Home/Rod Dreher/Millennial Landslide

Millennial Landslide

Going ... going ... (siete_vidas/Shutterstock)

Wouldn’t want to disturb your complacency or anything, but here’s news:

The percentage of Americans who prayed or believed in God reached an all-time low in 2014, according to new research led by San Diego State University psychology professor Jean M. Twenge.

A research team that included Ryne Sherman from Florida Atlantic University and Julie J. Exline and Joshua B. Grubbs from Case Western Reserve University analyzed data from 58,893 respondents to the General Social Survey, a nationally representative survey of U.S. adults administered between 1972 and 2014. Five times as many Americans in 2014 reported that they never prayed as did Americans in the early 1980s, and nearly twice as many said they did not believe in God.

Americans in recent years were less likely to engage in a wide variety of religious practices, including attending religious services, describing oneself as a religious person, and believing that the Bible is divinely inspired, with the biggest declines seen among 18- to 29-year-old respondents. The results were published today in the journal Sage Open.

“Most previous studies concluded that fewer Americans were publicly affiliating with a religion, but that Americans were just as religious in private ways. That’s no longer the case, especially in the last few years,” said Twenge, who is also the author of the book, “Generation Me.” “The large declines in religious practice among young adults are also further evidence that Millennials are the least religious generation in memory, and possibly in American history.”

This decline in religious practice has not been accompanied by a rise in spirituality, which, according to Twenge, suggests that, rather than spirituality replacing religion, Americans are becoming more secular. The one exception to the decline in religious beliefs was a slight increase in belief in the afterlife.

“It was interesting that fewer people participated in religion or prayed but more believed in an afterlife,” Twenge said. “It might be part of a growing entitlement mentality — thinking you can get something for nothing.”

Of course. One of the tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is that God wants little more from you than to be happy and nice, and everybody is going to heaven except people like Hitler. We must have that psychological hedge to wall off the abyss, and to prevent us from having to consider the full implications of atheism. Nietzsche and Sartre were far more honest atheists.

There’s a new study out in the American Journal of Sociology that challenges the long-held thesis that the United States is an outlier in secularization, compared to Europe. The abstract:

Virtually every discussion of secularization asserts that high levels of religiosity in the United States make it a decisive counterexample to the claim that modern societies are prone to secularization. Focusing on trends rather than levels, the authors maintain that, for two straightforward empirical reasons, the United States should no longer be considered a counterexample. First, it has recently become clear that American religiosity has been declining for decades. Second, this decline has been produced by the generational patterns underlying religious decline elsewhere in the West: each successive cohort is less religious than the preceding one. America is not an exception. These findings change the theoretical import of the United States for debates about secularization.

A year ago, Peter Foster of the Telegraph quoted David Voas, a co-author of the new study, saying that America appears to be on the same track towards unbelief as Europe:

Analysis of European secularisation might provide us some pointers for the US going foward. There, according to analysis by David Voas, a sociologist at Essex University, it is clear that the rise of so-called “fuzzy fidelity” – ie those with no explicit religious affliation, but who still believe in some kind of higher power and go to church on Christmas – has proved to be a “staging post on the road from religious to secular hegemony”.

“Indifference,” Voas writes in his 2008 paper The Rise and Fall of Fuzzy Fidelity in Europe, “is ultimately as damaging for religion as scepticism.”

If that’s the case in the US, then the belief among many Evangelicals that the “nones” are still fundamentally religious may prove to be wishful thinking.

Pardon me for re-quoting some material I put up in the Donald Trump post earlier today. I do this for people who come to this blog through Twitter, and who wouldn’t necessarily have seen much of this material in that post from this morning. Earlier this week, I read Lost In Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, a 2009 book by sociologist Christian Smith and several academic colleagues. It’s about the moral lives of 18-23 year olds, who, I guess, would be in their mid-20s and early 30s today. It is a depressing study to read. Too many details to get into here, but the basic finding is that most Americans of that generation believe in nothing outside their own feelings, and cannot even make an argument for much of anything. It’s all about what they feel. They are completely obsessed by material, sensate culture, and aspire to nothing higher than being comfortable, entertained, and happy. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

