This essay was originally published on AlterNet.
Something strange is happening to American teenagers. If you believe popular wisdom, young people are apathetic, cynical and jaded; or, they’re supposed to be conformists whose overriding desire is to fit in and be popular. But if you’ve been paying close attention over the past decade, you might have seen any of a growing number of cases that conspicuously defy these stereotypes: stories of teenagers who have strong principles they’re unashamed to display and which they’re committed to defending, even at great personal cost, against the bullying of a hostile establishment.
For example, in 2002, an Eagle Scout named Darrell Lambert was threatened with expulsion from the Boy Scouts, despite his having earned dozens of merit badges and having held literally every leadership position in his troop. His crime? He’s an outspoken atheist. When the news of his beliefs reached scouting officials, they demanded that he change his mind. He was given a week to think it over. All he had to do was lie, but if he did that, he said, "I wouldn’t be a good Scout then, would I?" For his honesty, he was kicked out of the organization he’d devoted his life to.
In New Jersey in 2006, a public high school teacher named David Paskiewicz was openly preaching Christianity in the classroom, advocating creationism and telling a Muslim student she would burn in hell if she didn’t convert. A junior named Matt LaClair reported this illegal government preaching to the school administration. In a meeting with the principal, Paskiewicz denied everything — whereupon LaClair produced audio recordings of him saying the things he specifically denied having said.
In Indiana in 2009, the senior class at a public school was asked to vote on whether to have a prayer as part of their graduation ceremony. A senior named Eric Workman, knowing full well that school-sponsored prayer is illegal even if a majority votes for it, filed a lawsuit and won an injunction against the prayer. The school administration responded by announcing it wouldn’t review graduation speeches in advance, clearly hoping that some student would use the opportunity to say the same prayer — except that the class valedictorian was Eric Workman, and he used his graduation speech to explain why the school’s actions were unconstitutional and to explain the importance of the First Amendment.
Stories like these are multiplying all over the nation. In South Carolina just this year, a graduating senior named Harrison Hopkins put a stop to school prayer with help from the Freedom from Religion Foundation. In Louisiana, a senior named Damon Fowler fought against similar school-sponsored prayers at his graduation. In Rhode Island, an amazing sophomore named Jessica Ahlquist is leading the fight to get an illegal "School Prayer" banner removed from her school’s auditorium.
Granted, stories like these aren’t entirely a new phenomenon. There have always been brave young free thinkers who dared to stand up for their rights, and there has always been a hostile, prejudiced religious majority that’s tried to silence them with bullying, persecution and harassment.
For instance, when church-state hero Ellery Schempp prevailed in a landmark First Amendment case against school-sponsored Bible reading, his principal wrote to the colleges he had applied to and asked them not to admit him. (It didn’t work: Ellery was accepted to Tufts University, graduated with honors and became a successful scientist.) Likewise, when Jim McCollum and his mother Vashti challenged their school over a released-time program, raving bigots assaulted him, got her fired from her job, pelted their home with rotten fruit and killed their cat. (The McCollums didn’t relent, and won a precedent-setting Supreme Court decision striking down religious instruction on public school time.)
Regrettably, this hasn’t changed as much as I’d like. Most of the student activists I named earlier have faced harassment, some from peers, some from the teachers and authority figures who are supposed to be the responsible ones. Damon Fowler was demeaned by a teacher and disowned by his own parents for opposing prayer at his graduation. But what’s different now is that young people who speak out aren’t left to face the mob alone. Now more than ever before, there’s a thriving, growing secular community that’s becoming increasingly confident, assertive, and capable of looking out for its own.
When Fowler was kicked out of his house, a fundraiser on Friendly Atheist netted over $30,000 in donations to pay for his living expenses and college tuition. The Secular Student Alliance, a national organization that supports student atheist and freethought clubs, is growing by leaps and bounds in colleges and high schools. (This is especially important in the light of psychological experiments which find that it’s much easier to resist peer pressure if you have even one other person standing with you.) Student activists like the ones I’ve mentioned are no longer just scattered voices in the crowd; they’re the leading edge of a wave.
All these individual facts add up to a larger picture, which is confirmed by statistical evidence: Americans are becoming less religious, with rates of atheism and secularism increasing in each new generation. This demographic transformation has been in progress ever since World War II, but in recent years it’s begun to seriously pick up steam. In the generation born since 1982, variously referred to as Generation Y, the Millennials, or Generation Next, one in five people identify as nonreligious, atheist, or agnostic. In the youngest cohort, the trend is even more dramatic: as many as 30% of those born since 1990 are nonbelievers. Another study, this one by a Christian polling firm, found that people are leaving Christianity at four times the rate that new members are joining.
What could be causing this generational shift towards godlessness? There are multiple theories, but only one of them that I’m aware of both makes good sense and is corroborated by the facts.
Over the last few decades, society in general, and young people in particular, have become increasingly tolerant of gays and other minorities. For the most part, this is a predictable result of familiarity: people who’ve grown up in an increasingly multicultural society see less problem with interracial relationships (89% of Generation Nexters approve of interracial marriage, compared to 70% of older age groups) and same-sex marriage (47% in favor among Nexters, compared to 30% in older groups). When it comes to issues like whether gays and lesbians should be protected from job discrimination or allowed to adopt, the age gap in support is even more dramatic (71% vs. 59% and 61% vs. 44%, respectively).
