Why are young people leaving religion?

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Why are young people leaving religion?

January 18, 2013 - Jim Denison, PhD

A boy sits alone on a dock that stretches into a fog shrouded lake (Credit: buaiansayapanomali via DeviantArt)

A third of young adults in America say they don’t belong to any religion.  Why?

NPR did a fascinating story on this phenomenon, interviewing six young adults in Washington, D.C.  They came from Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions.  One was raised Jewish; she still loves going to synagogue but describes herself as having an “agnostic bent.”  She goes to be quiet with her thoughts, but states, “I don’t think I need to answer that question [about God] in order to participate in the traditions I was brought up with.”

The Muslim considers the account of Abraham offering his son to be “crazy” and became an atheist because he couldn’t believe such stories.  The Catholic left her church because she disagrees with its beliefs on homosexuality.  The Seventh-day Adventist couldn’t understand why God allowed the suffering his family has endured.  One young woman, raised by a Jewish mother and Christian father, lost her brother to cancer and “realized the purpose and meaning of his life had nothing to do with heaven, but it had to do with how I could make choices in my life that give his life meaning.”

The sixth person interviewed has a tattoo on the inside of his wrist that says “Salvation from the cross” in Latin.  He now says, “I don’t [believe in God] but I really want to. . . . I think having a God would create a meaning for our lives, like we’re working toward a purpose—and it’s all worthwhile because at the end of the day we will maybe move on to another life where everything is beautiful.  I love that idea.”

These interviews illustrate a fact about the “non-religious” that many overlook.  While 88 percent of them are not looking for an organized religion, 68 percent say they believe in God and most claim to be spiritual in some way.  It’s just that they believe they can define spirituality as they wish, without the traditions and hindrances of religion.

What do these stories have in common?  Consider an analogy.  As many of you know, our oldest son was diagnosed with cancer a year ago.  He had surgery last February and radiation in March and April.  His last MRI was clear, for which we are very grateful.

When we received his diagnosis, imagine that my family and I chose to stop believing in medicine.  We could still go to hospitals without participating in their activities.  We might reject his diagnosis and thus the science that produced it.  We might not understand why doctors allowed our son to develop cancer.  We could seek meaning in the fact of his disease rather than its cure.  We could believe in the idea of a medical cure without participating in its process.

If we made this decision, which would we harm more—medicine or ourselves?

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