Adam Lee tries to explain why young people are less religious and much more likely to be non-believers than earlier generations:
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.
It was conservative Christian churches who were opposed to the Constitution, on the grounds that it forbid religious tests and endorsed religious freedom. It was the same institutions that were in support of slavery, opposed to women’s suffrage, opposed to ending the Jim Crow laws and giving equality to those of other races. This dynamic is a very old one, yet those churches continue to have adherents. They do this, of course, by evolving.
Despite the constant claims that Christianity (and all other religions, of course) advocates Timeless, Eternal Truth, the church evolves just like every other institution evolves. Though the church stood foursquare against Enlightenment ideals like individual rights and equality for centuries, once those ideals became dominant they were simply absorbed, relatively seamlessly, into the old traditions. Doctrines were altered, traditions overthrown, scriptures reinterpreted — and all with little acknowledgment that anything had ever changed.
We can see this with the predominant conservative Christian view of the Constitution. During the ratification debates and in the early days after it was passed, the old guard raved about the “godless Constitution” and how it would bring down God’s wrath upon us all for failing to acknowledge our reliance upon him. Many times over the course of the first 100 years of this country, amendments were offered to fix that primary defect by adding language to the Constitution declaring our fealty to God. All of them failed.
And then over a period of time, the argument reversed itself. Suddenly “scholars” began to “discover” — that is, invent — the idea that the Constitution was written to establish a Christian Nation all along. The Constitution suddenly went from being an infidel plot to overthrow the history of Christian covenants to being a Godly document that intended the de facto establishment of Christianity. Some Christian scholars, like reconstructionist Gary North, didn’t get the memo and continue to stick to the old memes.
Jerry Coyne adds his two cents to the discussion:
So much for the mantra that “religion is here to stay,” a claim that I always find annoying—and wrong in light of the dramatic decline of religion in much of Europe over the last two centuries. If religion does stay, it will increasingly be in a less virulent form that doesn’t oppress women or gays, or intrude into the sexual lives of consenting adults. And we can count that as a victory. (This, of course, assumes that the spread of intolerant forms of Islam doesn’t overcome this trend.)
I do think religion is here to stay, despite recent trends, but I also agree that religion will continue to evolve and become less virulent. Christianity has been undergoing that process since the Enlightenment; Islam is just now beginning it. The battles between modernism and traditional religion have nearly always been won by modernism and I have no doubt that will continue to be so. But that doesn’t mean religion is going to go away; I don’t think it is. It means religion is going to continue to be humanized. And this is a good thing, even if it’s not the best possible alternative we can think of.