Back in September I interviewed Dr. Josh Packard, Executive Director of the Springtide Research Institute, a group that studies the religious and spiritual lives of 13 to 25 year-olds in the United States. Springtide’s research shows that young people are abandoning religious institutions at an unprecedented rate. They’re becoming “none of the above” – a term that doesn’t mean atheism, but rather what Dr. Packard calls “faith unbundled.”
Springtide’s 2021 report has been out for a few weeks now. It’s titled “The State of Religion & Young People 2021: Navigating Uncertainty” and it can be viewed for free online (with registration) or purchased as a printed book from Amazon. It has some interesting insights, but it mainly reaffirms previous findings: young people aren’t buying anyone’s package deal anymore. They feel free to pick and choose what makes sense to them – what speaks to both their hearts and their heads.
Needless to say, those who are committed to conservative institutional religions aren’t happy about this. I’ve seen Springtide’s research referenced on numerous blogs and websites. Two fairly typical examples are on the Patheos Evangelical channel.
Jack Lee wrote Why an Entire Generation of Youth Are Finding Evangelical Churches Inadequate. It basically boils down to “we’re not being strict enough.” Here’s a telling quote: “if anything stands out it’s that there is no fear of God before their eyes.” This is exactly true, but not for the reasons he thinks.
Gene Veith wrote The Failure of the “Youth Group” Strategy. To his credit, Veith understands that infantilizing young people is no substitute for “incorporating them into the church, introducing them to its wisdom and its mysteries.” But he fails to recognize that the core problem isn’t the way his church presents itself to young people – it’s the message they’re presenting.
A harsh awakening for religious conservatives
If you’ve spent your whole life believing that your religion is the One True Way, it’s hard to understand that other people see things differently. And it’s not just those in “foreign lands” who’ve never heard about your God and your tradition. It’s your neighbors: people who look and sound just like you.
Sometimes it’s your own children – and not in a stereotypical “teenage rebellion” sense. They simply don’t believe – and can’t honestly believe – what you’ve always assumed was true.
I get it. You’ve been taught that doubt is a sin and that sinners end up in hell forever. You’ve been told “lean not unto thine own understanding.” Maybe you genuinely believe what you’ve been taught.
But there comes a time when honesty demands that you step back from the dogma and doctrines and take a hard look at the reality of religion. And that includes your religion, no matter how much you’ve been told your way is special.
Confusing ancient culture for eternal wisdom
This is the core problem the Springtide research reveals. Conservative religions are holding fast to ancient ideas about sex, sexuality, gender identity, gender roles, and such. They use their scriptures to say this is what their God demands, ignoring the fact that it simply reflects the cultural norms of long ago. Or in some cases, the cultural norms of not-so-long ago.
Cultural norms that may be understandable or even necessary in a society where population is sparse and child mortality is high are often unnecessary and undesirable in one where the population is getting out of hand. And that’s before we consider the rights of each individual to be who they truly are and to live they way they see fit.
Not every social innovation is a good thing. The nuclear family – the mid-20th century darling of capitalists and the religious right – is inferior to the extended family still practiced in many parts of the world. It requires too many houses and doesn’t have enough people for a reasonable division of labor – and so much of the labor has to be hired out, or it falls on women.
But to argue that a system designed to produce as many children as possible and to promote patriarchy must never be changed is simply unsupportable… unless you pretend it’s a divine mandate.
And young people see that it’s not.
Telling people not to believe their own eyes is a losing strategy
It’s not just sexuality and gender issues. It’s also the claims of exclusivity – the idea that followers of the “right” religion end up in eternal bliss, while everyone else ends up in eternal torment.
Young people are growing up in a society that, if not exactly multicultural, is certainly multi-religious. They have friends who are Muslims and Hindus, Pagans and atheists, Buddhists and Jews, and Christians of every persuasion. They see that followers of each religion are mostly good people, and they see that each religion has a few bad apples who are not good people.
They see that while the teachings of Jesus can be a good way to live your life, it’s far from the only way. Claims of exclusivity simply don’t hold up to their lived experience.
Accepting that you no longer have the power you once had is hard
Previous generations of Christians could count on children following in the religious footsteps of their parents, eventually if not right away. Generations before that could use the power of government to force compliance with their beliefs and practices. That power is gone, even though some are trying desperately to hold on to it.
People like Jack Lee are trying to use coercion and force to put things back the way they were. It’s not going to work.
Advertising can’t make up for a bad product
Call it a marketplace of religions. Call it a glorious garden of religions. Whatever you call it, we live in the most religiously diverse society in the history of humanity. People have choices. Religions are competing for followers.
Some – like most forms of modern Paganism – take a relaxed “we’re here if you’re interested” approach to competition. Others – like Evangelical Christianity – compete aggressively. And they get quite upset when they’re losing.
As shown by the two essays I linked to, their strategy is to change their advertising, or in some cases, to change their packaging. But the problem isn’t the advertising – the problem is the product itself.
When you’ve made the core of your religion telling gay and trans people they’re doing it wrong, when it’s all about putting women back “in their proper place,” and when it’s all about claiming you have the One True Way, you’re selling a product a growing number of people don’t want.
And they don’t have to buy it.
And so they aren’t.
All religions are minority religions
The majority of Americans still identify as Christians, but not all Christians are the same – as most Christians will tell you, loudly and often.
The largest religious group in the United States is the Roman Catholic Church, with about 22% of the population. The second largest is the Southern Baptist Convention, with about 5%. It drops off rapidly from there. No one has a majority, and no one is going to have a majority.
If you live in a religiously diverse and religiously plural society, you only have two choices. Either you reduce your message to the least common denominator and try to build a working coalition, or you accept that you’re not for everyone and you focus on supporting the people who genuinely want to be a part of who and what you are.
What’s the core of your religion?
If conservative Christians want to base their religion on ancient cultural practices and an unsupportable claim to exclusive possession of Truth, that’s their decision. They need to prepare to get much smaller in the coming decades, but if that’s what they want, so be it.
It’s not my place to tell other people what the foundation of their religion should be… though if you base it on DNA, I’ll be first in line to tell you you’re doing it wrong. For me as a Pagan polytheist, it’s the worship of the many Gods and the sacredness of Nature. I respect the non-theists whose religion is only based in the sacredness of Nature, and I work with them where ever I can. But ultimately, we’re following different religions – and that’s OK.
The first time I encountered Springtide’s research was back in August, when I wrote Presenting Paganism to a Generation of Spiritual Explorers. If you missed it then, I encourage you to read it now.
We need to understand what’s negotiable and what isn’t. We need to provide a robust foundation for beginners. Mainly, we need to promote the primacy of religious experience. We ground our beliefs in our own experiences, not in a second-hand story of someone else’s experience.
If it works, people will stick around. If it doesn’t work, they’ll move on to something else.
And they should.
Change or die
Our world is better when it has many different positive religions – including Christian religions. I have no love for fundamentalism, but I have friends and family who are Christians, in the “following Jesus” sense, not the “hate gays and love Trump” sense. I wish them well, and I’m confident they’ll do well in the long run.
Charles Darwin – loved by those of us who respect reality and hated by fundamentalists – never said it, but it’s true nonetheless: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
Those who adapt to change do well. Those who resist change do poorly. Those who refuse to change go extinct.
Each religious tradition must choose for itself.
I suggest they choose mindfully.