Fellow Patheos blogger Kathy Schiffer recently wrote an article “What Do Young Americans think of Jesus and how do we Change their Minds?” As both an Atheist and a father, I was intrigued. Kathy reviews the most recent Barna report, which corroborates a trend signaled by the Pew Forum, that belief is receding in the youth, particularly with millennials. Lets examine what the report says, through a former Catholic’s and current atheist’s eyes.
We will first examine the top findings in the report, then discuss some of what Kathy questions might be the answer.
Barna’s Top 5 Things Americans Believe about Jesus
The first point made by the report is one that isn’t surprising. Most Americans believe that Jesus was a real person:
The Vast Majority of Americans Believe Jesus Was a Real Person The vast majority of Americans still maintain that he was a historical figure. More than nine out of 10 adults say Jesus Christ was a real person who actually lived (92%). While the percentages dip slightly among younger generations—only 87 percent of Millennials agree Jesus actually lived—Americans are still very likely to believe the man, Jesus Christ, once walked the earth.
Some, but not all.
Small segments of the population subscribe to the Jesus Myth hypothesis, others scrutinize the heavy-handed canonization process by the ecumenical councils, and others just don’t buy the story. However, in scholarly discussion, the current consensus is that Jesus was a real person, though they contest his miracle making. These alternative theories to the historical Jesus have made it into popular discussion with millennials, especially around Easter. Can we dismiss that millennials have greater access to information in light of those popular alternative theories and discuss them? Probably not, this brings me back to the previous point of scholarly debate. If that is where the discussion of the historicity of Jesus is being held, the millennials are not the ones having it. How many of them are interested in theology? In 2013, Intrust showed a trend that started in 2005 showing the number of national enrollments into divinity programs down. There was a -17% peak loss in White enrollments, only a 4% gain for Hispanic enrollments, and only a paltry 1.75% for the most religious demographic, Blacks. The Millennials may just not care.
Younger Generations Are Increasingly Less Likely to Believe Jesus Was God The historicity of Jesus may not be in question for most Americans, but people are much less confident in the divinity of Jesus. Most adults—not quite six in 10—believe Jesus was God (56%), while about one-quarter say he was only a religious or spiritual leader like Mohammed or the Buddha (26%). The remaining one in six say they aren’t sure whether Jesus was divine (18%). Millennials are the only generation among whom fewer than half believe Jesus was God (48%). About one-third of young adults (35%) say instead that Jesus was merely a religious or spiritual leader, while 17 percent aren’t sure what he was.
This one doesn’t surprise me either. Millennials have access to more educational resources than they’ve ever had before, so I’d expect that with the shrinking quantity of verifiable miracles, that the burden of proof would shift. I joyfully blame the likes of Penn and Teller and James Randi for screwing up magic, and science popularizers for explaining what was once unexplainable. They’ve explained away what we thought we saw and helped redefine what we thought we knew, showing us how easily we can deceive ourselves. We have spent time preparing the Millennials against that deception, whether it is innocent, malicious, or naïve. We’ve busted cons and magic tricks from all over the globe. Jesus turning water into wine, though respectfully still amazing, pales to levitating the pyramid or making the Eiffel tower vanish..
Criss Angel wins in a miracle contest, but he doesn’t claim to be the Son of God. We also fact check everything, so certain claims are easily debunked with a few clicks of a button. That creates a higher burden of proof that biblical claims often can not meet, including Jesus’ divinity. Contradictory or historically errant claims, such as the creation story in Genesis, enslavement used for building the pyramids, etc., once proven false, also introduce doubt against the Bible as a whole. Either don’t claim its fallible or don’t claim divinity. People will adapt their religious beliefs to fit their needs, just as the versions of Christianity that existed prior to its modern contemporary, and that may include a human Jesus and an impersonal and less relevant God.
Americans Are Divided on Whether Jesus Was Sinless. Perhaps reflective of their questions about Jesus’ divinity, Americans are conflicted on whether Jesus committed sins during his earthly life. About half of Americans agree, either strongly or somewhat, that while he lived on earth, Jesus Christ was human and committed sins like other people (52%). Just less than half disagree, either strongly or somewhat, that Jesus committed sins while on earth (46%), and 2 percent aren’t sure. Similar to other trends in perceptions of Jesus, Millennials are more likely to believe Jesus committed sins while he was on earth—56% of Millennials believe so. Gen-Xers, Boomers and Elders are all similar to the national average when it comes to beliefs about Jesus’ fallibility—they are almost evenly split on whether Jesus sinned while he lived on earth.
