It’s practically common knowledge that young adults (age 18-30) are deeply averse to identifying with a religion. This is an issue across a variety of religious traditions, both Christian and Jewish. Part of the reason is that this demographic is skeptical about how religion and science can co-exist. Pastor, author and scholar Greg Cootsona’s new book Mere Science and Christian Faith: Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults examines this and other reasons churches can’t seem to get young people in the door. An interview with Cootsona published in BioLogos gives us some insight into how he landed upon and researched this topic.
In response to his book, our Sinai and Synapses Fellows participated in a Slack chat. It has been edited, and divided into two posts. Here is the first.
Geoff Mitelman: So what’s been your experience working with emerging adults? Do you think they view science and faith differently than older adults or children? Most of my adult education draws tons of retirees, and not many young adults…but that’s often because I work in synagogues, which rarely draw a lot of young adults.
Rachael Jackson: “Emerging adults” are meant to find themselves in distinction to the previous generation(s), so it is only natural to see a downward trend. And as you mention, Ian, one of the major changes in science in the 20th century was the acceptance of doubt. Many religions shy away from conversations of doubt, thereby creating an apparent conflict.
Ian Binns: This was an interesting read. I actually bought the book after reading the interview. I don’t have a lot of experience working with emerging adults in a church setting, but I’m not at all surprised that so many identify as “nones.” There’s a link about the six reasons young Christians leave the church, and one reason pretty much sums it up, and Rachael, it’s something you allude to: “Young adults with Christian experience say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts.” To me, that is a key factor.
Arvin Gouw: Exactly. In the churches that I have visited, young adults care more about science and religion especially since they need to reconcile Sunday sermon with weekday college lectures. Older adults in my communities have made up their mind, either the science/religion is useless because religion transcends science; or because I’ve heard them say many times: “If you know too much, you’ll become a liberal and atheist!” in other words, too smart for your own good.
Tim Maness: There’s a cultural piece, too. When the Pat Robertsons of the world are the public face of “organized religion” in the minds of young people, it can be hard to get a foot in the mental door. And there’s a sort of mirror-image counterpart of this problem, too, from the science side. Neil de Grasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, and Richard Dawkins, vehemently promote a conflict model of the relationship between science and religion. If most of the scientists *and* most of the religious professions people are most likely to see, then the average person with no dog in the fight either way is likely to go along with the assumption that conflict is the norm.
Ruth Shaver: I know I have enjoyed the look of pleasantly confused surprise on the faces of young adults when the discover a pastor who not only isn’t anti-science but who also thinks church can be a place for scientific engagement.
Tim Maness: Surprise can be incredibly powerful in changing the conversation. Overt religion expression often gets shelved alongside hunting and country music as a very particular cultural signifier, a banner for a particular segment of the population and a “keep out” sign for much of the rest. Young people who grow up outside that particular segment may encounter a pervasive assumption among their peers that religion is just not something that “people like us” do.
Brian Gallagher: It also seems to me that many young “nones” are indeed finding religious community outside religion—in social justice activism, for example.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah. How much of this question is the “millennials are ruining X” trope, when, in reality, so many of our institutions are getting disrupted as it is. Is it simply that “millennials don’t like church / religion” or is “what religion does for them (community, meaning, etc.) can be found in other places”?
Zack Jackson: I think that religions got drunk off the intoxicating wine of intellectual certainty during the enlightenment and we lost a lot of what faith is actually good at. Faith is grounded in personal experience and communal identity which makes it intrinsically “illogical”. It doesn’t play by the same rules as science, and that is fine. The younger folks that I work with are increasingly comforted by this dichotomy, and I think they will help us rediscover the mystical roots of faith.
Adam Pryor: Perhaps, what Cootsona’s work is pointing to is the symptom of a much wider concern that Brian’s last line on finding “religious community outside religion” and others’ reflections on issues of identity and the conversations we engage or shy away from point toward.
I guess I might frame my thoughts on this topic/interview in terms of a few questions. How do we start to honestly reflect on how religious communities provide (or do not provide!) a space for emerging adults to authentically wrestle with the anxieties, fears, and concerns that drive them? Is the divide between science and religion itself one of these central concerns? My own work with college students makes me a bit suspicious of whether we should answer this second question with a definite yes.
Instead, I think I’d treat how a religious community thinks about the relationship between science and religion as an easy litmus test for emerging adults. They can look at how a religious community takes stands on various issues central to the study of science and religion and then make a quick judgment about whether or not this might be a religious community in which I can honestly give voice to the deep existential concerns that are important to me. Intuitively, I really like Rachael’s question about whether or not religious communities are places where we are able to express doubt. Some combination of how open / safe / receptive a religious community will be to hearing their emerging adults’ doubts and how clear a religious community conveys that it is not simply a glorified country club but engages in some sort of activism that makes it worth taking the time for an emerging adult to invest her/himself in a religious community are more crucial than straight concern for religion and science’s interaction in terms of conflict, independence, or integration.
Laura Donnelly: From what I’m reading here, drawing on Rachel, Ian and Adam’s points, religious communities aren’t really places where people are able/feel comfortable expressing or raising doubts here in USA. As a minister’s daughter in Northern Ireland, I remember my Dad saying, “if you aren’t asking questions and raising doubts, you aren’t thinking.” You have to review and evaluate all possible doubts, challenges, or differences of opinion, before stating your claim…you can imagine the conversation at my dinner table growing up — needless to say, it was exhausting!