Why Young People Are Becoming Secular

Rui Dai recently wrote a piece for the Huffington Post under this same title.  Most of her argument is on point:  people are leaving Christianity because they don’t want to be associated with bigotry or narrow-mindedness.  But she takes this to mean that conservativism is what is damaging Christianity:

If Christianity is a victim, it’s a victim from its supposed savior, conservatism. Not everyone who is Christian denounces evolution and equal rights, but to the world, it certainly looks that way.

Young people are turning away from Christianity not because the left is out to get the right, but because of the right’s lack of willingness to compromise and listen to the other side.

If she were right about this, then liberal churches would be bursting at the seams.  There are plenty of churchs that stand up for homosexuality and social justice.  Loads offer a vision of God that embraces evolution instead of battling it.  If these were the issues, then these progressive churches would be full.  But they’re not.

Before talking about why the church is failing, I cannot ignore the easy jab Rui Dai makes at conservatives.  It is so easy to blame the world’s problems on conservatives; most liberals think our problems would be solved if conservatives would just disappear.  Step back for a moment and think about how dangerous that thought is.  Blaming one group for all the problems of the world has never led to healthy places.

I’m not saying conservatives have all the answers either.  I’m saying that research shows that our personalities predispose us to be liberal or conservative.  Personality causes us to see the world in different ways, to hold different values and both conservatism and liberalism are natural, logical, intelligent outcomes of these personality difference.  Even moreso, each stance is probably necessary for a healthy community.  Connor Wood recently wrote a great piece on this for Patheos.  This research encourages empathy across what is the most divisive rift in our communities.

Okay, I couldn’t let that slide, but back to the point: why are people becoming secular?

The question is huge and complex, but if I had to point to one cause, it would be belief.  The modern church has defined itself around a set of beliefs:  “you are a christian if you believe in Jesus.”  Normally this carries with it a whole set of baggage: belief in the need for salvation; belief in a supernatural god; belief in some interaction between that god and the world…  The list goes on, but the point is that to be religious means to believe certain things.

This is an especially bad strategy when some of these beliefs hold deep contradictions with a scientific view of the world.  Empiricism is immediately compelling because it is how we have always come to know things.  Even before the scientific method was formalized we were testing and refining the best hunting method, the path of the stars, how to navigate.  Empiricism is deeply embedded in us.*  Being asked to believe things that are empirically denied is asking people to go against cognitive defaults.

Specifically I think the common Christian image of God just doesn’t fit within the cosmos explained by physics and evolution.  The heart of this contradiction is clouded by the flying vitriol of the debate: either Dawkins is saying one must abandon any image of god or John Haught is saying they’re not really at odds.  Amidst all the fervor it’s hard to discern any middle ground.   Which is too bad, because while the discrepancy is very real there are Christian traditions that are not dependent on the personal god who is at odds with the cosmos.

That discrepancy is still largely unconscious.  Less philosophically and more consciously:  belief in many of the Christian doctrines feels silly at best (virgin birth anyone?) or downright wrong (original sin and hell?!).  Perhaps more damningly, this picture of a spiritual journey is boring.  There is no vivacity, excitement, growth or deep spiritual experience involved in having a specific set of ideas.

Which is the second reason people are leaving.  Pragmatically we need something that engages our deep existential questions, something that provides purpose and meaning, something that speaks to our interconnectedness and encourages compassion.  Instead we are offered a set of ideas.  It’s like asking for a vivid landscape to explore and being given a set of furniture.  Whether that furniture is conservative or liberal doesn’t matter, the whole thing is doomed from the get-go.

So people are leaving.  Some are seeking to return to older, more esoteric forms of spirituality that seem more authentic and resonant: i.e. the new age movement.  Others are seeking to go-it alone and rely on their personal experiences.  Some are trying to reform the church from within.  And some are just not interested from the start, they’d rather just eat good food and take their dog for the walk.  Regardless, we are a culture that is seemingly more and more spiritually adrift, unmoored from the institution.  In part that’s the purpose of this blog: to follow our movements and see where we land.

*I’m not arguing for materialism.  Empiricism is simply gaining knowledge through testing beliefs against experience.  Materialism is the belief that the only reliable tests are physical.  I don’t believe that.

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I'm a post-doc studying the psychology of meaning-making systems.

5 thoughts on “Why Young People Are Becoming Secular”

  1. “Empiricism is immediately compelling because it is how we have always come to know things.”

    You’re confusing empiricism with sensory experience. We use sensory experience in hunting and navigating. Empiricism is a philosophical position about sensory experience. It is because empiricism (and its concomitant materialism) has become the dominant position in the West over the past few hundred years that religious belief feels silly to some. Others who are religious will tell you that their sensory experience only confirms their belief.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting !

      I think of empiricism as not just receiving sensory experience but testing that experience. So when a child is developing and testing her boundaries (both physical and symbolic) I think of that as empiricism. This understanding of empiricism is what allows me assume it’s separate from materialism. Regardless, I believe that this testing has been our primary way of turning experience into belief and knowledge, even before it became a philosophical position. Religious beliefs are tricky because they supposedly allude such testing. That’s fine, we all hold plenty of beliefs that allude testing. The trouble arises when those beliefs contradict other beliefs which are testable and proven.

      1. You can use a technical philosophical word like empiricism to mean what you like, but it doesn’t mean that people who’ve studied the subject are going to think you’re anything but ignorant.

      2. Rude!
        Yes, “Empiricism” refers most commonly to a philosophical theory about sensory knowledge. Since I paired “empiricism” with the verb “how” I thought it would be apparent that I was referring to empiricism as a method, not a theory. Then the curious reader, like yourself, might refer to the Oxford English Dictionary to see an alternate meaning for empiricism: “practice based on experiment and observation.” Thanks for looking out though and trying to keep things precise!

  2. I don’t understand the difference between Empiricism the “techincal philosophical” word and sensory experience in so far as its being contested.

    I thought the point was that we tend to use sensory experience when learning about the world around us as opposed to simply thinking about it. Which would seem to fit.

    Also, spritually adrift sounds like you think people are lost which differs from my perception that people are becoming more diverse and self aware.

    I’d like to think people recognize that we understand things on a limited scale and therefore dont subscribe to beliefs that damn others for different perspectives. But who knows, perhaps people are just becoming softer and can’t stomach yelling “you’re going to hell!” like they used to.

    Oh, and if we are staking claims to the definition of words, then empirical, stress, strain, and work are for us engineers/scientists. We’ve got those defined already so I wouldn’t use them lest you chance sounding ignorant.

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