Why Are Young People Leaving Religion? Insights from an Evangelical Sociologist
by R. Dr. Joshua Berman
You Lost Me is the title of a recent and provocative book by David Kinnaman, a devout Christian and a sociologist. Through extensive surveys he sought to answer the question that makes up his subtitle: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith. It was a fascinating read for me as an orthodox Jew because I realized through it that the similar struggles we face in our own communities are not because of bad parents, or bad schools. According to surveys by the prestigious Pew Research Center, millennials—young adults ages 19-29–are less connected to faith and institutional religion than people that age have been at any time over the last century. The struggles in our communities are part of a larger trend currently challenging traditional religious life in western culture.
Why are young people leaving religion?
Kinnaman points out that today’s generation of young adults are the first to come of age in the era of the internet. We block and filter the material that we know is harmful. But it turns out that the real danger is from everything that is still available to young minds. Jews have had the choice to opt out of religion for some time. But the internet has brought young people intimate exposure to people, ideas, and lifestyles like never before. Television and Hollywood exposed us to other lifestyles, but their characters were distant and artificial creations. Growing up, we may have shared our inner selves with a small group of friends at home or at school. But our children encounter real people, “friends” and “friends of friends” all across the internet. All of these people are sharing what they think, what they feel, what they believe, and what they’re doing, and always with the ubiquitous smiling selfie. What a young person sees here is an astonishing array of people not so different from himself yet each doing, thinking, and feeling something a little different.
Kinnaman claims that this exposure molds a developing soul, and leaves young people today placing a premium on four values:
- Choice and Tolerance: What a young person sees is an endless parade of people like himself making choices about the ideals to follow and the lifestyle to lead and airing the feelings about the choices they’ve made. The result is that the paramount virtue of the younger generation is tolerance. We all do something a little differently, and that’s ok. Traditional religion, of course, says that there are absolutes, and that there is a core one, right way.
- Complexity, Uncertainty and Doubt – In this vast exposure to viewpoints and ideas, young people quickly learn that there are no absolutes. They find cogent arguments against the existence of God, the divinity of the Torah, traditional notions of sexuality and endless more. They are more keenly aware of complexity than any generation of youngsters before them. When articles of faith are presented to them as simple fact with no complexity, they sense something phony.
- Individual Expression – The Facebook post, the selfie – these accentuate for a young person the importance of self-expression, of being a unique and distinct “me.” They witness in their peers incredible creativity of expression literarily, musically, and artistically. For this generation davening in shul is a challenge – in shul, you do the same thing every single time, and you do it in lock-stop with everybody else.
- Reduced Regard for Hierarchy and Authority – You don’t need to turn to anyone anymore to gain knowledge. No matter what question you have, it’s all there on the internet. The internet knows best, not father. Young people don’t turn to adults for advice; there’s Google for that. Once upon a time rabbis were placed on a pedestal, their esteem was unquestioned. But today, no models enjoy unquestioned esteem. Heroic athletes turn out to be steroid cheats. For young people, regular reports of rabbinic misconduct mean that today a rabbi must earn his esteem. It is no longer automatically assumed.
What to do?
I respect those who choose relocate to communities where there is no exposure to the internet for young and old alike. But for many that choice is not an option practically or ideologically. Some people mistakenly believe that if we can just hold on to the child religiously until the “gap” year, then we’ll be in the clear. But the data suggests that the gap year is not when the problems end; it’s when they begin. It’s not the teens that are leaving religion – it’s those who are getting their first taste of autonomy out of the house. And as a young adult leaves the house, restraining his access to the internet is hardly an option. Unfortunately there is no silver bullet, no “piety pill” to be swallowed to make everything right. But there are constructive steps that we can take:
- Avoid In/Out Labels – It is damaging and actually inaccurate to use binary labels: “on the derekh” and “off the derekh”; “frum” and “not frum.” The data shows that many young people who are not as religious as their parents do not perceive themselves as abandoning religion. They are negotiating it on their own terms. If we insist on branding kids as either “in” or “out”, we risk our labels becoming self-fulfilling prophecies, and propelling a child even farther away from the mesorah than they actually are.
- Legitimate the expression of doubt – rabbis and educators are rightly fearful of raising difficult theological, scientific or philosophical questions. Job # 1 is to avoid creating problems for some where none exist. But the result is that some young people feel their own inner questions are inherently delegitimized. They see that all of the representatives of the mesorah seem so sure and positive about everything, when they themselves feel that the issues are complex. For these individuals—and they don’t always wear signs identifying themselves as such—an admission of struggle by a respected Torah personality would actually be a validating and strengthening posture. Our children are raised in four settings – home, shul, school and in frameworks of informal education. Can we find or create the spaces to allow for this honest questioning?
- Encouraging Creativity of Expression – With no compromise on halachic standards, can we find venues that harness the need for this generation for creativity and individual expression? Can our shuls and communities host local talent shows and art exhibits? Must the learning process in shul be one-way lecturing? Can students’ own creative juices be harnessed as part of the learning process?
- Your Greatest Resource is Your Relationship with Your Child – It’s so easy for religious observance to become a wedge issue between you and your child, or to berate yourself or your spouse over the choices your child makes. These are challenging times, and the greatest resource you have to influence your child is the health of your relationship with them. One can disapprove, and yet still unconditionally love and accept. If you have a healthy, stable marriage that is a blessing that your child will appreciate only when they begin to explore and establish relationships of their own. Only a young adult out of the house can truly appreciate the strength of his parents’ marriage. And that’s when it becomes clear to them that that stability is largely a product of the lifestyle you have chosen to live. The religious life moves us toward responsibility, sanctifies limitation and makes us other-directed. Grown children who may have chosen a path different than our own recognize this and it makes an impression. What a pity to squander this powerful draw by harboring resentment. Joy and love and acceptance are the greatest resources we can offer our children to foster their spiritual renewal.
My saintly rosh-yeshiva, R. Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, once noted that the Haggadah speaks of four sons, but of only one father. It is remarkable that the prototypical family that the Haggadah envisions is not one where the children compete to see who knows the most mishnayot by heart. Rather, it is one faced with profound and diverse educational challenges. Separating our pain from our calling, we need to tend to the spiritual needs of our various children in joy, in love and in humility.