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A Generation of No Religion

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions,” wrote Karl Marx in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. “It is the opium of the people.”

Since the 1800s, we’ve long been told that religion faces an imminent death. Lawrence Krauss argued at the Victorian Skeptics Café 2014 that it’s time to “plant the seeds of doubt in our children” so that religion can disappear within a mere generation, “or at least largely go away.” He insisted that “change is always one generation away.”

Which is a fair assessment when it comes to social prejudices. He mentioned that 13-year-olds today don’t even see gay marriage as an issue, and slavery soon became a reviled concept once generations failed to remember it as a cultural norm. But one cognitive scientist told The Daily Beast that Krauss neglected to consider one of the major findings from cognitive science of religion in the last few decades—that “people’s natural receptivity to religious ideas may be borne out of certain ordinary habits of the human mind that are hard to extinguish,” such as the tendency to see actions as intentional, objects as products of design, or the mind as distinct from the body.

One study showed that even kids who have no religious exposure in the home still believe that events happen for intentional reasons, such as to teach a lesson or send a sign. Another British study found that children unexposed to religion still used God for the unexplainable, demonstrating that this kind of thinking is an ingrained mental habit. Furthermore, half of nonbelievers still believe in fate, proving there’s a tendency to see intention and agency in lives without religious ties.

The need for a higher power may arguably be an inherent human tendency, but millennials are more critical of organized religion than previous generations were at this age. In the 1970s, only 13 percent of baby boomers considered themselves religiously unaffiliated; in 2012, a third of 18 to 29-year-olds did. It’s likely that millennials marrying and entering the workforce later in life, thus extending college years, largely contributes to that gap: 86 percent of Americans without a college education believe in Jesus Christ’s resurrection, whereas 64 percent of those with postgraduate degrees do.

But millennials aren’t outright rejecting Christianity, either, as three quarters of them believe it still preaches good values and principles. They do, however, find modern Christianity to be rather hypocritical (58 percent), judgmental (62 percent), and anti-gay (64 percent). Even before moving out of their childhood homes, many millennials have already moved away from the religion of their upbringing. Only 11 percent are raised without a religious affiliation, and yet a quarter of millennials now identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated. Much of this is due to modern politicization from churches: 69 percent of those between ages 18 and 29 find that religious groups alienate young people by being too judgmental about gay or lesbian issues. And because the disaffiliated rate is higher than previous generations in this life cycle, it’s likely that fewer millennials will return to their childhood congregations even after settling down and raising children.

This trend, however, is not in conjunction with Krauss’ testament that religion as a whole is on its way out, let alone that society is a generation away from total agnosticism. Instead, the statistics lend themselves to the notion that modern oppression within organized religion must be addressed if a younger congregation is to fill the pews. Regarding Krauss’ argument, The Daily Beast notes that it’s one thing to see a social shift in bigotry, and quite another to anticipate sophisticated traditions disappearing in a lifetime: “Specific brands of religion might disappear quickly (as one hopes bigoted and violent fundamentalism will), but it’s a stretch to think that something like religion—a complex and dynamic set of rituals, social practices, and cognitively ingrained ways of viewing the world—could be quite so fragile.”

Below is a clip of Krauss arguing how religion should be approached in schools, as well as how organized efforts could allow it to disappear within a generation:


Image by Waiting For The Word, licensed under Creative Commons.