Thursday, June 14, 2012

"Swear there ain't no heaven and I pray there ain't no hell..."

Time once again to ask the perennial question:  "What God do you believe in?"

Oh, no; sorry.  We aren't asking that question.  We're just asking "Do you believe in God?"  Which is the same thing as saying "Do you think God exists?"  Except it isn't, of course.  But that's another quibble.  Let's go to the chart (courtesy, as you can see, of TPM).

Actually, what that chart shows is agreement with the statement "I never doubted the existence of God."  What's funny is how it moves up and down over the years.  I guess God was wiping out the doubters, because it seems they don't live as long as the believers, at least among the "Silent" and "Boomer" generations (Gen X and Millenials are still too young, overall, to have left behind only those who never had a doubt).  Or maybe it's memory, and as you get older, you're less likely to remember your childhood doubts.  Or maybe this just reflects societal changes, and church is no longer the binding force we all thought it was after World War II (church historians will tell you that was the aberration, not the rule.  And even the Puritan colonies of Massachusetts were never the norm for all the settlers in the New World).  Protestant churches especially are the product of culture as much as they are the shapers of culture (the same is true for the Roman Catholic church, but in fundamentally different ways, since the RC is hierarchical and centralized, and most Protestant churches are less so, to varying degrees; and the more hierarchical ones are rapidly giving way to the decentralized and congregational forms).  If the culture has shifted away from the churches, are the churches really to blame?

Well, to some extent, yes.  On the other hand, what you actually see in that chart is the grave difficulty of the modern church.  Look at that chart (or any of the others at Pew) and don't overlook the fact you are looking at five different cohorts, from "Greatest" to "Millenial."  I don't know what "Greatest" covers, since the graph for it ends in 1994, but even leaving them aside, you have four groups that might all coexist under one roof of one church.  And that means you have people who remember (as my last church had) coming to church in a horse and buggy, sitting next to "Millenials" who've grown up knowing man walked on the moon, who may have forgotten there ever was a Soviet Union, who don't know life without the internet or cell phones, and so on.  You have people who consider their private lives private, next to people who think everyone on Facebook needs to know what they were doing in the past hour.*  Now, try relating not just the gospels, but a community life, to those disparate groups.  One will be remembering a past the other knows nothing about, while the Boomer stand in a bridge between people who grew up without TV or maybe even radio, and people who grew up on Skype and Twitter.

You can make too much of these differences; or at least you think you can, until you encounter them.  And trying to keep all those generations under one roof is virtually impossible.  The only churches I see trying to appeal to "Millenials" (if not Gen X, too), I see in ads at the local mall, where everyone is pictured as young and happy and trying to make a religious community out of...well, what, exactly?  Pretty much the thin gruel of God loves you and wants you to have a good time and to make a good marriage and to be a good employee and have nice friends and....

Nothing you wouldn't get as well from an atheist, in other words; or just any community group or self-help guru.  There is a church near me now, a new one, that wants to be my "community church."  They advertise one day of Vacation Bible School (on a Saturday, for no more than 5 hours), and family movies on the third Fridays of the month, or live music on the first Fridays.  Nothing wrong with that, but what do they preach and teach, exactly?  What do they confess?  Are they really any different from any club or business that wants my trade?  How?

So if Millenials doubt the existence of God, is it because of Richard Dawkins?  Or is it because of the churches?

Which is not to say I know of any mainline churches which are doing any better.  As I say, they have their own difficult dynamics to work with.  Fewer kids are born into these churches, and fewer of them stay any longer than they have to; which means even fewer of them return when they start families (the safety catch so many denominations rely on).  Church attendance is a cultural matter, but as the culture stops enforcing it, attendance stops occurring.  On the other hand, try to make the church more attractive to Millenials, and the Boomers and Silent generations will quickly let you know who's in charge here!  Which is why the Millenials leave in the first place, making the Boomers and Silents complain that there are no children around anymore.**

I should point out, too, that doubting God's existence, and abandoning the church, are two different things, and that to the extent Millenials are leaving the pews, it's for reasons more complex than a question of philosophy of religion.  If the young are more inclined to doubt God exists, perhaps that is a failure of theology (even though it's not a theological question).  Much to cast down, much to build, much to restore....***

Because none of this is new:

And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars.
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
Nor does the family even move about together,
But every son would have his motor cycle,
And daughters ride away on casual pillions.

But it is the lines that follow which are the most important:

 Much to cast down, much to build, much to restore;
Let the work not delay, time and the arm not waste;
Let the clay be dug from the pit, let the saw cut the stone,
Let the fire not be quenched in the forge.

*Which raises an interesting theological as well as sociological issue:  how self important must you be to think everyone else on Facebook (or your "friends," at least) want to know everything you've been up to, complete with pictures?  There is a narcissism that is being fed and encouraged in ways as socially altering as the Boomers who grew up sitting in front of the TeeVee watching "Romper Room" and "Captain Kangaroo."  It is a far cry from the humility traditionally professed in Christianity, and may be another explanation for the decline in the number of Millenials who report they have ever doubted God's existence.

**I speak in generalities, since anyone can cite a church where this isn't happening.  But I think the general observation is supported by the data being reported.  At least, it's one likely explanation.

***To question God's existence is not a theological question, but to answer those doubts may well be a theological matter.  To doubt God's existence is also not to betray a complete lack of faith.  Mother Teresa famously "doubted" the existence of God, but what that meant is one thing, and how it affected her life in the Church, is another.


