Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Youth and religion, politics

Today’s Washington Times had an article about this survey report. If you can’t read the whole report (it’s a 52-page pdf), read at least the executive summary (pp. 5 - 7 of the pdf). Here’s a taste, on which I’ll offer a few comments:

Particular points of note in the report: • Most diverse generation in history. Generation Y is the most diverse generation in the nation – only 61 percent call themselves white compared to 84 percent among Americans older than 65 years. Fueled by waves of new immigration and birthrates in immigrant communities, this generation is on the vanguard of transforming the nation, which will be majority non-white by mid-century. (page 8)

Denominationalism on the decline and pluralism on the rise. The country remains majority Christian with a plurality belonging to Protestant denominations such as the Baptists or Methodists. There are important changes afoot, traditional denominationalism is on the decline and there is a concurrent rise in the number of people unwilling to align with a denomination. In fact, many young people cannot identify what faith tradition or denomination they belong to and fully 23 percent do not identify with any denomination at all. (page 9)

Faith expressed in highly personal, informal ways. While many young people continue to attend worship services on a regular basis, just as many – if not more - practice their faith informally. Young people simply believe it is possible to be “religious” or “spiritual” without belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque. On a monthly basis, 68 percent talk about religion informally with friends; 64 percent of pray before meals and 55 percent read religious books, newspapers or magazines. (page 10)

Social circles diverse. Regardless of religious tradition or intensity of religious commitment, youth are fully integrated into diverse social networks. While previous generations often lived in homogeneous religious communities, among Generation Y, only 7 percent of youth report that all of their friends are the same religion as themselves. Even the most religious youth maintain diverse networks of peers with only 9 percent of the Godly saying that all of their friends are the same religion. Among the God-less, at least half of their friends are not of the same religion. (page 12)

Religious teens are more self-aware. Despite assumptions we might make about youth’s disengagement from faith and community life, religion remains a core component of young people’s identity. Moreover, religious youth have a distinctive worldview and approach to life; they are more connected to family and community, have higher self-esteem and a sense of self and hold more traditional views about family, sex, and marriage. (page 15)

Of course, 18-25 year olds tend to be less settled and consequently less connected to any formal institutions. The question is whether the habits formed at this time will persist into adulthood. Will those who at the moment can’t identify with a denomination always be unable to do so, will they return to the churches of their parents, or will they migrate in a particular religious direction? The survey suggests that the less religiously committed include substantial proportions of young Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, Jews, men, and immigrants, among others. In some cases (like immigrants), detachment from (old) religion may be part of assimilation and acculturation. In others, it may be the result of a failure of a denomination to communicate in a compelling way; this, for example, may be part of what’s going on in the long-term decline of liberal Protestantism. Those who are detached from mainline Protestant churches may end up either unchurched altogether or in more spiritually and morally fulfilling (and demanding) evangelical churches. And some of those men who are detached from religion may return to the pews after marriage and fatherhood (assuming that the first precedes the second).

There’s a lot to chew on in this report, and it’s easy to overreact. But it’s also worth considering what’s at stake, not only from a religious, but from a civic point of view. One of the (unsurprising) points that the report makes is that those young people who are involved in a religious tradition have greater stores of social capital: they’re more engaged in their communities and more likely to vote and to volunteer. They are inclined to give more and in a position to receive more. They constitute, the report says, 27% of the young people surveyed (as do the "Godless"). 46% are in the "undecided middle," somewhat connected with faith traditions, but more less "institutionally" or formally, much more casually and informally. If this connection between civic and religious embeddedness persists into adulthood (as I suspect that it does), then for both religious and civic reasons it is important to reach out to this "undecided middle." The report, of course, helps, describing the population and calling our attention to a variety of efforts to "speak to it."

For a slightly different view, go to this article, discussing a study about which I posted way back here. On the basis of this study, I’d suggest that one of the principal sources of the problem is the failure of denominations and individual churches to engage in any serious religious or theological education. It may be that some really have nothing signficant to say. Others may be unable or unwilling to say it. But the kids clearly need it.

Update: Here’s a transcript (pdf) of a discussion of this report, featuring (among others) E. J. Dionne, Jr. and Bill Galston, who (according to Dionne, and I agree, on the basis, most recently, of my Berry experience) "manages to speak in
whole chapters [not in mere sentences or paragraphs, like the rest of us mortals] and hold your attention throughout." This post is too long already; if there’s anything worth noting in the transcript, I’ll comment on it in another post.

Discussions - 3 Comments

Freud once wrote that the child’s first question is "where do I come from?" and in my work with children and adults in Psychoanalysis, this remains a powerful, deeply held question which reverberates throughout the personality. Parents (and now schools) can offer the "facts of life"; cosmology can tell us something of how the whole thing started, but ultimately we need religion (or something that ends up filling the same role, mythology) in order to give a satisfactory answer to our young people. Societies that lose their religion (see Western Europe) are ripe for destruction; they have nothing to believe in.

I agree with ShrinkWrapped. While modern science and creeping secularism really don’t allow us the same religious awe our ancestors experienced, our societies do need a sense of identity and higher purpose. If you don’t have these, then your society collapses because of narcissism and failure of moral duties. It’s almost as if the loss of religion destroys the will to survive.

As it is written, "man does not live by bread alone."

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