, although may now be levelling off. He outlines a range of reasons people go to church – nurturing faith, a community to belong to, pastoral care, a sense of duty, participation in ritual, etc – and notes that religious belief and attendance have some well established personal and social benefits.

But then he asks the opposite question, why, granted the benefits, do people stop going? And he gives what to me are interesting answers.

For he doesn’t seem to see the rise of a more “evangelical” atheism as important, nor the many arguments that are employed to argue against christianity or theism.


Mackay speaks of a “barrage” of consumer mass-marketing. He says “the blandishments of consumerism have become ever-more seductive …. insidious and sophisticated”. He then quotes social researcher Richard Eckersley: “it is clear that filling up an empty self is a poor substitute for the web of meaning provided by deep and enduring personal, social and spiritual attachments.”

The pursuit of personal happiness

Positive psychologists have shown that “it is a sense of meaningfulness, not happiness, that brings life’s deepest satisfactions”, and Mackay notes that “many of the things that depend the sense of meaning and purpose in our lives – including things like parenting and work – don’t necessarily make us feel happy”.

The positive psychologists say that “meaningfulness comes from giving” and from “faith in something larger than the self”, whether this be God, a cause, our country or even our family.

But materialism and advertising keep hammering us with the “consuming is happiness” message and most of us believe it, or at least act as if we believe it. And these two factors, Hugh Mackay says, make church irrelevant and boring, and unable to compete.

But church doesn’t always help ….

Irrelevance and boredom

Mackay quotes people he’s interviewed saying that they ended up finding church boring, not related to their life, alien. Often this was related to the way churches run their services (e.g. arcane rituals, old fashioned music, elderly people, etc), but sometimes it was the teachings themselves (e.g. Noah’s Ark, the strictness of belief, the accent on sin).

Women, a corrupt institution, the Bible and evolution, harsh treatment, etc

Many church leavers give very personal and human reasons – the unequal treatment of women, harsh treatment of divorcees, lack of welcome, seeing the church as a corrupt institution and busy-ness, while a few mention more doctrinal issues like Genesis and evolution, or the exclusive claims of christianity. In these matters, his more qualitative research (via interviews and focus groups) agrees with the quantitative research of Mark McCrindle.

The irony doesn’t escape me

Some atheists would like to think that evidence and their arguments were leading to people giving up faith in God, just as I would hope that christians believe for good reasons. But it seems both of us must be disappointed.

People often believe and disbelieve for quite subjective reasons based on their own experience, and often unrelated to the sort of truth provided by evidence and arguments.

And, ironically, if Mackay is right, people giving up on church because they see religion as irrelevant to a life more focused on personal happiness and achievement, may in fact be giving up on the thing in society that may be most likely to give them the deeper satisfaction that they mostly crave and need, whether it is actually true, as I believe, or not.

And for a christian like me, this is more than ironic – it is a challenge.

If christianity does provide meaning, purpose, connection and spiritual fulfilment, why does institutional christianity so often turn people off? Have christians so badly misunderstood their mission, their message, or the environment into which they are trying to share that message? Have we made christianity too unattractive, or must we think that the truth is inevitably unattractive?

We might also wonder how long people will be fooled by consumerism? How long will christians be fooled?

Am I being fooled too? And you? And if so, how can we fight back?

An interesting test

Almost as an aside, Hugh asks this soul searching question:

Which would you rather be: rich and happy, or kind?

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