Secularism’s Popularity Among Millennials is a Cause for Worry

Susan Thompson-Gaines of Arlington, Va., left, with her husband David Gaines, stand outside the Supreme Court holding signs opposing businesses challenging the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act on March 25, 2014. (RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks)
Susan Thompson-Gaines of Arlington, Va., left, with her husband David Gaines, stand outside the Supreme Court holding signs opposing businesses challenging the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act on March 25, 2014. (RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks)

by Arthur E. Farnsley II

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.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service

Arthur E Farnsley II is professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and author of  “Flea Market Jesus.”

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