US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Why we should worry when millennials don’t take religion seriously

By Arthur E. Farnsley II | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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c. 2015 Religion News Service

(RNS) One of my favorite colleagues recently gave her retirement lecture. Of the many smart things she said, the one I remember most is this: “I would happily turn the country over to the millennial generation.”

Most of our current university students are millennials, born between 1981 and 2000. My colleague sees ongoing culture wars in America, with cultural conservatives on one side and cultural liberals on the other. She hopes millennials can move past the culture wars toward stability because she says they are more open to science and evidence-based discussion, but I suspect it is because they are, on the whole, more secular.

I’m a secular baby boomer myself, but I worry secularism has led many of my generation, and even more millennials, to discount religion’s influence in ways that could prove dangerous.

The Pew Research Center compared millennials to the Silent Generation, born between 1928 and 1945. It found that 26 percent of millennials have no religious affiliation, but only 8 percent of silents have none. And 41 percent of millennials pray daily, much less than the 71 percent of silents.

Maybe millennials are just as “spiritual” in some other sense, but they are in fact less religious and thus more secular by definition.

They are also less concerned about culture war issues. Fifteen years ago, 35 percent of Americans supported gay marriage. Today, 52 percent support it. Over that time some people changed their minds, but much more importantly, millennials support gay marriage more strongly than silents.

* Should pornography be illegal? Only 21 percent of millennials think so, but 57 percent of silents do.
* Should the Bible or the Lord’s Prayer be read in school? Fifty-six percent of millennials don’t think so, but just 32 percent of silents agree with them.

This is not data cherry-picking. These are discernible, consistent differences.

So why am I worried this secularism leads to a misreading of religion? I teach comparative religion to millennials in a state university and I have a nagging sense they do not take religion seriously. They think of religion as a consumer choice, like entrees picked from a menu. Worse, they imagine religion as a placeholder, a label given to ideas and interests that are fundamentally about race, ethnicity, social class or something else.

To return to the Pew study, only a third of millennials see a link between Islam and violence, but about half of silents do. I do not want Muslims to be the “villains” in this story, so the positive spin is that millennials are more likely to know Muslims personally and to realize Islam is not essentially about violence. But a different spin is that many millennials do not see religious ideology as real or ultimately important. My more secular students frame religion as a social construct, not as “true” or “false” in and of itself.

But religion is real. When a relatively small slice of Muslims use Islam to underwrite a violent ideology, they are being religious. Too many millennials assume religion could not be the underlying reason because it is only a reflection of other interests.

I find this discounting of religion worrisome because religion is not going anywhere soon. Religious people are still the majority in the U.S. and will be for a very long time. Can we really manage the tension between secular and religious worldviews if one side believes the other side is not quite what it says it is?

Beyond America, the world as a whole is becoming more religious. A new Pew study shows that even as the unaffiliated category grows in the U.S., the number of unaffiliated people is shrinking as a percentage of world population because global growth is occurring elsewhere.

My point is not that Americans should be more religious, but that we must remember most of the world is religious and religious convictions help determine social action of all kinds.

This past week I saw conservative religious conviction discounted in my home state. A new Indiana law offered a very broad definition of religious liberty, so broad it might have been used to defend someone who refused service to a gay couple getting married.

Within a day or two, news stories were putting the term “religious liberty” in quotation marks, or changing it to read “religious objection.” This made sense to my students and most of the media: Surely objections to participating in gay marriages could not be about real religion, but some other interests cloaked in religious guise. In this case, religious interests won in the statehouse and then lost so badly in public opinion that the law was quickly changed.

In the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case last year, religious interests won in the dispute about the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. No matter who wins or loses in particular instances, discounting religious conviction muddles the debate, making it even more difficult to balance competing interests.

I’m doing my best to help my millennial students see that religion is not just a placeholder for other interests; it is a powerful motivator and many religious people are willing to sacrifice, die, and even kill in its name. These millennials will get their turn, and since my kids are in that generation, I wish them the best. Like my colleague, I’m optimistic.

But I’ll stick with gradual change, letting millennials take over when their time comes. Managing the balance between religious and secular interests is crucial in America and even more critical in a globalizing world. Secularists all need to learn to take religion more seriously, but millennials have the advantage of time to learn.

Arthur E. Farnsley II is professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and author of  Flea Market Jesus (Cascade Books).