Updated: Oct 28, 2018
Young people are leaving religion in growing numbers. Here's why I feel I consider myself one of them.
As far as introductions go, this won't be great. But a more informal format is necessary to discuss the topics of faith and religion. So let me get my disclaimers out of the way now. What follows in this article is my assessment of a global trend through my eyes and my experiences with help from statistics. This article isn't meant to alienate or tell anyone their beliefs are wrong.
Rather, this article is a look at what it means to be religious today. The idea for this article spawned from a recent "Thirsty Thursday", in which, rather than spending the night drinking like most college students might do, I spent the night in my apartment talking about religion with friends.
What follows are some of the ideas I took away from this conversation, as well as factual points about religions around the world, namely Christianity, a religion I was born into, and how the American public views religion.
I will say once more, what follows is not my direct beliefs, nor is it meant to offend. It is simply a research article asking one simple question:
What is the role of religion in the modern world?
History Of Religion
To understand what religion is today, we must first understand what religion once was. And to discuss this, we must start earlier than Christianity or Judaism, or even the Greek gods.
According to allaboutreligion.org, there were three basic forms of religion. They are: Polytheism, Pantheism, and Monotheism.
Polytheism is the belief in many gods. Pantheism is the belief that everything is God. Monotheism is the belief in one God.
Polytheism is the basic idea of Greek, Roman, or Egyptian gods, which is where your mind may go to immediately when you hear that term. And for me personally, this can be attributed to Rick Riordan and Percy Jackson. But the initial polytheistic beliefs are said to have started with Hinduism in 2,500 B.C.
It is hard to attribute a start time for Hinduism due to the simple fact that no cannon law or text was set forth by one singular person, making it hard to trace its origin. According to the BBC:
"Unlike most other religions, Hinduism has no single founder, no single scripture, and no commonly agreed set of teachings. Throughout its extensive history, there have been many key figures teaching different philosophies and writing numerous holy books."
Irregardless of where it started, the meaning of these multiple gods to society is the bigger focus. How these religions affected the people following them will help us better understand the place of modern day religion and the change over time.
Greek gods are some of the earliest exposure I had to religion not named christianity. The grouping for belief in Greek gods isn't religion however, but rather mythology. And as we all know today, to simplify, a myth is a story that isn't necessarily true, but is rather assumed true.
And according to historian Evaggelos Vallianatos:
"The Greeks thought of mythology no different than early history. A myth, after all, was a story told and passed on by word of mouth. It was speech, tale, conversation and narrative. Oral tradition fuelled mythology for a very long time, almost throughout the history of the Greeks."
So, what this means to me, is that the Greeks knew what they believed in wasn't necessarily true, but the stories they heard were used to give them something to stride for, the accepted goals of an entire people. A very simplified opinion on Greek mythology, I know.
And the Romans had many of the same gods, just named differently. Roman mythology in many ways served as the more polished form of Greek mythology. As the Roman's continued conquering land, their stories continued to grow, with more and more legends created by word of mouth than on the battlefield.
But it wasn't what these legends did, so much as what they were that made them so important to Roman culture. Donald Watson recently published an article in which he stated:
"The gods of the Greeks and Romans were anthropomorphic, exhibiting many human qualities such as love, hate, and jealousy, and because of this, the people of Rome and Greece were able to see themselves in these tales and understand their relationship to the rest of the world, as well as their connection to the gods."
These stories were a part of the fabric of their society. Much like Hinduism, this religion was a way of life.
Interestingly enough, when I think of the word Pantheism, I actually think of Greek mythology, because Pan is the god of nature. And the idea of Pantheism is the idea that God is everything, including nature and the life around you.
Just like in James Cameron's Pandora, belief in Pantheism is a belief that there not only is a God, but that his living breathing presence is everywhere around you, including in nature.
This idea of religion would most easily be associated with Native American tribes, who took the ideas of Pantheism and made it their major source of religion. For Native Americans, the land wasn't just theirs, but something to be shared. They were making use of what was available to them, but that didn't make it expressly theirs.
And this religion, much like the religions of the above mentioned groups, became a fixture in their culture. And while my knowledge on this issue is limited, I was able to find a (maybe questionable) site for information on Native American religion and its connection to Pantheism.
And last but not least, the religion of one God, used by anyone from the Judaism, to Islam, to the Christianity. The idea of monotheism is that there is one God, who created everything around, but that is a separate entity from the world he created.
Much about all of these religions follows the same groove, starting from Abraham, who is regarded as "the first patriarch of the Jewish people". From here, Abraham's family spread and spread across time, with lineage connecting tribes across the middle east, making it the most accepted religion of the area.
And it continued this way until the birth of Jesus and with it, the birth of Christianity. While technically, Christianity was born much later, around the time of Jesus' death, his appearance in the bible signals the beginning of what would eventually become modern day Christianity.
And this was followed by Islam, and its founder, the prophet Muhammad. The birth of the Muslim religion can be dated somewhere around 610 A.D. making it the youngest of the three major monotheistic religions.
And all three of these major religions continued to grow after creation, coexisting through history and events, including things like the Crusades, and the enlightenment period which brought the idea of atheism.
Over time, these religions were no longer reflections of the society they inhabited, but made up the pillars of the society that they now ran. The Catholic Church started the Holy Roman Empire, a political entity that had soldiers at its disposal. Catholic soldiers attacked Muslims in the name of religion.
And the arguments of who is right began to form. The issue of who the real Son of God is became the defining factor of each religion, when in all reality the God they focus on is the same God across all platforms. The world of religion had gone from stories to law, something which has still impacted laws in the world today.
So how do we examine the role of modern day religion? Through two major ideas.
Through quick googling, I found a working definition for belief that struck me as interesting. Belief is, "an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists". While this may not be the Webster dictionary definition, it gives a generally accepted idea of what it means to hold a belief.
And a belief is the basis of all religion. Because you have to believe that something is true in order to have faith in it. Belief is the fact based side of religion which informs faith. So what is faith?
In another quick google search, the definition of faith is, "complete trust or confidence in someone or something". This means that in order to have faith, you must first believe. And this is an important distinction to make between the two.
Because faith is the gut feeling that you have on things. Faith is looking at something and having an initial feeling about it. This doesn't mean that faith is an immediately earned concept, but rather a a conviction that you have. Faith is something that guides you through life situations, and is developed over the course of your life as you gain more experience and knowledge.
Why is Faith More Important Than Belief
Consider this: just because I believe a thief may be honest one time, does not mean that I have faith in his character. Just because I believe that a certain political policy worked doesn't mean I have Faith in the party it came from.
While belief is something that can come from fact and change situation to situation, Faith is the complete emotion that guides you to all decisions.
While belief may explain to you why one thing happened, Faith is the continued belief even through adverse revelations. Faith is a pillar of what makes religion, because even if something happens in the world to disprove your beliefs, Faith would tell you that in the end, your religion is still right. Faith doesn't have to always be educated and doesn't always have to be based in reality, which is why it can be so powerful and so dangerous.
So if faith is so important, why is faith in religion on the decline?
Faith in Religion
The numbers for the current monotheistic religions of the world are showing some interesting things about the youngest Americans and their beliefs on religion. According to data from the Pew Research Center, adults under 40 are less likely to be religiously affiliated. In the U.S., 83% of adults over 40 are affiliated with religion while only 66% of adults under 40 are still related with religion.
Young people are increasingly turning towards a new distinction, the "nones". According to another article by the Pew Research Center:
"Religious “nones” – a shorthand we use to refer to people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” – now make up roughly 23% of the U.S. adult population. This is a stark increase from 2007, the last time a similar Pew Research study was conducted, when 16% of Americans were “nones.” (During this same time period, Christians have fallen from 78% to 71%.)"
Being a religious "none" has become the new standard for religious affiliation. And when I hear things like this, it certainly begs the question why so many people are turning from religion at a young age.
From a Catholic perspective, the issues are obvious. The church has been hassled by allegations of abuse from priests for years, but the noise continues to grow louder against the church. This starts on a public level with an in-depth article from the Boston Globe Spotlight team, an article that spawned a movie of the same title.
In the initial article, the focus was placed on the priests specifically in the Boston Area, but over time grew to include diocese all across the U.S. And the results were grim. As someone who grew up in the Catholic Church, hearing stories like this make it harder and harder for me to believe in the church, let alone have faith.
But as I have stated before, it is important distinguish between faith and belief. And what I realized was that I believe in what Christianity stands for through its principle teaching, but I do not have faith in the Catholic Church as a whole.
And many times this is a shot against church goers. The idea that, "you must have faith". This term is deceiving, because over the course of time, I have never lost a belief that what the church is teaching is right in my opinion. I have simply lost faith in the earthly institution of my religion, making it easier for me to associate as a "none" because I want nothing to do with the church as a whole.
It is sad to say that I would sooner recognize as a "none" to distance myself from the dark history of the Catholic Church than to follow my beliefs in the teachings of the church. This has been one of my biggest issues as a young person associating with religion.
In the movie Spotlight, my issues were put into words by mark Ruffalo's character. Check out the scene below to see what I am talking about:
The emotion of this scene boils down to one idea. "It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any of us."
As someone who grew up a Catholic, I went through rights of passage that many young Catholics would, and this included spending time, lots of time in the church, meeting lots of figures from the church who could have easily been one of these priests. The idea that I just as easily could have been telling my personal story about what happened to me in church is moving enough to drive me into the "none" category.
But my issues with the Catholic Church do not explain the net losses in numbers for religion across the world. Why are so many people giving up religion all together? Is it because millennials are that lazy that they don't want to go to church?
To get a full explanation of why young people across the board are leaving religion, check out this article from PBS:
"The growth of the nones. This seems like a circular argument: The nones are growing because the nones are growing! But sociologically, it makes a kind of sense. Some nonbelievers might have stayed in organized religion in previous generations just because it was socially expected, and there were consequences for not joining the religious crowd. The numeric growth of the nones has removed some of those barriers, so that other closet nones feel more comfortable leaving religion too. There is an infrastructure and support system for them."
So What Does Religion Mean Today?
This is obviously a complex and tough question to answer. In a world where religion seems to be less and less important, it may beg the question, "Do less people believe in God?" And from everything I've seen, the answer is really no. The bigger issue is the institutions that are projecting the studies of these religions.
What people are looking for isn't a religion that tells them that the world is wrong, that the world is full of sinners, that the world is doomed. What the world is looking for is the light at the end of the tunnel. The dark doom and gloom message of church, coupled with the strict rules has continued to turn people away from organized religion, into a more loosely grouped category of just "believers".
Because again, being considered a "none" does not mean you don't believe. It means that you don't associate with a certain religious organization. Unlike what we talked about in Greek or Roman societies, our religion isn't meant to serve as a gold standard to judge our lives by. It is an explanation of what our lives mean.
For the Greek's and Roman's, these stories were extensions of real people because they contained real emotions, real feelings, they acted in very human ways. Sometimes what we want to know nowadays isn't that we are like God, but that God is unlike us in the sense he can decide what happens in the world. Knowing that there is an all powerful guardian watching over you at all times adds a lot of security to your life.
And if you consider the idea of a Pantheistic religion, people aren't looking at religion as a hippy movement. Religion isn't about seeing that God is everything around you. It's about seeing the God in everything that you do and see. It's not about knowing that when you die, you are still a part of this world. It's about knowing that there is something after life which makes life worth living.
And young people time and time again look to remove religion from the laws of the United States, in large part due to the feelings that the laws of the church are outdated. The changing of what we value as a society has played a large role in this. We no longer look to allow religion to play the role in world events that it did when major monotheistic religions took hold.
And with the world continuing to grow and change their beliefs, the lack of flexibility on the part of institutions and the rules they live by has made it harder and harder for young people to place their faith in their ideals.
But their belief in the idea of God is still there.
It remains to be seen if over time this trend changes, or if this is the new future of religion. Maybe what young people are really saying is that they would rather be allowed to form a relationship with God in their own way, rather than be forced to look at it a certain way.
But there is one undeniable fact, the movement away from the organized religion is happening now.