In a widely discussed 2013 article in the Atlantic called "A Million First Dates," author Dan Slater wrote that "online romance is threatening monogamy." Men and women are simply not willing to offer the same amount of commitment because in the backs of their minds they are always aware of the other possibilities. Here's what one single man in his early thirties told Slater about the way Internet dating affected the way he viewed the end of a long-term relationship:
I'm about 95 percent certain that if I'd met Rachel offline, and if I'd never done online dating, I would've married her. At that point in my life, I would've overlooked everything else and done whatever it took to make things work. Did online dating change my perception of permanence? No doubt. When I sensed the breakup coming, I was okay with it. It didn't seem like there was going to be much of a mourning period, where you stare at your wall thinking you're destined to be alone and all that. I was eager to see what else was out there.
"Eager to see what else is out there." That pretty much describes the modern world -- especially the world through the eyes of twenty- and thirty-somethings. It has become cliché to point out that the array of choices we have today often leaves us more unhappy than a limited spectrum might have. Have I bought the right shampoo or is there one of the thousands of others on the market I'd like better? Have I purchased the right house or will watching House Hunters make me regret it? Have I chosen the right restaurant or will I want to be eating the meal that a friend on Facebook has just posted a picture of? Between the explosion of products to meet every desire, the accessibility of such products online, and the changes in technology -- both reality television and social media -- we know something better is always out there, and we know that someone else has it.
How could such a world not affect our choice of romantic partners -- and everything else?
Books on the millennial generation tend to go on at length about the so-called paradox of choice and the related phenomenon of decision fatigue. Twenty-somethings, they report, are paralyzed in the face of too many options and exhausted by having to pick among them.
And they also don't want to close anything off by actually making a decision. They worry that any choice they make will be too permanent. In their book Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?, mother and daughter journalists Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig cite a fascinating study demonstrating this tendency. In a computer game devised by MIT psychologists, young adult players are given a certain number of "clicks" that they can use to "open doors" or -- once inside a room -- get a small amount of money. After a few minutes of wandering, the players figure out which rooms have the most money. Theoretically they should simply keep clicking in those rooms. But sometimes, doors will start closing. Even players who know they will earn more from using their clicks inside a room will start to panic and click to keep the doors from closing.
In other words, even if the other possible directions for our lives are less valuable -- even entirely implausible -- we still don't want them to close.
The same month that Slater's article appeared, Barry Cooper penned a more theological description of this sense of generational panic in Christianity Today. Cooper wrote, "We are worshiping an idol. A false god. One of the Baals of our culture. His name is 'open options.'"
This false god "kills our relationships because He tells us it's better not to become too involved...He kills our giving because he tells us these are uncertain financial times and you never know when you need the money." Cooper concludes, "The god of open options is also a liar. He promises you that by keeping your options open, you can have everything and everyone. But in the end, you get nothing and no one."
These are the words of caution that many religious leaders would like to offer the millennial generation. Clergy, laypeople, teachers, parents, and grandparents are worried about this thing called "emerging adulthood," in which people seem to put off all the traditional markers of growing up -- leaving home, becoming financially independent, getting married -- in favor of this permanent merry-go-round of choices. This new phase of adulthood is diminishing the involvement of young people in religious institutions, sapping the strength and vitality of faith communities, and creating a more barren religious landscape for the young adults who do eventually decide to return to it.
In the fall of 2012 the Pew Forum on Religious Life made headlines with its report that a third of American adults under the age of thirty claimed no religious affiliation, compared with only 9 percent of adults sixty-five and older. For those who had followed the polls, this finding was not entirely surprising. According to a 2007 survey of over a thousand young adults by Lifeway Research, seven in ten Protestants ages eighteen to thirty -- both evangelical and mainline -- who went to church regularly in high school said they stopped attending by age 23. And more than a third of those said they had not returned, even sporadically, by age thirty.
According to a 2013 survey by the Barna Group, 65 percent of Catholic-raised young adults say they are less religiously active today than they were at age fifteen. Even as far back as 2001, a researcher at Hebrew Union College found that the percentage of Jews who had at least two religious affiliations (a synagogue, Jewish Community Center (JCC), or other Jewish organization) was only 25 percent among those ages twenty-five to thirty-four, compared to 58 percent for those sixty-five and over. A 2012 Gallup poll found that "Americans are least religious at age 23 and most religious at age 80."
