No news on religion received more attention last year than the fact that 20% of Americans described themselves as having no religion. This news was probably blown out of proportion, but it might also reflect the life experience of the millennial generation (or, more accurately, lack of life experience).
Much of the story probably isn’t news at all. The majority of the “nones,” as they are now called, believe in God and pray regularly. This is fairly consistent with America’s past. Rather than having a steady narrative of religious decline, America has tended to drift in and out of religion. Church attendance was low prior to the First and Second Great Awakenings, but managed to make a comeback.
Even in the 1950s, which to the contemporary imagination represents the apex of cultural conservatism, there were a lot of people who were Presbyterians or Quakers in the sense that it was the church that they chose not to attend on Sunday. Today, there are “nones” who, nonetheless, believe in a fairly conventional conception of God, and there are retired Episcopal bishops who don’t believe in any god at all.
Our changing religious demography reflects a very American sense of individual conscience: Regardless of their belief in transcendence, the “nones” aren’t attempting to hide behind church membership if they aren’t committed to the congregation’s particular doctrines.
That being said, America has probably changed in ways that are less inviting to religion. These changes have nothing to do with the “New Atheist” movement, whose intellectual patriarchs are fairly lightweight when compared with predecessors like Diderot, Nietzsche or Feuerbach. Religion is having more difficulty prospering not because of active hostility, but rather because of society’s growing passive indifference to it.
Part of this might be, as others have suggested, because of the growth of social networks. But religion has also remained more or less steady among educated Americans while declining among the working class. This is not so much because they have had experiences that make them skeptical of religion as it is because religious activity has been crowded out by leisure time.
Having more leisure time is a sign of progress. It’s nothing if not a good thing that the extremely wealthy and the working-class pursue many of the same pleasures. The rich might be able to afford vacations on distant Caribbean islands out of the average waitress’s budget, but people of all income levels can drive to the beach, watch television, and play video games. Not everyone can afford to eat out, but hardly any Americans have to shoot a rabbit or go hungry.
But, while millennials live easier, they haven’t learned much more about life. This is principally because they have so very little experience with death. In very practical terms, what this means is that most teens and twenty-somethings have probably never seen a corpse. This is in contrast with the previous generations: Wakes used to be a common experience for kids coming-of-age around the turn of the 20th Century. The Lost Generation saw carnage in World War I; the Greatest Generation in World War II; the Boomers were around for Vietnam, and Generation X had the AIDS crisis. But for millennials, nothing really. They are not constantly reminded of the fact that their life might have a middle, but it also has a beginning and an end.
This isn’t a bad thing, but that is part of the point: millennials have not experienced enough bad things to gain a realistic perspective on life. A common refrain that I hear from many teenagers is that they don’t believe in anything that can’t be proven with facts. It's a noble endeavor, but one that is based on an unrealistic worldview. Facts do a lot to preserve life, but they don’t do much to explain it. Facts can provide guidance, but no definitive answers as to what job you should work at, what person you should marry, or what life you should live. Is life driven by a divine plan, or is it a tale told to an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing, or is it something in between? It’s an important question to have an answer for, but the facts we know this side of the grave won’t interrupt the answer you choose.
Millennials may not be certain that their lives will be miserable, as people born in, say, 700 A.D. often were, but many of them may be miserable because their lives are so uncertain. Unemployment is on the rise and wages are depressed; this means that millennials are less likely to achieve the basic benchmarks of life — spouse, kids, picket fence, maybe a dog — in the same time frame that their parents did. These uncertainties may be enough for them to worry about. But there are only two basic facts about their lives. One is that they were born; that doesn’t require a second thought. The other is that they are going to die; social media and reality television might suppress this fact for now, but it can’t be ignored forever.