Chapter 5 of After the Baby Boomers is fascinating, as it gives an account of religious beliefs among younger adults and how these beliefs are shifting. The statistics may surprise you. Young people are almost as likely to advocate orthodox religious beliefs as the previous generation. Why might this be so? And what does it suggest? Wuthnow lists 7 possible scenarios regarding the recent trends in religious beliefs.
Orthodox beliefs have declined among young adults, but not in the American population as a whole. Perhaps the decline is attributable to the fact that younger adults may have reasons to be less orthodox.
The idea of orthodoxy is more fluid than usually imagined. Could young adults be offering a secular interpretation of traditional religious teachings?
Orthodox beliefs have remained constant because of other societal forces (keeping company with like-minded believers who don’t question their faith, or experiencing religious diversity that has forced young adults to better grasp their own belief system).
People can be orthodox and heterodox at the same time by “cognitive bargaining.” People voice acceptance of orthodoxy, and yet hedge their bets through negotiation.
Young adults are not all the same and are not all exposed to the same cultural influences (college, for example).
The relationship between education and orthodox belief may be changing, so that religious tradition and higher education are no longer seen as mutually incompatible.
Orthodox beliefs are faring differently in different faith communities (evangelicals feel embattled, for example, and therefore are holding tighter to orthodoxy).
The data reveals that there are few differences between younger adults and older adults regarding religious beliefs. There is no evidence of declining beliefs in orthodoxy. In fact, research shows that belief in “life after death” has actually risen among those in their twenties.
Wuthnow believes the single most telling question he can ask a young adult is their view of the Bible. His statistics on young adult views of the Bible have remained stable.
Religious diversity tends to be associated with lower levels of orthodox belief, and such is the case. But it could be that orthodox believers avoid contact with other religious groups. Most people do not have extensive contacts with people who hold to non-Western religions.
Wuthnow believes that the stability of orthodox beliefs tells a different story. People hold traditional views, while adapting to the culture in other ways, so that there is room to interpret the Bible and still be comfortable in a secular society. Examples? He quotes people who believe in evolution and creation. He shows how 64% of those who claim to be biblical literalists agree that “all major religions contain some truth about God.” He notices how many biblical literalists relativize their view that Christianity is the only way to God by saying it is the best for them personally. Increasingly, religious beliefs are personal and private, detached from the religious congregation.
Wuthnow notices that since the early 1980′s, young adults with some higher education have become more orthodox, reversing the typical view that college necessarily lessens a commitment to religious faith. This could be taking place for many reasons. Since college attendance is up, more like-minded people can join together. College is no longer for the elite.
Tomorrow, we look at spirituality and spiritual practices – the role of faith in personal life.