Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on Millennials and religion.
Call them the None of the Above Generation … religiously speaking.
Not godless, per se. Perhaps even God-fearing. Just not eager to wear a label other than that of secular individualist.
Such is the trend among Millennials — described most often as those born after 1980 — if polls during the past few years are on target.
In 2012, a Pew Research Center study found that young adults are less religious than any other age group, with nearly a third declining to affiliate with any organized religion. They’re also less devout than previous generations were at the same point in their lives.
In April, the American Bible Society sounded an alarm when it released its annual “State of the Bible” survey. Among the findings, percentagewise, about Millennials compared with adults overall: They are less likely to consider the Bible sacred literature (64 percent versus 79 percent); to “believe the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to lead a meaningful life” (35 percent versus 50 percent); or even read the Bible (26 percent versus 39 percent).
Also in April, a statistical analysis at the Massachusetts Olin College of Engineering, aiming to isolate the factors behind rising disaffiliation, concluded that about 50 percent is attributable to a drop in religious upbringing and higher levels of college education and Internet use.
Are Millennials really saying: Keep your prayers to yourself? Or is there more at play?
Seeking perspective, we posed that question to several local experts: Bishop Dan Edwards of the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada; Mel Lipman, former president of both the American Humanist Association and its local chapter, the Humanists and Atheists of Las Vegas; Rabbi Yitzchak Wyne of Young Israel Aish; and Michael Borer, associate professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Lipman: It’s not surprising to me and I assume in future polls, there will be a higher and higher percentage of those who don’t identify with any particular religion. I think many of them are atheists who are afraid to come out.
Borer: The Millennial generation is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation. They’re saying, “I have my own religion, it’s my own personal belief.” There is a certain amount of flexibility which doesn’t necessarily jell well with traditional conservative literalist religious beliefs.
Edwards: The lifestyle of people in their 20s does not fit well with institutional engagement. That is true of every generation. There are so many people in church circles who are writing off the Millennials, but this generation is not interested in the happy-clappy worship of the 1970s and ’80s. They are drawn toward the more mystical and contemplative spirituality of long, long ago.
Wyne: In the Jewish world, there is a shift to the outside. When I was younger, something very common was the three-day-a-year Jew. They would go (to synagogue) on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. They identified as Jewish and were proud to be Jewish. That dynamic has dropped dramatically. It was a compromise with modernity and it was a failed experiment. There wasn’t a sustained post-bar/bat-mitzvah education. It was not enough time to transmit anything meaningful to the children, so the non-Orthodox segments moved a step or five away from Judaism in the next generation, and that’s why nonaffiliation shot up.
Borer: No generation is monolithic, but in terms of general social trends, there seems to be a real lack of trust in institutions. Millennials have seen the breakup of the family. They have seen government problems, whether it is (President Barack) Obama or (President George W.) Bush or (President Bill) Clinton. They’ve lost trust in companies. They’ve lost trust in celebrities. And what comes with a lack of trust is a lack of certainty. They tend to believe in God, although there is a rise in people who are less certain, or God doesn’t play a role in their lives, what we’d call Religion None, whether they’re atheists or agnostics.
Lipman: The reason we (the Humanists and Atheists associations) are increasing in number is mainly because of the Internet and the Millennials, who are very much closer to other people all around the world and they are not afraid to come out because they see other people believe the way they do.
Edwards: The other thing that happens is the cultural shift within the Millennial generation, which is an enormous exodus from the movement of the religious right that surged in the ’80s and ’90s and the first decade of this millennium, as a backlash against the chaos of the 1960s and 1970s.
Lipman: It goes without saying that the pairing of Pat Robertson and YouTube has been great for atheism. The atheists and the humanists are the only ones who might speak out against these people …. It’s the politicizing of religion. The liberal religions, even though they do work with humanists on social issues, they don’t come out as a group against the religious right.
Edwards: Millennials are leaving the religious right because they are experiencing it as homophobic and judgmental. The religious right does not embody the cultural and moral values of the Millennial generation. They are very reluctant, and rightly so, to embrace a religious identity that is exclusive, that says my way or the highway. Millennials are not about to say there’s one way in a more pluralistic society, to Jewish and Muslim and Buddhist friends.
Borer: There is a pushback against the strong, conservative Christian points of view …. The idea of the family as a monolith doesn’t exist for this generation, which is a generation that has been raised by single parents, by stepfamilies. … That plays into their distrust of institutions, and marriage is one of them. The idea of the heterosexual lasting family is not a part of their worldview because it’s not a part of their life.
Edwards: But (rejecting the religious right) does not mean that Millennials do not have faith, that they don’t act on that faith by working for Habitat for Humanity, by working for all sorts of community-building efforts, by doing advocacy for social justice. The Millennial generation brings a deeper, more authentic, more hands-on expression of faith than previous generations have. That does not yet take the form of affiliation with churches. It very likely will in the next decade, but churches will have to get their act together.
Wyne: Also, colleges are bastions of liberal thought. If college is primarily a nonreligious minisociety, you have 20,000 or 30,000 people who are going to that college, they become the most educated people and the highest wage-earners and most influential and that will affect the next generation.
Borer: Exposure to multiple points of view (at college) contributes to their lack of certainty. If you’re hearing claims from one specific worldview, you tend to get trapped in that worldview. Once you see competing belief systems, it’s hard to be certain of any one.
Lipman: Higher education is definitely a reason that more and more humanists are coming out. That’s probably the major reason. They are not godless, they’re just more rational.
Borer: Millennials feel let down by previous generations. Generation X wanted to believe the hype that came with some of the great social revolutions of the 1960s and into the 1970s. Then the ’80s happened. Ronald Reagan happened. Things didn’t necessarily improve. People became fearful so there was a movement to the religious right. Millennials are more engaged but there is a certain spirituality, at least in the sense that they are seeking out meaning. It might be more individualistic than social commentators and religious leaders tend to be comfortable with.
Wyne: It’s only through innovative, dynamic programming that addresses the needs of the people that we’re going to get them back. It’s a hard thing to do. You have to go to the people. That’s why I do a TV show and a radio show and YouTube. You have to keep sending out these values and you keep broadcasting it through every available means. When a person does get an inkling in their soul, they know where to find you. Hopefully with exposure, they will reconnect with their religious roots.
Borer: (Religious organizations) probably should be alarmed, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some institutions probably should change.
Edwards: The church is already really good at charity and feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. But we’re going to have to be much bolder about taking stands for justice on issues like immigration and worker rights and combating domestic violence, in order for us to be credible. Young people don’t care if it’s a secular or religious organization. What they care about is the authenticity of people helping people. ... If the church isn’t going to be about that, then let the church die. It’s worthless. But the Millennials, insisting on genuine spirituality, are really calling the church back to itself.