Friday, May 8, 2009

Are "Young Americans Losing Their Religion" ?

Over the last couple of weeks, there have been several news reports (such as one by ABC News) regarding the Pew Center study on religion, supposedly showing that "young people are losing their religion," on the basis of the fact that the number of people in America who report "None" as their religious affiliation has grown precipitously over the last few years. However, the Pew study has been widely misunderstood. A proper understanding of this study reveals a lot about American religion over the last century, and points out an important opportunity for American organized religious groups.

What the Pew Study Really Means

What the Pew study really shows is that the number of people who have no affiliation to organized religious groups (churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, meetings, circles, etc.) has grown a great deal over the last few years. However, these young people are not "losing" their religion, so much as they are showing that they never had a serious or deep affiliation to a religious group from the get-go.

This should be no surprise. For years, many organized religions in America failed to engage their members in meaningful religious education beyond adolescence. That's a problem: personal faith that is 'frozen' in development at adolescence often cannot cope with the demands of adult life. This leaves family tradition, community ties, and habit as forces that kept many people tied to the religious groups in which they were raised.

However, the influence of tradition and community waned in America, as people began to move around the country a great deal more after World War II. Some people kept a nominal religious affiliation, but did not seriously involve their own children in any particular religious group. Now their descendants have no real ties to any religious organization.

However, every situation creates opportunities.

The Opportunity for Outreach

This presents a great opportunity for religious groups to make significant outreach efforts to those who define their religion as "none of the above," the so-called "religious 'nones' " (as they are referred to in the academic fields of the sociology and psychology of religion). At best, this would mean offering spiritual education to help people face life's issues on a mature spiritual level--more mature than what adolescents usually learn in classes to prepare for Christian Confirmation, Jewish Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and so forth. But will the religious groups of America make these efforts? Only time will tell. However, my sense of the situation is that those groups that do will grow and have a greater voice in shaping our society, while those who do not will fade.

So what do you do with all this? If you happen to be involved in a religious group, I would suggest two things. If you do not happen to be involved in a religious group, I have a different suggestion.

What Those With a Religious Affiliation Might Do

A fair number of the people who read this blog are members of religious organizations. (I know that this blog passes before the eyes of Catholics, Protestants, Latter-day Saints ["Mormons"], Jews of various inclinations, Muslims, members of the Society of Friends ["Quakers"], Wiccans, Gnostics, and Buddhists; I'm sure there are other groups represented as well in this blog's readership. Of course, many readers are honorable "nones.") Most of my readers who are affiliated with a group seem to be of what I would call the 'kinder' variety--less likely to burn people who differ at the stake, more likely to engage in dialogue for mutual understanding--and this variety of religion and spirituality, within any group, is something the world needs more of.

However, kinder is not necessarily better informed. I remember being shocked some years ago at the serious lack of religious and spiritual knowledge held by the students I taught at the University of Central Florida (where I taught the psychology of religion, among other courses). My impressions were confirmed by the grim findings reported in Stephen Prothero's excellent 2007 book, Religious Literacy. (For example: a significant number of American's actually believe that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. You can't make this stuff up.)

So, my first suggestion is really two-fold: (a) If your religious group offers spiritual education at the adult level--offering you a grounding in the teachings of your faith, and an adult level understanding of it--then participate in it; (b) however, if it does not, then help to institute such a spiritual education program within your congregation. Every spiritual tradition I know of has literature that can be used to create such programs. It can be done. If organized religion is to have a productive role in promoting individual and societal growth in 21st century America, it must be done.

My second suggestion: Expose your children in a serious way to your tradition. I mean the teachings, the ritual, the celebration, and discussions of spiritual issues in the home. I know that, in many cases, I am "preaching to the choir" (or coven) here, but it is still worth saying.

What Those With No Religious Affiliation Might Do

Now, to my friends the honorable "nones": Allow me, please, to invite you to an investigation of organized religious traditions. There are many good resources in this area; Huston Smith's The World's Religions is a good overview of the heart of several traditions. (This is a great book. However, it is an overview. Within every tradition he describes, there are many organized groups, and he often does not speak at the "specific group" level; for example, he says little or nothing about my people, the Latter-day Saints. He also is weak regarding neo-paganism; for which, see Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon. So, Smith is a place to start one's study, not the endpoint.)

There is a power that comes of being grounded within a lineage of teaching, a 'tradition.' Much wisdom has accumulated over the course of centuries within organized religious traditions. In my opinion, it is worth exposing oneself to these, to see what resonates with one's soul. Good fortune to you in your journey.
I posted an earlier version of this in response to an on-line article at The Huffington Post (THP). I invite you to visit my profile at THP, see my other comments that are indexed there, comment on them--even become an official "fan" of my writing on THP, if you like.
The picture, of the ruins of St. Bridget's Kirk, was taken in 2006 by Simon Johnston, who owns the copyright. The picture is made available under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License.

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