Ultimately we come back to core existential questions. What are humans? Do they have any purpose? If so, what is it? What is good in life and the world? How do we make sense of suffering, tragedy, evil, and death? Are history and the world going somewhere meaningful, or is it all just random chance? Our point is not to push particular answers to these questions. Our point is that human beings and cultures recurrently, inescapably ask and answer these questions one way or another. For better or worse, people and cultures recurrently find themselves drawn to answers that reflect horizons that are higher, bigger, more transcendent, or more meaningful than the prosaic, immanent, natural, mundane world. Humanity can live for some time on mere bodily comfort and material security. But over time that does not seem to satisfy the human spirit. Such a limited horizon cannot last. Either material security gives way or the human spirit seeks to push beyond it. If so, then the standard cultural horizons of most emerging adults today, and thus of the culture that has raised them, cannot be said to reflect a high point of the human imagination and aspirations.

The authors emphatically do not blame these emerging adults, but rather the older adults — parents, teachers, churches, communities, institutions — who formed them. “But if these emerging adults are lost, it is because the larger culture and society into which they are being inducted is also lost,” the authors write. More:

We are failing to teach them how to deal constructively with moral, cultural, and ideological differences. We are failing to teach them to think about what is good for people and in life. We are failing to equip our youth with the ideas, tools, and practices to know how to negotiate their romantic and sexual lives in healthy, nondestructive ways that prepare them to achieve the happy, functional marriages and families that most of them say they want in future years. We are failing to teach our youth about life purposes and goals that matter more than the accumulation of material possessions and material comfort and security. We are failing to challenge the too-common need to be intoxicated, the apparent inability to live a good, fun life without being under the influence of alcohol or drugs. And we are failing to teach our youth the importance of civic engagement and political participation, how to be active citizens of their communities and nation, how to think about and live for the common good. On all of these matters, if our analysis is correct, the adult world is simply abdicating its responsibilities.

Moreover, if our analysis is correct, we in the older adult world are failing youth and emerging adults in these crucial ways because our own adult world is itself also failing in those same ways. It is not that the world of mainstream American adults has something great to teach but is simply teaching it badly. That would also be a problem, but at least a remediable one. Rather, we suspect that the adult world is teaching its youth all too well. But what it has to teach too often fails to convey what any good society needs to pass on to its children.

In short, if our sociological analysis in this book is correct, the problem is not simply that youth are bad students or that adults are poor teachers. It is that American culture itself seems to be depleted of some important cultural resources that it would pass on to youth if it had them — and yet not just for “moral” but also for identifiable institutional reasons, as repeatedly noted above. In which case, not only emerging adulthood, but American culture itself also has a dark side as well.

The point of the book is not that Millennials are bad people, but rather that they have not been given any clear way to determine what is right and what is wrong, and how to use their reason. So they fall back on what feels right in a given moment. We have thrown our kids into the deep end of a pool, but failed to teach them how to swim.

And look at this finding:

What we have found so far is, first, that 61 percent of emerging adults we interviewed have no problems or concerns with American materialism and mass consumerism. These emerging adults are essentially quite happy with our social system of shopping, buying, consuming, and disposing. Second, another 30 percent of emerging adults mention certain concerns about mass consumerism, but none they think they can do anything about and none that especially affects how they personally think or live. … Structuring and governing the outlooks of nearly all of the 91 percent of interviewed emerging adults represented above is the dominant cultural paradigm of liberal individualism. … All that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals who are out to enjoy life.

This is who we are. This is who we have raised our kids to be, whether we intended to or not. Smith et al. warn against “doom-and-gloomers,” though I’m not quite sure why, and they also warn against older adults who say, “Aww, that’s how kids are, they’ll grow out of it.” That’s a dangerous complacency, they say. And they also warn against drawing firm conclusions based on anecdotal data. They say there’s a lot of bad journalism out there that sees, for example, young people volunteering for political campaigns, and concludes, “See, the kids really are all right. They’re engaged!” The sociological data do not remotely justify that conclusion.

It is not going to get any better in the foreseeable future, only worse, and more difficult. This is why we orthodox Christians who want to resist the spirit of the age, and who want to raise kids able to be resilient, need the Benedict Option. Church youth group, parochial or religious school, and church on Sunday is not enough. Not remotely enough.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

leave a comment

Latest Articles