As Mark Chaves, a professor at Duke University and the author of American Religion: Contemporary Trends, writes, "People in the pews are getting older." Using data from the General Social Survey, he concludes that while "older people have always been overrepresented in American congregations...this overrepresentation has been exacerbated lately." In the 1970s, people who attended church frequently were on average three years older than the general population. In 2008, there was a five-year gap. We have reached a point where "the average churchgoing adult in the United States is now 50 years old." And when young adults do walk into a congregation where middle age is the norm, it seems unlikely they'll stay.
But the real reason to wonder whether America is becoming less religious is the data on this younger generation. In 2010 the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a report called Religion among the Millennials, in which the researchers compared this generation to other generations at the same age. Their conclusion: "Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20 percent in the late 1990s) and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13 percent in the late 1970s).
Young adults also attend religious services less often than older Americans today. And compared with their elders today, fewer young people say that religion is very important in their lives." The report did find that there are certain ways in which millennials have remained "traditional" in their religious views and practices. For instance, they believe in life after death and in the reality of miracles in similar percentages to older cohorts. A similar percentage even believe with absolute certainty in the existence of God. And the percentage of this generation that prays every day is also very close to that of young people in prior decades. In the 1980s it was 41 percent; in the 1990s, 40 percent; and in the 2000s, 45 percent. But all of these measures of religiosity are extra-institutional.
Praying does not necessarily mean setting foot inside a church or a synagogue or a mosque. Believing in heaven or hell does not imply anything about a particular religious group's theology. And acknowledging God's existence does not mean that you believe the same thing about God that your coreligionists do. Or even that you have coreligionists.
Atheism has not carried the day among young adults -- at least not yet. Rather, a combination of agnosticism, a disinterest in and distrust of religious institutions (to which we shall return momentarily), and a general sense of confusion about exactly what we mean when we talk about religion and morality describes the current condition.
In his book Souls in Transition, Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith examines the data from his vast longitudinal National Study of Youth and Religion (NYSR). The study's interviews with "emerging adults" tend to show almost no power of moral reasoning and a vague inarticulateness. Smith shows how postmodernism affects the teenage worldview.
Take this all-too-typical explanation from one respondent of how one might tell right from wrong: "Morality is how I feel too, because in my heart, I could feel it. You could feel what's right or wrong in your heart as well as your mind. Most of the time, I always felt, I feel it in my heart and it makes it easier for me to morally decide what's right and wrong. Because if I feel about doing something, I'm going to feel it in my heart, and if it feels good, I'm going to do it."
Smith notes that the persistent use of "feel" instead of "think" or "argue" is "a shift in language use that expresses an essentially subjectivistic and emotivistic approach to moral reasoning and rational argument." He concludes that such young adults "are de facto doubtful that an identifiable, objective, shared reality might exist across and around all people."
This kind of reasoning, if you can call it that, doesn't generally lead people to conclude there is or is not a deity. But this stance also doesn't motivate them to find out about, let alone become a particularly involved member of, a religious community either. With no shared reality and each one of us experiencing God differently, what do we have to learn from religion? That is where the real problems seem to arise.
According to the Pew Report, only 18 percent of millennials report attending religious services weekly or nearly weekly. That's compared to 26 percent of baby boomers and 21 percent of Generation Xers at the same age. It's not a steep drop-off but it is a steady one, says Mark Chaves. "There is a long-term pattern," he says. "Each generation is a little less religiously involved than the one before it."
But there are reasons to think we may be approaching a more dramatic trend downward for religious participation. First, the age of marriage has risen rapidly -- 27 for women, 29 for men. Young adults are now spending 12 or 15 years away from their childhood religious institution before settling down. They have lost the habits of faith. Second, a lack of religious affiliation is completely socially acceptable these days. Few young adults feel pressured to do anything but sleep in on Sundays.
These two factors alone present a serious challenge to religious institutions. But one of the reasons that American religion has remained so vibrant for so long is that our religious institutions are constantly changing, ready to adapt to the influx of immigrants, different social and economic circumstances, and new technologies.
This new frontier seems more frightening in some ways. It is not just the view of some secular elite that American religion is losing ground. There is no reason for hysteria, but there is cause for concern. And religious leaders and parents aren't the only ones wringing their hands. Young adults themselves are feeling a little lost. So much of life until their twenties is scripted by parents and teachers that it is hard to know what to do when they get to be their own authors.
If it's true, as a pastor told me, that leaving college is like "jumping off a religious cliff," then religious institutions must be more than parachutes softening the fall. Ideally, they're the trampolines, propelling young people to get excited about and involved again in organized religion.
Excerpted from Got Religion?: How Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back by Naomi Schaefer Riley.