what does it mean if Millennials are detached from religion?

The recent Pew survey of Millennials is aptly entitled, “Millennials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends.” One form of detachment involves religion. Pew says, “This generation’s religious views and behaviors are quite different from [those of] older age groups. Not only are they less likely than older generations to be affiliated with any religion, they are also less likely to say they believe in God.”

That is a clearly Bad Thing if God exists; many Millennials have drifted away from their Maker. But from a secular (or religiously neutral) perspective, the trend is more ambiguous and debatable.

W. Bradford Wilcox argues that religious adherence and congregational membership are linked to various good outcomes, including personal happiness and trust. In that case, detaching from religious institutions could be harmful.

Wilcox is a conservative writer, but some on the left would offer a complementary argument. They might emphasize power more than happiness. For example, in Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy, Mark R. Warren argues that the “rich and vibrant” networks of churches, along with small businesses and community organizations, “served as the basis for the social and political gains African Americans made in the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties.” The Black Church provided the recruitment, leadership, budgets, moral underpinning, and prophetic voice of the Freedom Movement. And that is not a unique example: Warren’s own book is about Latino Catholics in San Antonio from 1970-1990.

We could develop functional equivalents or replacements for churches. After all, religious denominations have done harm as well as good in the world, and there might be other paths to worldly justice and happiness. But any functional equivalent would have to meet the following criteria, I think:

  1. Depth. Warren begins his book with a vignette of Father Al Jost reading from Ezekiel: “Them bones, them bones …” This is a biblical verse, written more than 20 centuries ago in Hebrew. It is fantastic poetry: a spooky story about bones reforming into living people and a fascinating dialog between the prophet and his God. It has had a long and complex history. Via Jerome, it entered Latin, the language that evolved into Spanish and colonized the New World. Via the King James Version, it entered Renaissance English. In that form, it was quoted from all kinds of pulpits, but most notably in the Black Church, where the idea of the bones reforming as a result of prophesy became a metaphor for the oppressed people’s rebirth in freedom. When a White Catholic liberal priest quotes Ezekiel to a group of predominantly Latina parishioners, they may hear a wide range of associations, but the effect is palpable. They are nervous before Father Jost speaks, but they respond “with a resounding ‘Amen’ and [stride] onto the stage to the sounds of a mariachi band … exuding confidence and collective determination.” I propose that the original quality and the subsequent reuses of Ezekiel’s poetry partly explain their power. A secular equivalent would have to match that depth.
  2. Mechanisms for recruitment. The old civil society of churches, unions, parties, and newspapers recruited people for very persuasive reasons (getting to heaven, getting a job, getting patronage, and reading the classifieds and comics) but then helped at least some of their members become politically and civically engaged. The new civil society of nonprofit groups and loose social networks asks people to join because they have political and civic motivations. Many do not. Therefore, the new civil society is badly biased in favor of the already-active. A functional equivalent of churches must solve that recruitment problem.
  3. Mechanisms for overcoming collective action problems. As Gerald Gamm shows, when Catholics were tempted to leave Boston (unfortunately, because of racial prejudice and tension), the Catholic Church was able to stem the tide by committing to fund and retain the parish churches and parochial schools. Individual choices would have produced mass flight. Coordinated action preserved the institutions and let them evolve so that some of the old Irish Catholic churches are now predominantly Latino or Haitian. That is in some ways an ugly example, but it is also a clear case of how institutional structures help people achieve shared ends. Institutions need not be churches, but they must work as well.
  4. Plurality and freedom of choice: America offers many religious faiths, denominations, congregations within each denomination, and small groups within each congregation. Also, every religious tradition is a rich and ancient array of ideas, many in tension or even conflict with each other. So a religious believer can (unless overly pressured by other people in her life) make her own path. If we had one religion and it was a fully ordered system of rules and principles, then religious adherence would conflict with freedom. But in a massively diverse and competitive arena, religion is compatible with freedom.
  5. Bridges as well as walls. It is true that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week; and religion reflects the ideological, cultural, linguistic, and class segregation of the US as a whole. On the other hand, religious adherents see that problem and build structures to connect congregations: interfaith dialogues and broad-based religious organizing efforts that are now impressive at the level of whole metropolitan areas. These connections also keep individual congregations from becoming too morally disconnected and intolerant. Does it work perfectly?–absolutely not. But when other efforts to bring diverse people together are so weak, the potential of interfaith organizing is relatively impressive.
  6. A long historic arc. It is hard to keep going with civic and political work. Failure and defeat are inescapable. Persistence is a lot easier if you see yourself connected to a permanent community with a prophetic vision of the future–if, for example, you believe that your people were sold into bondage but are walking slowly toward the Promised Land.
  7. Moral obligation. You do not have to be religious to be moral. I hope not, because I am not religious. Further, you can be religious and evil: that is common enough. But being good does require commitments to other people (and perhaps to nature) as intrinsically valuable. Those commitments do not come from science or reason. In fact, science would suggest that people are dramatically unequal and that nature is fully exploitable. So I think moral people have “faith-based” commitments even if those have nothing to do with the divine. And one source of challenging moral thought and language is religion. Functional equivalents must be at least as good.

Finally, a sociological point. Today’s young people are less religious (in terms of both belief and practice) than today’s older people. One reason is generational change, and that suggests that they will remain less involved for the rest of their lives. But another reason is the life cycle. According to a Pew study from 2010, Millennials are just three points less likely to attend religious services than Xers were at the same age. But we Xers have grown substantially more observant as we have moved into middle age, and we now resemble Baby Boomers. I would tentatively predict a similar pattern for the Millennials.



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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.