Greg Cootsona’s new book Mere Science and Christian Faith: Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults considers why it is so difficult to get young adults in the door at religious institutions. An interview with Cotsoona published in BioLogos served as a discussion point for our Sinai and Synapses Fellows. 

In the second half of the conversation, the Fellows pick up on Cotsoona’s contention that young adults feel they have “outgrown” religion. Their personal stories both contradict and add nuance to this claim.

This Slack chat has been edited for length and clarity. This is the second of two posts; here is the first part.

Kendra Moore: As a millennial and someone who grew up in a conservative, evangelical Christian home and culture, I found this interview very interesting. In my own experience and in my observation of friends’ experiences from the same background, the “outgrowing” of religion or the fundamental transformation of one’s religious identity really had very little to do with science. I don’t necessarily think Greg’s position is implausible, but I question how much it can be generalized.

For example, when I attended college, the factors that led me to my own religious transformation mostly had to do with critical biblical hermeneutics. One of my favorite classes to this day (probably because of how transformative it was for me) was a class on the Pentateuch. When we read Genesis through this new (for me) critical lens of metaphor and historical context, I felt both betrayed and invigorated at the same time. It was exciting to learn you could legitimately read stories such as the creation story in a figurative manner and still find them incredibly meaningful, and it was exciting to learn the historical context behind various passages and translations because it added nuance, flavor, and life to stories that had often seemed dry and strictly instructional for how to live a good, Christian life.

The point is, I’ve observed people walking away from faith because their understanding of scripture has transformed and not because their scientific beliefs are being challenged: many people feel disenchanted when they realize their sacred scriptures are not perfectly comprehensible and enlightening but instead are messy texts that underwent change, revision, and transmission by imperfect people.

Brian Gallagher: During my freshman and sophomore years in undergrad, I spent some time discussing the truth of Christianity with believing friends. They all doubted the fact of evolution and believed in the literal resurrection of Jesus. My aim in these conversations was to make evolution seem plausible, and the miracle of Jesus rising from the dead implausible. I convinced some, maybe half. I’ve never had a long dialogue with someone who, like Francis Collins, ostensibly, accepts evolution and Jesus’ literal resurrection. I’d love to. I’d love to hear how someone could square that. The cognitive dissonance involved seems considerable. I do think it’s possible to be a Christian without accepting the literal resurrection. To my mind, it’s this version of Christianity that would seem most palatable to “emerging adults” who aren’t raised religious from birth.

Laura Donnelly: As a millennial myself, I don’t really have much experience with this type of “emerging adult” Greg refers to here. It would be helpful for Greg to share more information about the “nones” he interviewed, other than general demographics. He refers to the “church” but that could refer to one of 10 mainline protestant churches, the Catholic Church, or dozens of other churches that aren’t considered mainstream. What congregation or domination did/do the “nones” attend? My reason for asking is because I think this information provides more context for who they are engaging with. As a bit of an ecclesial mutt, I have attended many Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches across the USA who recognize the compatibility with and consonance of religion and science.

Kendra Moore: Of course, religious transformation has implications on one’s scientific understanding of the world, but I’m not sure the transformation is normally catalyzed by a conflict between religion and science, at least when we’re talking about a conservative, evangelical Christian’s experience. However, once that kind of faith has been compromised, this understandably breaks down barriers that often lead to a greater acceptance of science in one’s worldview.

Myriam Renaud: For me, as the step-mom of two Millennials and the mom of a Generation Z, I have taken an interest in this demographic. I’ve attended the “emerging church” near my apartment to find out more about the sort of worship that brings in large numbers of millennials. And they do come! Notable compared to non-millennial-oriented services: terrific child-care offerings during the service, contemporary music with a live band, organized opportunities for social service, tons of technology including a professional slide show of pictures submitted that weekend by members who had participated in a church social service event, and a chatty approach to sermonizing. I’m simply not convinced that science is a factor; technology clearly is.

