ABC News released a report today by Dan Harris entitled, "Young Americans Losing Their Religion." I have copied in the bulk of the article, but the full article can be found here: http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=7513343&page=1
New research shows young Americans are dramatically less likely to go to church -- or to participate in any form of organized religion -- than their parents and grandparents. "It's a huge change," says Harvard University professor Robert Putnam, who conducted the research.
Historically, the percentage of Americans who said they had no religious affiliation (pollsters refer to this group as the "nones") has been very small -- hovering between 5 percent and 10 percent. However, Putnam says the percentage of "nones" has now skyrocketed to between 30 percent and 40 percent among younger Americans.
Putnam calls this a "stunning development." He gave reporters a first glimpse of his data Tuesday at a conference on religion organized by the Pew Forum on Faith in Public Life. The research will be included in a forthcoming book, called "American Grace."
This trend started in the 1990s and continues through today. It includes people in both Generation X and Y. While these young "nones" may not belong to a church, they are not necessarily atheists.
"Many of them are people who would otherwise be in church," Putnam said. "They have the same attitidues and values as people who are in church, but they grew up in a period in which being religious meant being politically conservative, especially on social issues." Putnam says that in the past two decades, many young people began to view organized religion as a source of "intolerance and rigidity and doctrinaire political views," and therefore stopped going to church.
This movement away from organized religion, says Putnam, may have enormous consequences for American culture and politics for years to come. "That is the future of America," he says. "Their views and their habits religiously are going to persist and have a huge effect on the future." This data is likely to reinvigorate an already heated debate about whether America is, or will continue to be, a "Christian nation."
...Putnam, author of the book "Bowling Alone," which tracked the decline in civic and community engagement in America (exemplified by the diminution of bowling leagues), fears the reduction in religiosity could have widespread negative impacts. His research shows that people who go to church are much more likely to vote, volunteer and give to charity.
However, he says, it's possible that the current spike in young people opting out of organized religion could also prove to be an opportunity for some. "America historically has been a very inventive and even entrepreneurial place in terms of religion," he says. "We're all the time inventing new religions and reinventing religions that we have. It's partly because we have a free market in religion. That is, we don't have a state church."
Given that today's young "nones" probably would be in church if they didn't associate religion with far-right political views, he says, new faith groups may evolve to serve them. "Jesus said, 'Be fishers of men,'" says Putnam, "and there's this pool with a lot of fish in it and no fishermen right now."
In the end, he says, this "stunning" trend of young people becoming less religious could lead to America's next great burst of religious innovation.
Harris' report affirms what I have sensed at an anecdotal level working around college students for the last 18 years. To borrow a line from Dan Kimball, most young people today seem to love Jesus but hate the Church. Whether true or not, for them the churches they grew up in or around felt co-opted as a political pressure group while at the same time seeming to care little for global social justice and experiencing horrific public failures in its leadership.
It is also my sense that Harris is correct that churches will either (a) react against these folk and hope that something changes dramatically; (b) enter into conversations with this coming generation and try to find areas of understanding and mutual agreement; or (c) see this as an opportunity to repent of the ways the Church has been co-opted and use their energy and convictions to re-narrate what it means to be the Body of Christ in the world.
Those who know me well know that (at the front end of Gen X) feel caught in the middle of these dramatic shifts culturally. I have a great deal of empathy for those who want to do (a), but it is more my passion to find a way to accomplish (b) or (c). Your thoughts are welcomed...