Why Are Young People Leaving Religion?

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imageWhy 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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.

About Joshua Berman

Joshua Berman is a professor of Tanakh at Bar-Ilan University. He learned at Yeshivat Har-Etzion and has semikhah from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Among his books are The Temple: Its Symbolism and Meaning Then and Now (repr. Wipf & Stock, 2010) and Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought (Oxford, 2008), a National Jewish Book Award Finalist in Scholarship.

9 comments

  1. Maybe it’s the writer’s perspective that fails him. as long as he refers to R Lichtenstien as “saintly”, he’s missing the message. R’ Lichtenstein was a Torah scholar; but he was a man, the son of another man. As long as the writer is content to mystify his beliefs by attributing them to saints, he’ll continue to fail in understanding why religion is losing much of its audience.

  2. gidonrothstein

    There’s much to say, but let me limit myself to number 1, Avoid In/Out labels. It’s certainly true that we need to be careful and nuanced in our reactions to others, but there are those who are “less religious,” or “less observant,” or “they’re not as strict about that,” and those who are beyond a certain red line.
    And we need to know those red lines, because they affect how we react to others, in person and in ideas. What shuls are just different from mine, and what are shuls I would no longer daven in? Ditto for rabbinic figures– which ones are ones with whom I disagree, and which ones are ones whose ideas are no longer ones I should think of as within the pale of Torah?
    We wriggle away from these questions, and then are shocked, shocked, when people no longer know when to stand up to something and say, “no, that’s not acceptable.”
    That’s true in religion, and it’s true in general ethics– what’s the difference between having misstepped, ethically, and having shown oneself to, in that moment, have gone over a red line. What CEOs of companies need to resign for their misdeeds, and what can apologize and move on?
    We no longer have any sense of the answers to these questions, because– I maintain– we’ve shied away from knowing where the red lines are, from knowing the difference between “we disagree,” and “that’s out.”

    • The desire to find red-lines feels more distinctly a US/diaspora fetish – to know who is in the community and who is out. for those of us whose children are anchored in the israeli experience, the reality is far more nuanced and has little to do with hashkafic/halachic “red-lines”. The beat of the holidays, service in the army and the fluidity of Jewish spirituality in phenomena such as the kabbalat shabbat at the old train station, create a Jewish communal feeling that may be less present for those “OTD” in the diaspora. the reality that most young people have access and exposure to information from academic and popular sources which runs counter to orthodox dogma has not been incorporated into educational and communal strategies. In particular, orthodox defensiveness related to feminism and the Gay community, present a challenge that many young people would say orthodoxy has failed to address in a way that accords with their sense of human dignity.

      • Well are we writing for Israel or the US? You are absolutely right that it is easier here to have those red lines. There are benefits and costs to both the US and Israel in raising kids, but who is the author writing for?

  3. Rabbi Rothstein raises an important point – the blurring of boundaries in our (overly-porous) community. But when we have grown children who have made choices that are beyond those lines we as parents have a special obligation to make our stance known, and then to move on to the difficult work of making sure that we are there for them fully as parents, and, likely, as their strongest connection to the mesorah. The strong stand that we take communally is not necessarily appropriate vis a vis our children once they are grown and have made their own choices.

  4. To the extent I grew up, it was in the 60’s. If you ignore the internet allusions, much the same was said when “talkin about my generation”. I would suggest that we still only have anecdotal evidence which when combined with confirmation bias, yields proposed solutions.

    I’d simply ask one question: Let’s assume one could prevent all cases of otd by hermetically sealing off from society (e.g colonize somewhere near alfa centauri_)-would this be the ratzon hashem?

  5. Michael Rockmill

    The Jewish world has been running away from answering scientific claims from a Torah perspective. Perhaps it is time to review this policy in light of what is happening. Maybe if we give them answers before the Apikorsim get to them, the danger will be less.

  6. I think this article is overly optimistic.

    As I see it, the current culture heavily emphasizes sciencism, which is the belief that the only real proof is the scientific experiment and furthermore anything that can’t be proven scientifically is not only uncertain, but even a bit less real. So that not only does the zeitgeist push against certainty in one’s moral code, it actually argues that there is no absolute objective moral code to be uncertain about.

    In other words, the whole subject of being accepting of people with other ideas and actual pluralism — accepting the ideas themselves — has been blurred. As long as the topic isn’t science.

    Ever notice how “fact” means both “something that is true” and “something that is empirically true”? As well as “the physical evidence that something is true? This is more of the same confusion.

    And I think this is why, as Michael Rosen writes they have “been running away from answering scientific claims from a Torah perspective”.

    This is why Western Culture has shifted (in the words of R’ Aryeh Klapper, here) from a discussion of sexual morality to one of sexual ethics — that as long as everyone involved is consenting, there is no reason to object. If they stay within the halachic framework, someone in this mindset would consider the prohibition against homosexuality a choq, a law with no human comprehensible explanation. Whereas less than a generation ago, the common wisdom was that the problem is self-evident.

    But here is the bigger problem… This attitude not just demands looking at all the shades of gray, dialectics and complexities. It’s based on a worldview which is antithetical to the very idea of there being an Orthodoxy. Even if we stop pretending that hashkafah is a bunch of simple answers that tie up every topic with a nice bow. Even if we acknowledge that Jewish Thought is more a framework for asking more productive questions. We cannot get past the problem that they’re in this bind because they consider the topics religion addresses to be less objectively real — not just less objectively provable — than earlier generations had in the past.

    So of course they have less drive to sacrifice when halakhah demands it. They cannot fully commit even to their own homegrown “chulent”, because they believe the moral isn’t really real.

    (Then there are secondary problems… They want a complex religion that frankly requires an investment of effort most people wouldn’t bother putting in. So there ends up being a confusion between critical and subtle thinking and between simply being critical. Much of the hype around accepting Document Hypothesis is by those who really didn’t assess the current state of the idea and decide for themselves. Zev Farber is the rare exception, compared to the choir on Facebook. It’s just pseudo-intellectualism as a way of feeling they’re being more subtle in their thought.)

  7. Like R’ Rothstein I find red lines extremely useful. I am limited in experience because my oldest is six. But it’s fantastic that he knows that it’s absolutely okay for goyim to do kol davar asur but not for Jews. Harder are our non-frum associates. He isn’t so totally aware of them yet, but to the extent he is, he knows they just haven’t learned what hashem wants yet. This will become more sophisticated a she gets older. And I can help him with that as long as he still talks to me. So making sure he feels comfortable talking to me instead of (just) Google will be very important.

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