By the numbers, Millennials are considerably less religious than their elders. In 2015, for instance, older Americans expressed slightly more trust in churches than they did in 2010, according to research released earlier this month by the Pew Research Center.
Meanwhile trust among Millennials fell down a flight of stairs. Today only 55 percent identify the impact of churches as positive, down from 73 percent in 2010. No surprise that they attend services to lesser degrees as well.
What’s happening here?
Linda A. Mercadante interviewed nearly a hundred people who identify as spiritual but not religious and shared her findings in Belief Without Borders.
One thing common to most was, she says, “a theological agenda and critique.” People who disaffiliate often do so for theological considerations. “Many interviewees homogenized and simplified core theological themes labeled as characteristic of Western religion—Christianity in particular—and then rejected or radically altered them.”
Here’s my paraphrase of the positions most of Mercadante’s interview subjects rejected:
- Religious exclusivism and triumphalism
- The idea of an angry, intrusive God
- A static, either-or afterlife
- Authoritarian religious tradition
- Dull or repressive church community
- The idea that people are inherently sinful
We can all identify aspects of this list that are true in degrees. But here’s what’s interesting. Mercadante admits that most of this is uncritical and misinformed.
“That there may be some religious people or traditions which hold some or all of these positions is not the point,” she writes. “I found no one interested testing out the reality of these doctrinal assumptions. Disproving them would hinder the rhetoric.” Instead, many spiritual-but-not-religious nones reject “malevolent archetype[s]” which are little better than figments. And it works for them.
That must mean that part of this is less theological than it seems. “[T]hese are people looking for a spiritual home that doesn’t tell them they have to believe a certain way,” said Rev. Jann Halloran, a Unitarian minister responding to the Pew Millennial study.
The content of belief matters, but so does the notion of authority. The question is who’s in charge: The church or me? Mercadante’s research confirms this move from external to internal authority, and we can all see it play across the culture.
But churches cannot let themselves off the hook here.
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