I think this may be an artifact of needing less Jesus, but let’s examine. If Jesus was not divine, then the expectation of infallibility is in jeopardy. If he was fallible, then he may not be without sin, which makes him, still though extraordinary, less unique. If others can claim divinity, than what makes Jesus so special, and if you reject others’ claims of divinity in the light of fallibility – how can you reasonably defend your own?
Most Americans Say They Have Made a Commitment to Jesus Christ On the whole, America is still committed to Jesus. The act of making a personal commitment to Jesus—often seen as the “first step” in becoming a Christian—is a step that more than six in 10 Americans say they have taken and, moreover, that commitment is still important in their life today.And, of course, Millennials are much less likely than any other group to have made a personal commitment to Jesus that is still important in their life today. Fewer than half of Millennials say they have made such a commitment (46%), compared to six in 10 Gen-Xers (59%), two-thirds of Boomers (65%) and seven in 10 Elders (71%)…. Women, for example, are more likely than men to have made a personal commitment to Jesus (68% compared to 56%, respectively). White Americans are the least likely ethnic group to have committed to Jesus: Only six in 10 white Americans report having done so (60%), compared to eight in 10 black Americans (80%) and nearly two-thirds of all non-white Americans (65%). The more money people make, the less likely they are to have committed to Jesus: Those making more than $100K per year are significantly less likely (53%) to have made such a commitment than those making between $50K and $100K (63%) or those making less than $50K (65%).
My daughter can name about a dozen millionaires or billionaires who happen to be atheists (Gates, Zuckerberg, Stieffel, etc). She can rattle them off and she knows that they are everywhere. In the STEM and tech sector, we see a preponderance of disbelief in part due to the education requirements and due to higher paying salaries, which minimize suffering and financial hardships. Mother Teresa claimed that suffering was a gift from God and where you saw suffering, the church flourished. Might the inverse also hold true? Could what Barna have identified in this survey indicate an inverse correlation that suggests that where there is no suffering, there is less need for god? That’s a hard one as a former Christian, because I would’ve argued that there was ALWAYS a need for God, but now – not so much. I don’t need God to be good, and if there was no resurrection because Jesus really wasn’t divine – well, what’s this heaven business about and the high costs associated with its entrance? Or is just being good, sufficient in getting in or is that still contradictory?
People Are Conflicted between “Jesus” and “Good Deeds” as the Way to Heaven Among adults who have made a personal commitment to Jesus, most also believe that Jesus is the way to heaven. When given several beliefs about the afterlife to choose from, nearly two-thirds of those who have made a personal commitment to Jesus say they believe that after they die they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior (63%). Only 2 percent of adults who report a personal commitment to Jesus say they will not go to heaven. About one in seven admit they don’t know what will happen after they die (15%). Overall, roughly two out of five Americans have confessed their sinfulness and professed faith in Christ (a group Barna classifies as “born again Christians”). Millennials are less likely to believe that Jesus is the path to Heaven than are other generations. Among Millennials who have made a personal commitment to Jesus, only 56 percent say they believe they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior. This percentage climbs to two-thirds of Gen-Xers (64%), six in 10 Boomers (62%) and nearly seven in 10 among Elders (68%). Many adults believe, however, that they will go to heaven as a result of their good works.
Can you be good without God? Of course you can. Is that enough to get you into heaven? Depends. Even Pope Francis slipped up on that one (though he did later backtrack). I would argue, that when it comes to certain things the bible specifically condemns, that you can do even better – especially when addressing unevolved scriptural laws that call for death, submission, discrimination, etc… Barna ignores the current landscape that show Millennials at odds with the church as a whole when discussing things like human equality, where the church, for the most part, has not yet progressed. I make a differentiation between human equality and same sex marriage, because before you can discuss marriage between people – you have to first reject the assertion that they are abominations. The church has to get there first. And though Jesus did not speak against same sex marriage or homosexuality, His delegates do, and it would follow that they damage his brand.
