What’s gone wrong? How do you help young people maintain (or gain) faith?
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Changes in American parenting combined with advent of social media, disappearing local journalism and declining community participation have contributed to the major reduction in religious participation among young adults, panelists said at the second annual IRF Summit.
“Diminishing faith matters,” said Daniel Cox, a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute, speaking to an audience at the International Religious Freedom Summit.
Regular religious participation produces a litany of positive effects, he said during the summit on religious freedom abroad and in the United States. The IRF Summit included dozens of events, including video presentations by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“There’s a generation of scholarship that shows that being a member of a religious congregation or being active in a religious community is associated with a whole host of social and personal benefits, from feeling less alone and feeling more connected to your community to actually being healthier,” Cox said.
The survey found that 31% of members of this age cohort believe in God as described in the Bible, compared to 50% of Americans ages 30 to 44 and more than 60% of Americans older than 45.
Cox and Eric Baxter, Becket vice president and senior counsel, said those differences are explained in part by changes in the life experiences of American children. Children eat dinner with their families less often, which means they learn less about society, complexity and larger issues than they did in the past, they said.
“Among baby boomers, three-fourths said that they had meals together every day,” Cox said. “You want to hazard a guess where a Gen Z ended up there? Only a quarter report that they had meals together. That’s an absolute massive change across a couple of different generations.”
He said this reflects a growing value placed by middle- and upper-middle-class parents on child achievement over establishing community. They value providing enrichment opportunities like camp, music classes or sports over hosting neighbors in their home or participating with their children in religious activities or services or civic activities.
Baxter said parents are spending more time with children but talk less with them about larger issues. He cited late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who had nine children and said he chose not to go sit and watch all of their baseball games. He said he valued that they learned, like he did, to negotiate lessons on working out his own with other children what’s fair or not on the ball field.
Social media is no substitute for parenting
Instead of learning to process complex issues over dinner or while reading scripture or from religious teachers or while sitting in church with people with whom they may disagree, children and youth instead get their information from peers on social media.
It’s also determined by algorithms, said Pixstory CEO Appu Esthose Suresh, whose new social media platform is constructed to fosters structured, meaningful debate instead of oversimplified interpretations of complex issues.
“We have two problems. One is addiction. A like button is 20 times a dopamine kick,” Suresh said during another IRF panel discussion. “That’s like substance abuse. So you’re already hooked on to that. The other problem is anonymity.”
“What we need is an incentive which is higher or equal to addiction, and we need to get away from anonymity,” Suresh said during a panel called “Faith and Media: Partners for Resilience in Civil Society.” “So we need to focus on ways and means in which we need to rebuild this from a moral perspective not from that perspective.”
“You look at people engaging on Twitter, and people saying really grotesque or heinous stuff, and the first thing on their description on Twitter is ‘Christ follower,’” he said. “How people communicate and what they’re leading with when they’re communicating (is important). Are you coming to Twitter and engaging as a Christian, as a Muslim, as a Hindu, or as a Republican or somebody who hates Trump or somebody who hates Joe Biden? I think that we really have to think long and hard about what we’re presenting to the public, how we’re engaging with people who disagree with us, both in person and in these more impersonal social contexts.”