As religion falls away, how will we support Generation Z?

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A new study from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) shows that Generation Z (born 1997-2012) tends to be less religious and more secular than older generations, and therefore less likely to engage in behaviors such as saying grace or attending church.

The authors at AEI note that this demographic shift represents a significant change in our social and psychological lives. AEI tends to lean to the right and offer a conservative interpretation of things, so it is not surprising that they emphasize that loss of faith correlates with increased loneliness and decreased civic engagement.

But does that mean we should try to reinvigorate religion and persuade our youth to go back to church? It’s not so easy to put the secular genie back into the religious bottle. The solution is to nurture the youth in humanistic ways. We need to help young people find ways to create meaning and community in an increasingly nonreligious world.

The admirable circle of faith

In my own experience, it rings true to say that loss of religion can produce loneliness and disengagement. I often look with envy at the religious folks I know, who gather for shared rituals, food, and song—and who often engage in robust political activism.

Communities of faith provide networks of support that come to life in times of crisis. Faith networks bring food to widows. They support families who are grieving and overwhelmed. When my grandmother died, the church funeral was packed with people who had known my grandmother for a lifetime. There is something nice about being born, married, and buried in a nurturing community.

Faith communities have rituals and activities that bring people together in admirable ways. I have given a number of talks to religious communities. And I am usually pleasantly surprised to discover the pleasant camaraderie of these communities of faith.

One of those groups is a Mennonite peace fellowship. These are working-class folks, teachers, and farmers who gather weekly to discuss issues related to peace and social justice. They share a potluck meal. Then they listen to a speaker (like me). The evening closes with everyone standing in a circle, holding hands, and singing a hymn in four-part harmony.

The food is plentiful. The fellowship is fun. And the song is beautiful. I also admire the spirit of their discussions. These are folks who want the world to be more peaceful and just.

After these kinds of interactions, I feel that this is missing in my nonreligious life. There is something to admire in faith communities, and something is lost when faith disappears.

Secular freedom gained

I co-authored a book recently with Catholic theologian Peter Admirand. Peter asked me toward the end of the book whether there was anything like “tradition” and “ritual” in my secular life. The spirit of his question was about what makes secular life meaningful. He also wondered whether secular life isn’t somehow ungrounded and adrift.

I have to admit that there is some truth to this concern. I don’t have a faith community to support me, either in times of joy or times of grief. Nor do I have a ritual calendar to give meaning to my days. I admitted to Peter that I was envious of that part of his religious life. But I argued that what is gained in the secular life is freedom.

Humanists often focus on arguments about God’s existence. They may question the supposed sacred value of religious texts. Or they may worry about pedophile priests and corrupt religious hierarchies. But the positive value of humanism is its affirmation of freedom.

Freedom can be lonely. And it can leave us isolated and alienated. But that is not the whole of the story. Freedom can be used creatively to build community. Freedom is not easy. But this is true of any adventure. When traditional sources of meaning and community fall away in the rearview mirror, we realize it is up to us to make the journey meaningful.

Nurturing the lonely secular youth

The lonely secular youth described by the American Enterprise Institute’s report need help. It is not enough for the critics of religion to hammer away at religious institutions. We also need to build new supportive institutions.

We need secular versions of the religious potluck. We need to find ways to join hands and sing. And we need to create new rituals and traditions that resonate with life in the 21st century.

Above all, we need to nurture those who are struggling to find their way on the rocky road of freedom. Many members of Generation Z are anxious and afraid, and for good reason: These are frightening times. But the solution is not to go backward. Rather, we need to encourage the youth to go forward with courage and with the hope that life without religion can be meaningful, fun, and free.

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