Signs of religion are everywhere; on the doors of places of worship that occupy almost every block downtown, in the shared posts of devout Facebook friends and even on roadside billboards that warn of preparation for the rapture. Religion may seem like it’s as prevalent as ever, but lately the young people of America are turning away from religion and religious affiliation. We know it’s happening, but what we don’t know is why.
November 6, 2015
According to a survey by Pew Research in 2014, 36% of young millennials identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular”, and this number is at an all time high. It would make sense for the trend to continue and that an ever increasing number of West students would be non-religious. Be that as it may, there are still those who take their faith very seriously.
“I consider myself very religious,” said Laura Fletcher ’17. “I probably spend more than 15 hours on religious type stuff every week. I go to a church activity on Wednesday night [and] also go to a church class for an hour every morning. [Then] three hours on Sunday, and occasionally activities on Saturday as well.”
Ali Ali ’17 is a relatively religious Sunni Muslim.
“I pray five times a day and I read the book when I can, but there are definitely people who are more religious than me,” Ali said.
Chirag Jain ’18 follows Jainism, a religion he describes as resembling a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism, and the end goal of which is to become achieve detachment from the world.
“I was brought up listening to what I’m supposed to do, being vegetarian, doing all my prayers and all that. I began more religious than I am right now,” Jain said.
“I don’t believe in a God,” said Emma Christison ’16. “I call myself agnostic because of that idea of questioning what’s bigger than we are. I believe in a higher power, but I believe that it’s something that’s completely incomprehensible to people, and I believe the same about an afterlife.”
Both the ultra-religious and only slightly spiritual have a presence in West’s hallways, but their respective religions didn’t appear out of thin air; they had to be learned.
Most people are born into their religions, leaving little room for movement until they’re old enough to understand what they’re doing and want to stay where they are.
Thomas Wagner ’18 is the son of an Episcopal priest, and has never had thoughts about changing religions.
“I could’ve had a choice, but I really like the Episcopal church,” Wagner said. “It’s a really nice church and everyone is so accepting.”
Information about other religions isn’t excessively hard to find, so it’s a true belief in one’s initial religion that makes him or her stick to it.
“I’ve learned about other religions like Christianity and Buddhism, and some of the flaws that I find in there I don’t find [in Islam],” Ali said. “Most of the questions I’ve asked have been answered to my satisfaction, so that’s why I haven’t changed.”
Not all parents encourage their children to follow their religious beliefs, however.
“I was raised in Tennessee, in the Bible Belt, and my parents didn’t want me to go with what everyone else was going with. My mom sent me to Jewish Community Center camps and took me to India where I learned about Hinduism,” Christison said. “It’s not so much that I was raised under a religion than I was raised to believe that it’s not my job to question religion, but to accept that people believe in all sorts of things.”
Nadav Cohen ’16 feels as though his own parents’ religious passivity contributed to his own.
“I don’t know exactly what my parents believe; they never pushed anything onto me and my sister,” Cohen said.
In contrast, some parents try but fail to instill religion into their children.
“I’m a Buddhist. My parents are both really strictly Catholic and I guess I never fit [in],” said Jena Shaver ’17. “I would pray when I was a little kid, with my step-dad every night and that kind of stopped because I didn’t feel obligated to pray.”
When parents have one religion, the decision to be made is whether or not to impress that religion on the next generation. But when parents have substantially different religions, they have to decide what to do with their kids’ faiths.
“My mom is Jewish and my dad was raised Catholic,” said Grace Huber ’16. “My parents decided not to be super religious because it was difficult to kind of combine the two.”
Huber’s parents take a relatively hands-off approach to their children’s religion.
“We never went to church or went to synagogue very often, only for specific ceremonies,” Huber said. “Mostly my mom and dad try to give us a sense of faith in something in the world, but they try not to give us a specific person to worship, because we as a family are so different in the way that we think about things.”
Nasim Abu-Dagga ’17 also has parents with different religions–his father is Muslim and his mother Christian.
“It made me view religion less of one singular idea that has to be right,” Abu-Dagga said. “I was able to choose what I wanted to believe.”
LOSING THEIR RELIGION
The general consensus is that young people are walking away from religion.
“Increasingly, we see a sort of ‘shopping’ approach to religion, in which people take a little of this and a little of that to cobble together a religion that makes sense to them,” said Jenna Supp-Montgomerie, an assistant professor of theology at the University of Iowa. “This allows more people to find religious practices that feel comfortable and can address some issues of exclusion by institutional religion, such as the exclusion of LGBT people.”
Max Mons is a West parent and a Missouri Synod Lutheran reverend, and he runs a parish with mostly college students.
“If you take the ACT and self-identify as Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, and you’re accepted into [the University of] Iowa, the admissions office sends me your name and address,” Mons said. “We send out four mailings to those folks. One says ‘send this self addressed mailing envelope back to us’. If we get 10 percent of those back, that’s great.”
The fact that they’re leaving is evident. But the real question is why they’re doing so.