But while American society is moving forward on all these fronts, many churches not only refuse to go along, they’re actively moving backward. Most large Christian sects, both Catholic and Protestant, have made fighting against gay rights and women’s rights their all-consuming crusade. And young people have gotten this message loud and clear: polls find that the most common impressions of Christianity are that it’s hostile, judgmental and hypocritical. In particular, an incredible 91% of young non-Christians say that Christianity is "anti-homosexual", and significant majorities say that Christianity treats being gay as a bigger sin than anything else. (When right-wing politicians thunder that same-sex marriage is worse than terrorism, it’s not hard to see where people have gotten this impression.)
On other social issues as well, the gap between Gen Nexters and the church looms increasingly wide. Younger folks favor full access to the morning-after pill by a larger margin than older generations (59% vs. 46%). They reject the notion that women should return to "traditional roles" — already a minority position, but they disagree with it even more strongly than others. And they’re by far the least likely of all age groups to say that they have "old-fashioned" values about family and marriage (67% say this, as compared to 85% of other age groups).
In a society that’s increasingly tolerant and enlightened, the big churches remain stubbornly entrenched in the past, clinging to medieval dogmas about gay people and women, presuming to lecture their members about how they should vote, whom they should love, how they should live. It’s no surprise that people who’ve grown up in this tolerant age find it absurd when they’re told that their family and friends don’t deserve civil rights, and it’s even less of a surprise that, when they’re told they must believe this to be good Christians, they simply walk away. This trend is reflected in the steadily rising percentages of Americans who say that religion is "old-fashioned and out of date" and can’t speak to today’s social problems.
The Roman Catholic church in particular has been hit hard by this. According to a 2009 Pew study, "Faith in Flux," one in ten American adults is a former Catholic, and a majority of ex-Catholics cite unhappiness with the church’s archaic stance on abortion, homosexuality, birth control or the treatment of women as a major factor in their departure. But evangelical and other Protestant denominations are feeling the same sting. According to a survey by the sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, moderates and progressives are heading for the exits as the churches increasingly become the domain of conservatives:
From the early 1970s to the late 1980s the fraction of Americans age 18 to 29 who identified with evangelical Protestantism rose to 25% from 20%, but since 1990, that fraction has fallen back to about 17%.
…Today, 17% of Americans say they have no religion, and these new "nones" are very heavily concentrated among Americans who have come of age since 1990. Between 25% and 30% of twentysomethings today say they have no religious affiliation — roughly four times higher than in any previous generation.
Even the mainstream, relatively liberal Protestant churches are dwindling and dying at an astonishing rate: collateral damage, perhaps, in a political war that’s led young people to view them as guilty by association. As the journal First Things observes in an article titled "The Death of Protestant America," the mainline churches have fallen from more than 50% of the American population in 1965 to less than 8% today.
What all this means is that the rise of atheism as a political force is an effect, rather than a cause, of the churches’ hard right turn towards fundamentalism. I admit that this conclusion is a little damaging to my ego. I’d love to say that we atheists did it all ourselves; I’d love to be able to say that our dazzling wit and slashing rhetorical attacks are persuading people to abandon organized religion in droves. But the truth is that the churches’ wounds are largely self-inflicted. By obstinately clinging to prejudices that the rest of society is moving beyond, they’re in the process of making themselves irrelevant. In fact, there are indications that it’s a vicious circle: as churches become less tolerant and more conservative, their younger and more progressive members depart, which makes their average membership still more conservative, which accelerates the progressive exodus still further, and so on. (A similar dynamic is at work in the Republican party, which explains their increasing levels of insanity over the past two or three decades.)
That doesn’t mean, however, that that there’s nothing we freethinkers can contribute. On the contrary, there’s a virtuous circle that we can take advantage of: the more we speak out and the more visible we are, the more familiar atheism will become, and the more it will be seen as a viable alternative, which will encourage still more people to join us and speak out. This is exactly the same strategy that’s been used successfully by trailblazers in the gay-rights movement and other social reform efforts.
At the same time, the churches aren’t entirely oblivious to what’s happening. The rising secular tide of Generation Next hasn’t gone unfelt or unnoticed, but is increasingly being reflected in dwindling donations, graying congregations, and empty churches across the land. As John Avant, a vice president for evangelization of the Southern Baptist Conference, lamented:
A study by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health showed that only 11 percent of SBC churches are healthy and growing… And we are doing worse with young people, with 39 percent of Southern Baptist churches in 2005 reporting baptizing no teens. (source)
The Catholic church is experiencing a similar slow fade, with declining Mass attendance and a crippling shortage of priests worldwide. Land once owned by religious orders is being sold off for conservation or public use, turned into schools or nature preserves. The Pope’s response, meanwhile, is to accelerate the decline by ordering bishops not even to discuss the possibility of ordaining women or married men, even as he welcomes Holocaust deniers and ex-Angelican misogynists.
And religious giving has declined as well, leaving shrinking churches grappling with layoffs and angry creditors. The recession has worsened this trend, but didn’t create it; like all the other patterns, it’s generational, with each increasingly secular age group giving less than the last. As one conservative rabbi says, the dip in giving stems from a "growing disinterest in organized religion."
Of course, Christianity is still by far the largest religious affiliation in America, and likely will be for some time. But the numbers don’t lie, and the trends of the last several decades show more and more evidence of the same secularizing wave that’s overtaking most countries in Europe. The major churches, clinging to the inferior morality of long-gone ages, are increasingly out of step with a world that’s more enlightened, rational and tolerant than it once was. And the more they dig in their heels, the more we can expect this process to accelerate. I, for one, can’t wait to see the young atheist activists who will emerge in the next few decades.