David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, says: “There isn’t much argument about whether Jesus Christ actually was a historical person, but nearly everything else about his life generates enormous, and sometimes rancorous, debate.” These findings, however, “demonstrate the strong degree to which Jesus remains embedded in the minds of Americans. It is not surprising that Easter brings a range of Jesus-centered entertainment and media programming: Jesus has a built-in audience. This study also shows the extent of Christian commitment in the nation—more than 150 million Americans say they have professed faith in Christ. This impressive number begs the question of how well this commitment is expressed. As much of our previous research shows, Americans’ dedication to Jesus is, in most cases, a mile wide and an inch deep.” “… the fact is younger Americans are not as connected as older generations are to Christ. Jesus is a friend of sinners, but many Millennials are ‘unfriending’ him at a time when their lives are being shaped and their trajectories set toward the future.”
I don’t think its a question of commitment. I thinks its more of a question of relevance and reciprocity. What does the church offer to the more self-aware independently minded Millennial when eternal redemption and paradise isn’t a great selling point, because your life in the here and now, doesn’t suck that much? And ain’t nobody got time for figurative or literal self flagellation and scourging in the here and now, especially when the church is probably on the wrong side of history on female autonomy, pedophilia, and gender issues. If there is no afterlife, what is the big payback? Where are the incentives that bind them to that tradition? There are pre-medieval roots of how the church conducts itself, which cannot survive in a rapidly changing world. People and their sense of morality are progressing beyond faith, though they may still call themselves Christians.
What to do
OK – so to Kathy’s questions on why and what to do about it are as follows:
Is it the result of poor catechesis, of inadequate teaching of the faith on the part of parents, clergy and educators?
Nope. The more you teach them, the more they’ll know – and do you really want that? I asks that honestly. Have you spoken to an atheist lately? The many I know, run rings around my most pious religious friends. My favorite recurring line “The Bible doesn’t say that!… Does it?” – then an atheist shows them chapter, line, and verse. So I don’t think that’s the answer.
Or does the fault lie with a society which demands instant gratification, which has captivated the youth of America with technology and social media and trivial pursuits, abandoning the rigorous study of biblical texts?
That’s a great line, especially the trivial pursuit, but I’d state that connection with friends, the pursuit of knowledge no matter how small, even though it may contradict scripture, isn’t trivial. Studying the text, especially within the context of how they were made, have made many an apostate. The internet makes that easier but it also makes sites like AnswersInGenesis, which does a phenomenal job satirizing Christian faith, also very available. You would think that given the ubiquitous reach of the internet in the US, that everyone would be rejoicing in the connected Word. In comparison though, you have shared critical analysis, atheist podcast, youtube frenzied rebuttals on belief, that make accepting the Word blindly, exceptionally more difficult. It is an amazing tool and the Millennial heartbeat is synced to the clocking frequency of silicone processing the words you’re reading right now.
Or has the younger generation simply not yet been tested in faith and will they, as they pass through critical life experiences such as the birth of a child or the death of a loved one, grow in faith and understanding?
There’s a bit of an elitist supposition which I reject. Yes – critical life experiences test your beliefs, but are the Godless, or Faithless, less equipped to handle death or childbirth? I know of a few million people that would argue against that pretty heavily. Religion can help those that accept it, but for those that reject it or do not align themselves closely to it, that statement can be insulting. Let me grant you that though, because it is your Faith that has to defend a God that allowed an innocent child to get shot by a cop or raped by a teacher or hit by a car or be born with a defect that causes a child to scream in agony, just breathing. Or when that prayer fails to relieve the suffering of a grieving mother or regrow that veteran’s limb, your Faith has to rationalize that. Yep – those definitely bring with it a test of faith, but those that “fail” are flawed by God’s design.
But I’d like to propose another idea or view.
I think this “crisis” of faith and increasing doubt is a good thing. It allows for the sorting of true believers, which I’d expect the church wants. I think having people following blindly, without questioning, is wrong. I’m not sure Christianity needs more of that. It needs those that will beat their plowshares into swords or educated pens in the critical defense of faith. I’d assert that Christianity needs people that have honestly confronted their doubts, critically examined their faith, conquered the fear of being wrong, and have come out on the other end stronger in their faiths. Unfortunately, I’d guess that many of those people have come out as an Atheist, but in there lies the real gauntlet. The church can’t continue to rely on temporal, emotional life events to cement people into a support structure rife with the human ills, for which it alone claims to have an unverifiable supernatural cure. That kind of faith can’t last. Wait, that kind of faith, is exactly what’s NOT lasting and its taking the church with it. For its own survival, the church has to change…. But then again, I’m fine with it not.
You can read Kathy’s Blog here: