(RNS) As the Pew Research Center recently found, today’s young people are “less likely than older generations to be affiliated with any religion.” The question is whether this trend is a good thing or a bad thing.

If you are a person of faith, you may worry about the souls of these “millennials,” the generation born after 1980. If you are a critic of organized religion, you may rejoice.

From a more neutral perspective, we can ask about the lasting impact on politics and democracy. After all, political movements in America have often drawn on religious movements for recruitment, leadership, financing, and moral vision. That was true, for example, of abolitionism, of Prairie Populism in the 1890s, of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, and of the United Farm Workers’ struggles on behalf of migrant workers.

Perhaps society can or will develop functional equivalents or replacements for churches and other congregations. Denominations have done harm as well as good, and there may be other paths to worldly justice and happiness. But equivalents will have to meet several demanding criteria.

First, replacements for religious congregations will have to solve the problem of recruitment. Congregations recruit by promising to save souls. Parents in their pews recruit their own children, starting almost from birth. Once people are in a religious denomination, they have opportunities (to varying degrees) to develop leadership skills, networks, and concern for public issues. In short, churches are not dependent on civic motivations for recruitment.

In contrast, most of today’s civic and political organizations ask people specifically to work on social or political causes. Many people are not very interested in public issues, and they are unlikely to join. If religious congregations continue to weaken, we will need new methods for recruiting a wide range of people into civic life.

Second, we’ll have to pay attention to pluralism and freedom of choice. Since colonial times, America has offered not one but many religious faiths, denominations within those faiths, congregations within each denomination, and small groups within each congregation. Every religious tradition offers a rich array of ideas, many in tension or even conflict with each other. Religious believers can make their own paths. In that sense, religion expands freedom.

There is a drawback to so much pluralism and choice. Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week, not only by race but also by ideology, class, and culture. Ideally, religious leaders recognize that problem and build structures to connect congregations: interfaith dialogues and broad-based religious organizing efforts, for example. These connections keep individual congregations from becoming too morally disconnected and intolerant. In other words, religious people strive to build bridges as well as walls.

Today, most other efforts to bring diverse people together are very weak, and the potential of interfaith organizing is relatively impressive. Any replacement for religious membership will have to match the moral power of religious narratives. It is always hard to keep going with civic and political work; persistence is a lot easier if you see yourself connected to a permanent community with a prophetic vision of the future.

Religions also appeal to deep moral commitments. While you do not have to be religious to be moral, being a good citizen requires commitments to other people — and perhaps to nature — as intrinsically valuable. Those commitments do not come from science or reason. In fact, science suggests that people are dramatically unequal and that nature is fully exploitable. So responsible people develop “faith-based” commitments. Secular equivalents must be at least as powerful.

Peter Levine is the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs and Director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) in the Jonathan M. Tische College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University, and the author of "We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America (2013)." Photo courtesy of Peter Levine

Peter Levine is a professor of citizenship and public affairs and director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, and the author of “We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America.” Photo courtesy of Peter Levine


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Maybe the millennials will find or create secular equivalents to churches and other congregations. But those alternatives will have to match the depth, flexibility, long arc, and motivational force of religion. Otherwise, we may continue to see a slow withdrawal from public life.

(Peter Levine is a professor of citizenship and public affairs at Tufts University and is the director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. His most recent book is “We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America.” )

KRE/AMB END LEVINE

31 Comments

  1. It appears the author is rather tone deaf to the reason why Millennials are leaving religion in the first place. Its mostly because they are fed up with how religion is being used.

    Whereas the author hopes for interfaith dialogue and broad based efforts, many are seeing sectarianism, intolerance, and political appropriation of the religious from the older generations. Its nice to talk about building bridges, but if few are making an effort to lay down the foundations, its just blowing smoke.

    The idea that religion is necessary for deep moral commitments is merely a assumption. Many are finding such things exist without having to resort to religious belief to prop it up The idea that “those commitments do not come from science or reason” is rather insultingly ignorant, smug and self-satisfying. He merely dressed up the same silly “social darwinist/atheists are immoral” myths in a nicer package.

    Many are finding the same commitments and community without having to rely on religion to do so. If anything our pluralistic society makes such links harder to forge because of the inherent divisive nature of religion. The more mixed our society becomes, the less coherent religious communities become. The less necessary they are to public action.

    Religion is not the be-all or end all of public life. The reason many millennials are turning away from religion is because it is being depicted by the older generation as:
    An excuse to engage in bigotry
    A direct link to partisan political situations
    An excuse to act badly towards others
    An attack on rational thinking and education
    An attack on pluralism
    An attack on democracy

    In this generation we have seen religious belief take on a shrill and unpleasant tone which has turned away many.

    As millennials leave religion, then what?
    Probably a much saner, less divisive society.

  2. Larry, You may find and may have witnessed that things can be quite despotic and not be religious. Note Stalin, Lenin, Idi Amin, and countless others who disparaged religion. Also, note Hitler who despised Christianity because he deemed it weak; I’m not quite so sure that the Enlightened Age you think will occur without religion will. We saw this matter exemplified when Notre Dame was turned into the Temple of Reason during the French Revolution. Society today is at one of its lowest points with nihilism and drug abuse rampant. There will be no glorious blossoming of ethical, rational thinking because human nature is a pretty warped entity.

    While Christianity and Judaism decline through persecution, the same with Hinduism and Buddhism, there is another religion ready to take their place. The millenials may feel quite uncomfortable with it. Good luck.

    • Leo, your response is exactly the kind of ignorant, knee-jerk cliche one sees all the time in support of religious belief. Essentially calling all atheists commies. The sort of thing which flew well in the Baby Boomer age/Cold War, but falls flat in this day. To the generation born after the Cold War, invoking the communist/atheist connection is just name checking for effect.

      All you are telling me is that you are ignorant of history and want to use a canned response. Hitler, Mao, Stalin and Lenin all re-purposed the irrational divisive nature of religion for their own needs. They have more in common with religious belief as it is being expressed in the current era than atheism.

      Idi Amin? Seriously? The guy who used to eat dissidents out of tribal superstitions and converted to Islam in order to gain asylum in Saudi Arabia as an example of the evils of anti-religious thought. That was stupid on your part.

      Whereas you only see doom and gloom, reality is much different. The world HAS gotten much safer now than it has ever been. No more fear of global nuclear annihilation, genocide, aggressive war, imperialism, even famine is lower now than it has been in generations.
      http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Surprisingly-enough-the-world-is-a-safer-place-2324730.php
      http://hnn.us/article/142159
      http://www.newrepublic.com/article/117226/world-war-i-anniversary-world-safer-today-100-years-ago

      Probably the stupidest remark was claiming that Christianity is declining with persecution. 2 billion adherents is too small a number for you? It is certainly not declining in the developed world due to persecution.

  3. The Great God Pan

    “Religions also appeal to deep moral commitments.”

    The Dobrich family were run out of the predominately Christian town of Georgetown, DE for being Jewish. What “deep moral commitment” was on display there? The townspeople’s religion seemed to appeal more to tribal instincts from the lizard brain than to “deep moral commitments.”
    www.nytimes.com/2006/07/29/us/29delaware.html?pagewanted=all

  4. Leo, would you be so kind as to try a different type of tired and worn out argument? Yes, is it not a requirement of despots to be religious. Lenin and Stalin were both Atheists, Idi Amin was Muslim, and Hitler’s religious views are unclear, but all were Fascists. Hitler used religious and secular ideals to drive his agenda. He used Christianity quite effectively for control and indoctrination for someone who disparaged it.
    This Enlightened Age that you speak of certainly could not occur if religion were involved – I would not classify religion as either rational or well informed.
    Your claims of rampant drug use and nihilism (though I can see why you might think nihilism – look at the absolute wreck of politics, the economy, human rights, equality, and the environment the influence of institutions like religion have left for Millennials) are absolutely unfounded if you look at actual social demographics from institutions like Pew Research.
    Millennials are a very diverse, connected, socially aware, well informed, activist, and egalitarian group. It’s no wonder they are at the highest level of political and religious disaffiliation in the last quarter century. These are the same institutions that have so thoroughly failed this and previous generations.
    If you think that Christianity and Judaism are declining because of persecution, you truly are delusional – and with you other comments, I would say that you are the one who seems nihilistic in mindset.
    These more recent generations are more hopeful of the future and it is because of the moral, ethical, and rational thinking and the discarding of old burdensome and untenable ideas that has encouraged them to be so. And it is because of the weight lifted from casting off unusable and damaging traditional religious ideas that it would be more reasonable to say that once they mature, they will never return.

  5. Joy.

    The end of religion is a reflection of many developments
    All happening at light speed:

    1. The internet answers all questions – in favor of science over myth.
    2. The internet destroys assertions – and God is ONLY an assertion.
    3. Increasingly educated population dispels all myths.
    4. Social media destroys myths and makes fools of its adherents. Nobody can post “Let go and Let God” anymore without being attacked as foolish and irresponsible.
    5. The “need” for a god vanished with confirmation of the Germ Theory of Disease. If God can’t heal the sick, who needs Him?
    6. The “need” for a god vanished with confirmation of the Theory of Tectonic Plates. If God can’t stop earthquakes, who needs Him?
    7. The “need” for god vanished with confirmation of the Theory of Evolution.
    If God didn’t create all of the species, what is His purpose?
    8. The need for God vanished when we could see that God is imaginary in all cultures – thanks to the internet.
    9. The mixing of religion and Far-right Conservatism in America is destroying both.

    Religion is melting away faster than anyone imagined.

    Any Christian will be shocked and challenged
    if they Google “God is Imaginary” and explore the proofs.

    Such internet sites can turn anyone into an Atheist in about 10 minutes.

    • We didn’t need the internet to make “gods” obsolete. Pure reason and solid science did that long before the internet. As with all new knowledge, with all gathering of evidence, it’s a matter of people catching up with the evidence and the knowledge it displays.

    • Oh please. All I have to say is “Atheism = Loneliness On Steroids”, and I’ll steal back 30 percent of your Millenials within 10 yeards. And that’s BEFORE I reach for the massive library of Christian scholarship and apologetics.

      • Doc, you are the best recruiting tool atheists have. :)

        Your “massive library of Christian scholarship” involves half of one book and a lot of shallow commentary on it.

        Christians don’t even work over the fine points, dissections and typical questions like the Jewish scholars do. It tells you something when most of the faith’s history involved various sects within it killing each other (and anyone else).

      • Religion is the continuation of the Mommy & Daddy portion of our brains. Neurologists have confirmed it.

        We are biologically ‘programmed’ by evolution to look for our parents when we are born and this childish feature would die off – like baby teeth – if we allowed it.

        Priests simply keep it going….. for a fee.

        • Again, Max, we look for comfort and security, not specifically for “mommy” or “daddy.” “Mommy and daddy” just happen to be the usual sources of that comfort and security that we come to recognize. We learn “mommy, daddy,” it is natural that a new-born unknowingly seeks comfort and security.

      • Doc Anthony is reaching blindly and yearningly in the dark. Doc Anthony is afraid to face realities and wishes to continue with the mythological comforts of his youthful brainwashing.

        Doc Anthony is claiming he can undo what has been taking place much longer than before the term “millennials” was invented. Religion and churches have been reinventing themselves all through history, often with the irreligious ugliness of actual religious wars.

        Doc Anthony’s “massive library of Christian scholarship and apologetics” may be massive, but it has been increasingly ineffective ever since the birth of science and other reality-based knowledge. That’s what convinces millennials to drop out and come up with new meanings. Religion had its birth in ignorance. The more that can be known–if we study and learn it–the less convincing are those ancient inventions of mythology from dark times.

        • The idea of ‘a god’ is persistent because of our biology.

          But it is important that religion not be forgotten – because the temptation for comfort and support from invisible ‘parent’ will always be with us.

          Science needs to be taught in schools and we need to be taught at an early age that we lose our baby teeth, our baby hair and our baby skin – and we should also allow ourselves to consciously lose our desire for parental protection also.

          We can shift our desire “to receive protection” to actually providing protection and comfort to others directly.

          Evolution gives us the childish need for comfort manifested as “the parent concept” – it is important for children to know they don’t need the religious industries built up around these myths.

          Abandoning this backwardness will protect people from these temptations.
          God very likely isn’t there.

  6. @Peter Levine,

    This statement of yours is ridiculous:
    “being a good citizen requires commitments to other people — and perhaps to nature — as intrinsically valuable. Those commitments do not come from science or reason.”

    THOSE commitments certainly and absolutely come from science AND reason.

    Needlessly harming people or the environment is absolutely against human society. We are physical beings in a physical universe and we can easily determine what is good for us – we are limited but capable. When the framers of the Constitution sat around to think of building a society they knew that people could work these things out without God! The establishment clause is not an accident!

    If we want to live in a Loving world we must enable Love.
    If we want caring we must enable caring.
    If we want a healthy environment we MUST help to create it.

    Atheist and Agnostic humanitarian organizations around the world are working doing precisely that!

    Doctors without Borders has 20,000 people working around the world at any given time – all of it donated and all of it for the purpose of helping people regardless of religion and WITHOUT PUSHING GOD ON THEM IN EXCHANGE for services.

    Let’s stop dumping on the utility of Science and Reason – for goodness sake!

  7. Mr Levine, are you not aware of Kickstarter and other online venues where people who don’t know each other do good together by investing in the efforts they find worthy? These are financial contributions, such as others might make in/through a religious home. Efforts of time and energy are contributed through civic organizations and sometimes from within people’s jobs — either as institutional campaigns or via the work itself. 

    Fret not: A new paradigm to replace religious organizations is growing organically, based on free choice, and funded (financially and energetically) by those whose hearts are open. 

    The remaining question is what will happen to those who haven’t learned to have open hearts. This may be the remaining use of organized religion, although I am concerned about this because non-mystical religions sometimes tend to be fear-based, which will not show people ways to be open-hearted. 

  8. Edward Borges-Silva

    Most of this is hilarious. The idea that the internet and social media will somehow be transcendent is amusing; much of the internet is tripe, particularly social media; a vast measure of narcissistic self importance (present company not excluded; including me). If Millennials reject faith in God, so much the worse for them (I speak as the parent of a Millennial who believes in God, but does not practice a life of faith). Religion is not dying, as evidenced by this website, though it may appear so in America. If I am to choose between Christ and Humanism, there is simply no contest. Are my prayers always answered just the way I would like? No but I presume God knows better, that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen affirmative responses to my prayer; just not as often as I would like. As to faith falling off in times of persecution, historically, the reverse is true. Just as malleable elements respond to heat and pressure, so too the human spirit; or as Abraham Lincoln put it; “I have often been driven to my knees, when it seemed there was no where else to turn.” Many of us have differing views on what constitutes efficacious religion, and of course some prefer no religion at all. As for Millennials, I think most are searching, but a bit confused, a certain degree of which can be laid at the door of our education system with its moral relativism and outright hostility to ‘christian’ faith. Parents are to be blamed here as much as anybody, for not rising up more vigorously and telling the government (in the office of public education) to butt out of the task of establishing moral standards for our children; that responsibility belongs to parents, who it seems lately have done a less than stellar job at it. .

    • You hit upon one thing that is interesting. You stated more or less that persecution tends to reinforce faith rather than destroy it.

      But what we are seeing is the opposite situation. Where persecution is waning. Where sectarian animosities have simmered down and almost extinct. Where we embrace a more open and plural society. These are the conditions where religion is on the wane.

      Peace is killing it.

      Making people question the reason for separating one’s self from others, questioning ideas that one accepted originally out of fear. Religion has a tough time surviving without ever present fear. Fear of the other, fear of death, and fear of ostracism. These are all major parts to the cohesion of religious communities.

      The internet won’t kill religion. You are correct. It is merely a communication tool which is capable of gathering people together. Like any other form of media.

      An increasingly safer world is killing religious belief. Having the time to contemplate life without fear looming over one’s shoulder. A world where ideas are flowing freely. Where old animosities be they racial, religious, ethnic or national are slowly disappearing. If millennials are turning away from religion in large numbers it is because they feel safe enough to do so.

      On a side note, the anti-moral relativism argument is ironic. There is nothing more relativistic than “Christian morality”. Christian morality is all about outsourcing moral decisions to capricious and arbitrary authority, justify any act as long as it serves Christian ends, and looking for loopholes around the idea of treating others with respect.

      • @Larry: How come I never hear any politician speaking this way? Can I nominate you to run for the 2016 presidential election? I will absolutely vote for you!! :)

        @Edward: You said, “Are my prayers always answered just the way I would like? No but I presume God knows better, that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen affirmative responses to my prayer; just not as often as I would like.” Please keep on praying to your god. The probability of your prayer being answered by your god is 50%, surprisingly, the exactly same odds that something I wished for coming true by pure chance without praying to anything.

    • If God ‘gets us’ by forcing us to our knees, what good is it to pray to Him?
      Such a God is already working against us.

      That entire theory is sick.
      To LOVE that which you are enjoined to FEAR is Stockholm Syndrome – sadomasochism! Primitive, destructive nonsense.

      There is no need for it. The internet confirms there are billions of people like me who share my contempt for it.

      Neurologists confirm that we must grow out of it. Or we will destroy ourselves.

  9. Then what, after religion? There’s a simple answer to that. There is everything real of life and this universe left, just as it was before when religion, based on all its mysteries, took up so much time and thought with the presumption it had answers that were not based on reality, provable, or possible.

  10. It seems like the millennials have had enough of the untrustworthy institutions they have grown up with – the church, the government, big business, politics, religion, people over 40, etc. I hope at some point they realize the problem is people, and how we are organized just gives a convenient excuse. As these millennials organize themselves, and they will have to (be it into business, education, politics, religion, etc.), they will find that they will repeat the same mistakes and failures of other who went before them and caused such mistrust and abuse. Its human nature.

  11. Alex Charlanow

    I thank God daily for my faith in him. America is devolving into a pit of despair. The Millennials are largely pill popping, technology addicted, self absorbed whiners who have been coddled by their over involved parents. I’ll choose God and his Church over that cesspool every day and twice on Sundays.

    • @ALEX,

      Cesspool? That is what you call them. That is bigoted.

      “..I create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7)

      You visit your evil, invisible friend twice on Sundays?
      Explains a lot.

    • So God functions as an anti-depressant for you. Your view is dour, pessimistic and divisive. Why would anyone want to choose such a belief? What are you offering which would appeal to others?

    • Yes, Alex Charlanow, the United States seems to be devolving into an ugly mess, confirming once again that we have never been the real democracy we have always claimed. The greatest portion of that devolution is being caused by the extremely mean spirits of far-right religionists and their politicians who are filled with selfish greed, who violate everything they claim to be sacred.

      Those far-right politicians only align themselves with the religious extremists–and vice versa–because of the mutual benefit they think they can gain for their separate, mean causes. The only parts of biblical mythology they persist in quoting–and attempting to put into our legal system–are those mean parts of the mythology that support their nasty and selfish ambitions.

      • @Gilhcan,

        Exactly – you nailed it.

        Religion is one of the huge primary problems in our messed up country.
        The gullibility and credulity of the population is a disgrace – and the politicians have almost no choice but to exploit it. They won’t get elected if they don’t!

        Religion has snuck its way into power and corrupted everything. The Far-right, religious Evangelical Republican Gerrymandering over the last decade has concentrated power away from the poor and middle class in favor of the tiny society of the rich.

        Religion and big money have turned America into an oligarchy of only a few rich people.

        Americans have surrendered and become a ‘flock’ handing the Republican party over to religion – and it should scare people to death.

  12. There have always been all kinds of ways of congregating other than religion and churches. Even now, we still have gatherings called schools, successors to Aristotle and Plato. We have bridge clubs. Heck, we even have neighborhood bars where some customers think they resolve the mightiest problems of the world. We still have fraternities, sororities, and professional organizations. We still have the family dinner table where we first learned to share our wonders and develop possible solutions. We have wedding receptions, birthday parties, parties for all kinds of gatherings–congregating. We have Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter dinners that have no reference to religion.

    Millennials and “apostates” are not dropping out of life or ceasing all the many ways we gather, congregate. Religion and churches have never had a monopoly on morals or ethics. Consider the mean spirit of so many religionists in the ways they look down on others. Consider the attitudes of so many voices on Fox News, for instance, who attempt to mingle mean politics with religion. Consider the believers who persist in distorting the Bible an actual textbook of history or science rather than the mythology that it is. No wonder they can’t understand it.

    Have you heard the ideas and attitudes displayed by Mike Huckabee, a former preacher, now a Fox News pundit and apparent aspirant for the 2016 presidential campaign? Have you continued to listen to Rick Santorum who scrapes about for one extremist job after another each time he loses in politics, still mistaking our politics as his pulpit? And what about the perennial Newt Gingrich who found religion, Catholic religion, no less, after all his pursuits of women and all his dirty politics trying to quash the rights and welfare of the masses? Gingrich was impressed, so he claims, by the sacred nobility of the work of the choir of the national Catholic Basilica in Washington of which his current wife, a former paramour, is a member. But Gingrich’s ugly attitudes and mean spirit haven’t been touched by any conversion, any goodness. He’s as mean as ever.

    We don’t need religion or its churches or synagogues to meet and share, to learn and grow, to become better people. In fact, history shows them too often to be rather vicious, to miss all claimed objectives of goodness. And that is precisely why people find them inadequate and leave to pursue meaning and goodness in other ways of gathering. Agnostics and atheists–humanists–have ways of gathering–congregating–and sharing, searching for meaning, and helping others to improve their lives in all kinds of ways.

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