Rachael Jackson: Absolutely. I believe that we turn many “emerging adults” off of sanctuaries when we don’t highlight technology. If we only use books or frontal teaching / preaching, are we reaching this generation?

Zack Jackson: It reminds me of this quote from Kurt Vonnegut…

“I became a so-called science fiction writer when someone decreed that I was a science fiction writer. I did not want to be classified as one, so I wondered in what way I’d offended that I would not get credit for being a serious writer. I decided that it was because I wrote about technology, and most fine American writers know nothing about technology. I got classified as a science fiction writer simply because I wrote about Schenectady, New York. My first book, Player Piano, was about Schenectady. There are huge factories in Schenectady and nothing else. I and my associates were engineers, physicists, chemists, and mathematicians. And when I wrote about the General Electric Company and Schenectady, it seemed a fantasy of the future to critics who had never seen the place … I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.”

Rachael Jackson: In terms of experience in my current profession as congregational clergy, there is the bottom line to think about. What I mean by that is many of our congregations are made up of older adults / retirees. This segment also is often the financial foundation. They are also less likely to be comfortable with technology. Therefore, the leadership is less likely to push the boundaries where they are concerned.

Personally, in my synagogue of 95% retirees, I am just this year bringing in an interactive white board into our board room/classroom. My teaching involves YouTube / PowerPoint / handouts / music, anything which seems relevant regardless of medium. That has taken a lot of gentleness. And in the next couple months I am bringing in projectors into the sanctuary for visual prayer (rather than just using books). This will be a momentous change. But it is necessary for the continued relevancy of our congregation. And my job (as well as the lay-leadership) is to speak one on one with people to get them accustomed to this newness.

So what I am saying, is that leadership cannot be afraid of technology, otherwise it will not exist in congregations and that will continue the atrophying of the younger generations.

Kendra Moore: I also wonder how this whole conversation might be different if the complexity model were imbued in our popular imagination.

Adam Pryor: Hey Kendra, can you tell us more about what you mean by the ‘complexity model?’ Did you have something specific in mind or a more generally nuanced public presentation of religion and science that stops rehashing conflict models?

Kendra Moore: Thank you, Adam, for that question. I should have been clear about that. The complexity model in a nutshell is basically as you described it in your last comment. It is an alternative position to the conflict model. It’s laid out in the work of John Hedley Brooke’s 1991 publication, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. Basically, the idea is that historically, the relationship between science and religion (in a lot of literature, this means Christianity in particular) has been more complicated that is often described in conflict-centered historical or popular accounts. Proponents of the complexity model believe there have been both peaceful and conflict-filled periods of the relationship, but historical context always matters to understand how the relationship changes. One cannot assume a state of constant conflict.

Additionally, many proponents of complexity posit that theological assumptions have often facilitated scientific endeavors. For example, many of the early “scientists” (better described as natural philosophers in their pre-modern context) were deeply religious; many of their questions about the world came from a place of desiring to understand the nature of God and the universe they believed God created. They were observing the world and trying to actually understand it, but religious motivations were often guiding these observations or making sense of the observations in a religious way, if that makes sense. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), for example, believed in the Copernican heliocentric or sun-centered model of the universe and made sense of it as a symbolic image of the Holy Trinity where the sun was God, the stars were Christ, and the space between it all was the Holy Spirit.

Geoff Mitelman: We often think the time in which we live is the most important one, and is either the greatest culmination of intellectual thinking, or the worst time in history to be alive. Either technology will save us, or it will destroy us. Religious influence on our life is either booming or almost totally gone. But as you remind us, Kendra, life is much more complicated than that. I think we need to realize that religion — as all endeavors — are evolving and changing based on new knowledge. So instead of catastrophizing or utopianizing (to invent a word), we should be responding to the realities of what’s happening on the ground.

And in many ways, that’s what science does at its best.