  1. This is a good example of the limits of polling.

    Though by any reasonable standard I fall squarely in the "theist" column, it's hard for me to imagine any reflective person saying he's never doubted the existence of God. I certainly have (though my doubts about His non-existence have been considerably greater).

    One could read the results instead as suggesting that millenials think about these things more. Not necessarily a bad trend. But, again, probably a stretch from compiling answers to a single question.

  2. A good many of the younger folks who do not occupy the pews in church claim to be "spiritual but not religious", which does not necessarily indicate disbelief in God or a god. There is no question that the pews of mainline and even mega-churches are emptying, with exceptions here and there of full churches, pockets of success, in attracting the young.

    What I see in my church is that older folks die, people move away or stop attending, and they are not replaced, thus the congregation shrinks. What's to be done to attract the "spiritual but not religious" folks and how to minister to them should they come is a mystery to me.

    As for Facebook, and folks putting their every move on their FB pages, I wonder if they're actually living their lives on or for FB, rather than just living, if that makes any sense. Of course, in my own narcissism, I post links to my blog posts, because blogging, as we know it, seems to be dying, and a link on FB draws a few people over. Need I say that I prefer blogging to Facebooking?

  3. Mimi--my knowledge of FB comes from my daughter, who is growing bored with it, and tells me there are people who seem to find every hour of their day worthy of mention on FB.

    It's probably a minority, but then again, I'm a very private person, so all this public display I find a bit odd. I also find it quite different from your blog, so there are distinctions to be drawn.

    Rick--I agree. I know this poll will be treated as the reason churches are declining, but Mimi hit on my real understanding (which is why I chose the title for this post). If you don't doubt, you aren't paying attention; but doubt is not the antithesis of faith, either.

    I think I mostly wanted to open up that conversation....

  4. I wasn't going to comment until you said you wanted a conversation....

    There is actually some very interesting data on the shrinking of congregations at
    (I hope that works). We live in greater Rochester New York. The survey for greater Rochester shows that for the first time, the majority of the population is not affiliated with a religious institution (which is different from saying they don't have a religion). In recent decades the mainline churchs have shrunk 25-50%, the Catholic church is down 25% (stable local population with low immigration, the story that the Catholic church is groing due to immigratio is proven here). The evangelical churches are flat or much slower declines but from a smaller base. It is really worth looking at your own area to understand the local dynamics.

    Our ELCA Lutheran church is small, average 145 attendance Sundays, but stable for the last 10+ years. We are replacing our gray hairs with families, but the modern family is small and most of our new members were not previously Lutheran. I sit on our board. The cultural differences can be a struggle. Even simple things like, "can we save money by eliminating all these mailings, I only read the emails anyway." "No, we have older members with no computers". "We need to have a Facebook page for the Church, can we get one of the teenagers to set that up" The older part of our congregation is more conservative than the younger part. Difference of worship style has been less an issue, our younger members have been attracted to a more traditional service but with a very strong music component (10 years ago the average age of the choir was in the 70's, it has plunged to the mid 40's). Oddly, the contentious issue has been communion. The older members have objected to having it every week, the younger members are in favor of that.

    The one differnce that is becoming more clear however is economic. Our older members are better off. Social security, pensions and such have placed them in a better position, we are dependent on their donations to a much greater degree. The younger members with families are having a harder time. Three of us on the council (with 11 school age children among us) are all in the process of trying to sell our homes and downsize for financial reasons. So far those paying more of the bills have been content to let others call the tune, but you have to wonder how long that can last. We are thinly financed, even a small change in priorities could have a big change. I will continue to pray that "It is nice to see all the young people here" continues to outweigh "Why do they have to be so noisy?"

    Your question was why aren't the younger groups coming? Surveys (and a look at least our congregation agrees) that the unemployed, divorced and other struggling don't come or drop out. We are sending the wrong message which is tragic. My bet we are sending other messages to the young (20's to 30's) that are equally tragic.

  5. I can think of lots of reasons people don't go to church on Sundays. The divorced and struggling could well be overwhelmed during the week, and weekends are the time you shop for groceries, clean house, run errands, etc.

    Those with kids may well face a daunting schedule as well of athletic events, etc., for the kids.

    Sunday used to be the day almost everything came to a halt (except for professional sports), but now Sunday can be as crowded, or more crowded, than work day. Easier to sleep in or go the store on Sunday morning.

    Not that that applies to everyone, but when you're going 24/7 as it is (my wife and I are busier than my parents were when they were half our ages and had two young kids at home), every minute counts; or seems to. And yes, I think we are sending the wrong message about church, and yes, I think I know what the "right" message would be.

    But of course I could be wrong.....

  6. I doubted God was real when I was that age too. Then I worked through a lot of the atheist and agnostic material, studied non-theistic forms of Buddhism and the Gospels and read a number of books about the historical Jesus and a lot of other authors on the subject and decided it made more sense that there is a God who created the universe and that the search for objective verification was a foolish thing as a Creator wouldn't need "objective" evidence to be manifest to human consciousness. I think it was a choice to believe, in opposition to everything I used to believe about belief. And I've been more convinced just about every day since making that choice.

  7. drkrick9:10 PM

    The "Greatest" Generation are those born between 1906 and 1925. They were generally referred to as the "GI" Generation by demographers that went in for this kind of thing before Tom Brokaw got to them since the vast majority of those who fought for the US in WWII were part of this cohort. It's odd that this study stopped including them when the youngest were only 70.

    The book "American Grace" by Putnam and Campbell has a lot of interesting information on some of these issues. You may have discussed it sometime before I began reading here, but it seemed a worthwhile read to me.