If you read the breathless coverage earlier this week from the mainstream press over the Pew Research Center’s newest Religious Landscape Study, you might believe that religion in America is in deep trouble – specifically Christianity, from which we’re told millennials are fleeing en masse:
“Millennials leaving the church in droves, study finds,” CNN splashed across its website. “Millennials are giving up on organized religion,” proclaimedBusiness Insider.“Big drop in share of Americans calling themselves Christian,”crowed the New York Times.
As Scooby-Doo might say: Ruh-roh.
The headlines may sound grim, but believers need not be troubled – a deeper analysis of the findings shows that not only have reports of Christianity’s imminent death been greatly exaggerated, we may be seeing early evidence of a pendulum swing that could lead countless souls back to the Church in the years to come.
First of all, about that “sharp drop” in Christian belief? Let’s see what Pew has to say about it:
“To be sure, the United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and a large majority of Americans – roughly seven-in-ten – continue to identify with some branch of the Christian faith,”Pew admits in a summary of its findings (emphasis mine). “But … the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014.”
So, while roughly 784 out of every 1000 Americans identified as Christian in 2007, only 706 said the same in 2014?
Now, to be fair, any decline in the number of Christian faithful is cause for concern. But let’s look more closely at the data. Where did all these Christians go? Have they turned their backs on God completely?
According to Pew, not exactly. During the same time period from 2007 to 2014, the number of people describing themselves as "unaffiliated" with any religion rose roughly six percent. But only three percent of American adults describe themselves as atheist. The rest of the "unaffiliated" are either agnostic or "nothing in particular," meaning they haven’t ruled out belief in a higher power, they just don’t identify with a specific church.
Ed Stetzer, executive director of evangelical LifeWay Research, speculated in an essay for USA Today that the apparent decline in Christianity may be a matter of semantics more than faith. Noting a recent Gallup poll that found Americans attend weekly church services at about the same rate today as they did in the 1940s, Stetzer argued that the only difference between then and now is that today, people are less likely to feel cultural pressure to hide their religious apathy from others, resulting in a decrease in the number of "Christians in name only" who claim the faith, but do not practice it.
"Simply put, the strains of a funeral dirge aren’t being played at the graveside of American Christianity because there is no body for burial," Stetzer wrote. "Those who value their faith enough to wake up on Sunday morning and head to their local church are mostly still going. … Christianity and the church are not dying, but they are being more clearly defined."
Perhaps the most interesting findings in the Pew study, however, came from speaking to adults who were raised in atheist or unaffiliated households. While one out of every five people who grew up in religious homes now identify as non-religious, nearly half of those raised in non-religious homes grew up to become believers.
Now, the cynic in me is tempted to say that every generation has its rebellious children, and those raised by atheists are likely to rebel by getting religion. But the disproportionate percentage — nearly half — of next-generation atheists who abandon their disbelief, and the powerful stories of redemption they tell, give me hope that this is more than backlash.
In a 2013 essay for Christianity Today, millennial Jordan Monge recounted her own journey from the "militant atheism" of her childhood to her conversion to Christianity during her freshman year at Harvard in 2008. After meeting a Christian classmate who challenged her intellectually and pushed her to examine her beliefs with a critical eye, she began to see the flaws and holes in her carefully constructed worldview.
"I had always believed in the Big Bang," Monge wrote, "but I was blissfully unaware that the man who first proposed it, Georges Lemaître, was a Catholic priest. And I’d happily ignored the rabbit trail of a problem of what caused the Big Bang, and what caused that cause, and so on."
As Monge dug deeper into Christian philosophy, she began to read the Bible, and found herself attracted to the Gospel message of redemption.
"I was confronted by my sin," Monge recalled. "I was painfully arrogant and prone to fits of rage. I was unforgiving and unwaveringly selfish. I passed sexual boundaries that I’d promised I wouldn’t. The fact that I had failed to adhere to my own ethical standards filled me with deep regret. Yet I could do nothing to right these wrongs. The Cross no longer looked merely like a symbol of love, but like the answer to an incurable need. When I read the Crucifixion scene in the Book of John for the first time, I wept."
Margaret Fox, a hospital chaplain studying to become a Presbyterian minister, told the Daily Beastthat she became fascinated with religion when she studied abroad in France and fell "head over heels in love" with the beauty and meaning she found in ancient stained glass windows that told the story of salvation in pictorial form — "like comic books," she said.
At first, she tried to hide her newfound interest in God from her friends and classmates at Yale because she felt "embarrassed."
“There’s a sort of ethos of independence in our culture, that you can get places on your own,” she told the Daily Beast. “And to need God felt sort of out of sync with the Ivy League achievement environment I was in.” But ultimately, her longing for the beauty and meaning she’d found in those windows back in France led her to attend divinity school — first at Harvard, then back at Yale — and seek baptism.
The search for beauty and meaning in an otherwise coldly rational worldview is part of what led Jennifer Fulwiler, another childhood atheist, to open her heart to God. "One thing I could never get on the same page with my fellow atheists about was the idea of meaning," Fulwiler, now a prominent Catholic apologist, wrote in her conversion story. "The other atheists I knew seemed to feel like life was full of purpose despite the fact that we’re all nothing more than chemical reactions. I could never get there. In fact, I thought that whole line of thinking was unscientific, and more than a little intellectually dishonest."
At times, Fulwiler contemplated suicide, "not because I was depressed in the common sense of the word, simply because it seemed like it was nothing more than speeding up the inevitable," she wrote. "A life multiplied by zero yields the same result, no matter when you do it."
After giving birth to her first child, however, Fulwiler found it increasingly difficult to embrace her concept of human life as fleeting and meaningless. "The dark-haired, blue-eyed baby felt so valuable; my own life was flooded with hope and joy at his presence," Fulwiler wrote. "But with none of the usual distractions in place, the facts of the matter now descended upon me: There was nothing transcendent about my son’s life, my life, or any of the love I felt for him. He was destined for the same fate as the rest of us, to have his entire existence erased upon his inevitable death."
She fell into a deep depression. "For weeks, I hardly got out of bed," she recalled. "Some combination of severe sleep deprivation and more severe depression left me almost catatonic. But then one morning, as I looked at the baby in the pre-dawn light that filtered in through the window, I felt something new within me. It was something that was not despair, some unfamiliar yet welcome feeling. I peeled back the layers to find that it was doubt: Doubt of my purely materialist worldview, doubt of the truth I had believed since childhood that there is nothing transcendent about the human life."
To download the entire Pew study on the religious attitudes of American adults, click here.
Kirsten Andersenis a senior writer at Aleteia.org.