At the turn of the 20th century, evangelist Billy Sunday inveighed against dance halls, moonlit buggy rides and “the rot and filth and rubbish” of live theater as threats to young minds and hormones.
Radio, movies, television, the Internet and social media such as Facebook all took their turns in ensuing decades as serious temptations to the next generations of faithful.
It is a compelling storyline. Witness Time magazine’s 1966 cover story asking, “Is God Dead?,” or more recent declarations such as the April Newsweek cover on “The End of Christian America” and the ABC News story in May stating, “Young Americans losing their religion.”
Yet through it all, the core faith of young Americans remains roughly the same.
There has been a major shift toward nondenominational, evangelical Christianity. And a fair number of young people raised in “mainline” churches have abandoned any religious affiliation.
But several recent surveys available on the Association of Religion Data Archives reveal few major changes in the core religious beliefs of young people.
The 2007-2008 third wave of the National Study of Youth and Religion led by sociologist Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame showed 82 percent of young adults ages 18 to 24 consider heaven a place some people go after death. Two-thirds of young adult respondents, including overwhelming majorities of Christian young people, say Jesus is the son of God who was raised from the dead.
The 2008 General Social Survey found only slight differences among 18- to 29-year-olds and older respondents on questions such as belief in heaven and in a God who is personally concerned with human beings. Eighty-nine percent of young adults said they believe in God or a “Higher Power,”, compared to 92 percent of respondents overall.
And in the Panel Study of American Religion and Ethnicity led by researchers at Rice University and the University of Notre Dame, more than half of respondents ages 18-29 said religion or religious faith was very important, extremely important or the most important part of their lives.
Only 14 percent, compared to 11 percent of respondents overall, said religion was not important.
Eighty-two percent of young adults said they believe God loves them and cares about them, the same percentage as the overall response.
There has long been an “age effect” where young adults question faith and are less observant before often coming back to religious life with marriage and the start of their own families, researchers note.
But if one is looking for significant differences in the beliefs of young people today, “It’s just hardly there,“ said Michael Emerson of Rice, a director of the religion panel study.
There are issues and religious and cultural preferences unique to this generation.Young people in significant numbers have left and not returned to dramatically aging and declining populations in denominations such as the United Church of Christ, Episcopal Church and United Methodist Church.
An initial report from the Faith Communities Today 2008 survey of more than 2,500 houses of worship revealed nearly six in 10 of “oldline” Protestant congregations responding reported at least a quarter of their members were 65 or older. Half of the members were 65 or older in 37 percent of the congregations. The percentages were nearly twice as great as for any other religious group.
Some evangelical congregations, particularly non-denominational megachurches, are experiencing growth, but many older evangelical denominations are just holding their own.
This generation of young adults also has a tendency to postpone marriage and families, two milestones that often bring young people back to houses of worship as they seek to share religious life with their children.
And one can only imagine what warnings a fiery figure such as Billy Sunday would have proclaimed today in a culture where phrases such as “sexting,” “hooking up” and “friends with benefits” are part of the youthful lexicon.
Still, it is helpful to remember there has been a tendency throughout American religious history to interpret changes in technology and culture as portending a dramatic challenge to faith. It is an effective tool of evangelism, and fulfills the prophecies of those who believe religion will fade away with rising levels of education.
So far, however, discussions of the death of God are premature.
In the National Study of Youth and Religion, twice as many young adults said religion is a positive influence in this country as said it was a negative influence. Seventy-two percent said they felt positive about the religious tradition in which they were raised.
When the panel study on religion asked respondents if they would be more frequent attendees if they were able, nearly half of young adults, or 48 percent, said they would like to attend worship services more often. Young people were slightly more likely than older respondents to say they would like to be more observant.
“Faith,” Emerson said, “isn’t going anywhere in this country.“
— David Briggs
David Briggs, a former national writer for The Associated Press who holds a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School, is consistently honored among the Top 10 secular religion writers and reporters in North America.
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