In response to recent reports purporting to show a declining level of religious belief among millennials, there has of course been a bit of shirt-tearing among the religious commentariate. The underlying question -- why? -- is one of the favorite topics of discussion.
According to Nick Vadala, if you want a villain here, you can lay the blame squarely at the feet of Jerry Falwell, and particularly the moment when he decided to heap homophobic scorn on Tinky Winky the Teletubby, of all things:
For most people, what Falwell had to say about a character on a children’s show was irrelevant and asinine (which it was). But for American millennials—many of whom were just getting a solid grip on basic critical thinking at the time—Falwell’s piously hateful, anti-gay screed represents an early memorable experience with religion on a large public scale. Among the first of many faith-zapping public events during millennials’ development, Falwell’s remarks seem now to have ingrained a certain amount of religious doubt in my generation, and put us on a path toward non-religion.
The truth in Vadala's argument is that the penchant of religious conservatives to say demonstratively stupid and offensive things certainly provides ample basis for a retreat from religion. If being religious requires believing absurdities such as this, then it isn't hard to imagine that there are many, many people who might be interested in going off in search of greener pastures.
That said, I suspect that there are a large number of variables at stake in the question of declining millennial belief. The cultural shift in which the millennials are participating is simply the latest iteration in a trend that goes back at least to the baby boomer era. It's connected to the failure of institutions, including religious institutions, to successfully sustain themselves and develop coherent and strongly integrated communities (as reported by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone), to the rise of individualism in all dimensions of American society (as reported by Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart), and a general sense of cultural ennui and fatalism that seems to have affected every post-war generation to one degree or another.
I think that there is a meta-cultural critique of modern society to be made here, one in which the decline of religion is only one of a number of factors, that will help explain how we've gotten to this point. One day I may be in a position to make that critique, but for now, let me note two or three things:
- The rise of individualism, with a concomitant rise in political libertarianism and the decline of institutional adherence, has degraded our ability as a society to create the web of relationships necessary to sustain the kind of movements and ideologies necessary to both support religions and effectively engage in serious cultural transformation.
- At the same time, the horizons of human possibility are increasingly circumscribed by political and media portrayals of what qualifies as legitimate discourse. So we are now in a place where a right of center politician like Barack Obama is routine accused of being a socialist, a communist, anti-business, etc., for simply not full throatedly endorsing the most Randian expressions of capitalism.
- The rise of cultural barbarism on the right and political corruption throughout the body politic has disaffected members of every generation, but particularly younger men and women, who see no potential for social transformation toward any genuine good, because the ideologies and institutions intended to pursue the good have been so thoroughly undermined in the interests of a powerful political and economic elite.
So, what does all of this have to do with religion? Jerry Falwell's Teletubby stupidity was simply an example of the way in which these trends began to coalesce in a particularly toxic way over the last decade or so. There had certainly been precurors -- the rise of the religious right in the 1980s, the emergent barbarism of the 1990s era Republican congress, the personal and political corruption of Bill Clinton and his followers, the 2000 election. But for any who had begun to become political aware in the period from about 1995 on, there were too many examples of the absurdity of essentially any institution or ideology you could point to to make any of them credible on the surface as viable methods of organizing one's life.
So I suspect that the religion survey is an example of only one place where institutional and ideological decline is taking place among millennials. Clearly, if this is true it should show up in other surveys, and I'd need to delve more deeply to determine whether this were truely so. Are there institutions and ideologies that are thriving among millennials as alternatives to religion? That's a key question. And of course there are other generational factors to account for. My own generation, Gen X, factors into this as well, as we may have been a leading indicator on some of these trends, but again, this has been a pattern for at least 50 years, which is about when a lot of the cultural markers that I'm identifying began to solidify.
Now of course they are so deeply established as to potentially paralyze any legitimate discourse of social transformation or any belief system that relies on adherence to a conception of the transcendent. And this is the nature of the crisis of liberal discourse that we are witnessing in the United States today.