One reason for the relative abandonment of organized religion seems to be its failure to evolve with the ideals of modern culture.
“I feel like it’s because of the new values in our society,” Fletcher said. “Religion is seen as less of a normal thing; it’s the thing that weird people do, people that aren’t as smart or aren’t intellectual, and it’s not popular anymore.”
Another may be the fact that regular religious activity doesn’t work into the busy flow of modern day life.
“It might have something to do with going to church and doing religious things is not as much a part of our daily lives as it would have a long time ago,” Cohen said.
One of these ideals is that millennials want to know exactly what they’re getting into.
“To me, one of the biggest [reasons] is that millennials value authenticity,” Mons said. “One of their mantras is ‘Tell me who you really are and what you’re about’ and you need to do that. I don’t think you need to make church look cool or hip or anything like that, just [tell them] who you really are and what you believe. There are some church bodies that aren’t doing that.”
Jain attributes his own lack of interest in religion to the fact that he’s not totally sure of what he’s doing.
“I’m supposed to believe in God but I kind of don’t,” Jain said. “It used to be just ‘say these prayers, do these things,’ but it’s in a language I don’t know. I just said them and learned it. As I grew up, it was like, ‘what does that even mean?’ And then my grandparents couldn’t explain it to me, so I kind of just slowly started to believe less. At this point I just question everything, and then I [get] no answer, and then I’m like ‘that’s why I don’t believe in God’.”
Furthermore, religion doesn’t seem to hold the answers to all of life’s questions like it used to. As more things become possible through technology, religion doesn’t hold the same mystique as it once did. This oftentimes makes it easy for young people to become disenchanted with the entire religious system.
“There’s always been talk about how science will solve everything, and how we can just be spiritual without having a religion necessarily,” Ali said. “Some people think of [religion] as restriction, and I’ve heard of Muslims that quit their religion because they didn’t want to be held back.”
The resolution many millennials come to is that most of what religious texts hold isn’t viable in this day in age.
“The Bible and the Torah are becoming outdated,” Huber said. “The stories can be translated and the ideas can be formed into what is still being practiced today, but it’s still hard to read those things and still say that you believe the things that you do.”
Another viewpoint is that today’s young people just don’t care, and want to spend their time on what they see to be more important things.
“I don’t want to sound like an old man,” Wagner said. “But kids these days aren’t focusing on their religion as much as they used to. A lot of people aren’t putting in the effort, and if they did put in the effort, then they would believe more.”
Additionally, there’s a chance that how organized religion has been set up just doesn’t agree with most young people.
“I think religion is a really good thing in general to have in your life, to have something that you kind of believe in, but it doesn’t have to be an organized religion,” Huber said. “Organized religion works for some people, but I don’t think that it works for everybody, and if you just think for yourself, you’ll eventually figure out what you think the world is.”
Yet another reason could be a counter movement by Generation X parents that don’t want their children to be as constrained as they were when they were young.
“Both my parents were raised Catholic. My mom’s side was very strictly Catholic, and my mom was kind of disturbed by how much religion was enforced on her,” Christison said.
It’s also worth it to note that young people are exposed to much more diversity now then they were thirty years ago, and that not all social relationships revolve around religious groups.
“People are… just submerged into a place where there’s all different people and all different religious backgrounds,” Christison said.
Huber notes that this is one of the first times throughout history where religious schools and institutions are not the main thing bringing everyone together.
“I feel like I have contact with people and I have no idea what their religion even is,” Huber said. “It’s not as much of a factor in who you’re meeting and who you’re forming relationships with.”
Abu-Dagga religiously identifies as atheist, and seems to agree.
“I’m not religious, we don’t see a need for religion in our lives anymore,” Abu-Dagga said. “Lots of families don’t see the need to go to church every Sunday and there’s not really a space for it to fill that there used to be.”
At the end, it all really comes down to that religion is having trouble continuing to keep young people occupied and interested.
“I slowly started not to believe in my religion,” Jain said. “I think it’s pretty logical for religion to decline as time goes on. In this age, probably everyone’s questioning everything there is.”
HABITS DIE HARD
So is this the death of religion in our age? Most devotees disagree, and think that there’s a way for the religious associations to accommodate the changing times.
“We’re kind of like a potluck place,” Wagner said. “We have all kinds of religions in Iowa, and I think that the Episcopal church is very accepting of other religions.”
At his church, Mons has an informal bible study group where the students come with their own questions and the discussion stems from there.
“We’ve talked about heaven and hell, we’ve talked about life issues, sexual issues get discussed, marriage issues get discussed. What’s going on in the world today? Does this impact my life or does it not impact my life? Do I need to be thinking about this or do I not need to be thinking about this? The topics really range widely.”
One thing is for sure, and that is that an upheaval in religious practices could mean anything for the country and the world.
“Religion is a lifestyle,” Ali said. “It’s not just ‘I believe in this God’, that’s not enough; there’s more to it. It’s a way of life.”