The Fall of Religion in the Millennial West

One of the most important demographic changes, in recent times, is the rise of the ‘nones’ in Western society. These are a group of people who refuse to identify themselves with any mainstream religious group or denomination. A 2012 article, by the Pew Research Center, noted that “[o]ne-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today” and “[i]n the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%)”. If we look at certain Western European countries and even in some parts of Eastern Europe, the numbers will undoubtedly be higher.

Why is this happening? Why are young people increasingly disassociating themselves from organised religion, especially in what can only be fittingly described as a post-Christian society?

There are four main reasons which I put forward, all of which can be summed up in a single sentence: Christianity – and, especially, Catholicism - has lost its credibility in the minds of our youth.

1: The Dominant Historical Narrative

Each one of us has heard it sometime or the other. The popular narrative runs thus: human society began well and reached summits of excellence and achievement, especially in the classical age. But when Christianity came, all that progress and achievement, as well as the scientific impulse, came to an end and was effectively destroyed. For centuries, the West was embroiled in a quagmire of oppressive feudalism and religious intolerance, in which free-thinkers were labelled heretics and persecuted fiercely. This was called the Dark Ages, and rightly so, because human civilisation was truly held in captivity in the darkness of religious bigotry and superstition. All of this was the case, until the time of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment when, finally, we were able to break free of the chains of theocracy and emerge into the bright new world, to build our future for ourselves.

At least, that is how countless millennials understand the Medieval period. It is certainly the way history is taught in our schools, and thus the way many millennials understand this era.

Added to this is the stigma of the Crusades and the Inquisitions, both of which are believed to be butcheries of human life and liberty based on religious (and especially Catholic) dogmatism and fanaticism. Fresh in the mind of many of our fellow millennials is the Galileo Affair, in which – it is believed – the geocentric Catholics tried to murder the heliocentric Galileo for the crime of trying to think rationally and not superstitiously.

Much of this narrative, however, is myopic, and fails to take into account the various other factors which were at play. But, unfortunately for people like me, many of my fellow millennials believe this to be the Gospel truth. And naturally, it has distanced them from a religion which, they are convinced, is responsible for stifling human civilisation and progress.

2: The Widening Gap Between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith

Dan Brown is one of the most popular fiction authors in the world today. I have had the chance of reading parts of his books, and have found his style to be most engaging. However, Brown is more than your average thriller writer. Thanks to books like The Da Vinci Code, Brown has managed to bring the ‘Lost Gospels’ to the forefront of public discourse. And boy, has it fired the imagination of the masses.

What people like Brown have managed to do is convince the populace – and especially the youth – that there is big difference between the Jesus of Catholicism and the actual Jesus whom we read about in works like the Gospel of Peter and Phillip, for example. He has also managed to alert people regarding the issue of the Biblical canon; why are these four Gospels part of the Bible and not others? Why has the Church chosen to only highlight these particular narratives and declare others heretical?

The way information is put out in books such as these has convinced countless many that in the very early history of Christianity, there emerged a power-hungry faction which sought to glorify their own theology at the expense of others. We are told that there was not one but several ‘Christianities’ in the beginning. But one faction – which today exists as the Catholic Church – gained ascendancy and, with quite a bit of patronage from Romam Emperor Constantine, persecuted the other factions.

This adds to the impression that today’s youth already has regarding the Christian faith and leaves them with a deep distrust towards anything related to Catholicism.

3: The Rise of Philosophical Naturalism and Postmodern Nihilism

Everyone looks at the world through a set of lenses. We all operate with basic metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions. However, in recent times, especially in universities, a particular philosophical perspective has been put forward vociferously, and other points of view have largely been isolated and marginalized.

I, for a while, was an undergraduate philosophy student at a well-respected university in India. And what I encountered from my professors was not a careful treatment of the various opposing perspectives but rather open and brazen bias, especially when it came to the philosophy of religion.

What young undergraduates are consistently taught is that the arguments for the existence of God – as put forward by people like Augustine, Aquinas, Leibniz and others – are all extremely poor and fallacious bits of reasoning which can be so easily debunked that one wonders how such eminent men came to such bizarre conclusions. We are also told that these people were motivated by their own personal religious beliefs, and sought to back them up the best they could. What remained was a set of arguments that would only convince people who already had faith.

At least, that is the dominant narrative in philosophical academia.

And young philosophers usually accept this without question, without delving deeper into the works of Augustine and Aquinas to see if this is indeed true. Most of them don’t bother to later study the philosophy of religion, but rather end up specialising in other fields. And so what they uncritically accept as true in their early years, they end up carrying throughout life. And it is in this way that a consistent naturalist philosophical narrative has been built up over time.

Of course, this has led our young people to be extremely skeptical of any supernatural claims and has, therefore, led them to the conclusion that this world is all there is.

An interesting development happening simultaneously is the rise of postmodernism. This is entirely different from the dogmatic atheism I have just described. Rather, this is a dogmatic rejection of all dogmatism, an objective denial of all objectivity. It is a position some might characterise as absurd, but this appellation is readily embraced by some of its vociferous proponents.

Postmodernism is basically summed up in three maxims: “Truth is what you make of it. Morality is what you shape of it. God is Who you think He/She/It is.”

In many ways, this attitude is the product of the younger generation’s exposure to other cultures, viewpoints and ways of thinking. Young people see heated debates in which scholars on both sides put forward their cases and state their opinions, each backing themselves up with copious argumentation. They see different religions and ways of life, entirely different from the ones they had been exposed to. And having no strong rational grounds to support the religion of their upbringing, they naturally come to the conclusion that ‘man is the measure of all things’.

This understanding of life is indeed very attractive since it promises a kind of godhood. One is free to shape one’s reality and one’s destiny as one sees it. One is free to identify as whatever one pleases and be whoever one wishes to be. Above all, one is liberated from the shackles of dogmatism, free to believe whatever they wish to believe.

Naturally, anyone addicted to this euphoria of freedom will find organised religion, with all its creeds and ancient affirmations, very unattractive indeed.

4: The Transformation of Culture

This is perhaps the most important and significant of all, since it strikes not merely at our intellect but also at our emotions. The cultural elite of the West are working very hard to change and transform culture. They do this through books, films, magazines and mass media.

For example: Imagine that you have grown up in a very conservative society, your parents told you that the right thing to do was to dress modestly, especially in front of the opposite sex. What happens when you are constantly exposed to pictures of men and women in states of partial or complete undress, when you can hardly go to the movies or even switch on a television without coming across some scene or advertisement that is either sexually explicit or has strong sexual themes, that too being performed by men and women who are great artists whom you admire?

Naturally, your perception is going to shift. You would in all likelihood rather imitate your heroes and role models rather than your parents, in this case. And in all probability, your friends have similar attitudes in this regard.

All of these factors come together and compound in such a way that it is possible to change views about something as fundamental as human sexuality across the course of a generation! Changing one’s views on sexual ethics is nothing more and nothing less than a paradigm shift. Instead of being something that is sacred and to be enjoyed within the context of marriage in a reproductively responsible manner, young people are offered the alluring option of ‘sex with no strings attached’. Rather than being the self-giving expression of commitment and love between two spouses (as Christians have traditionally believed), it has become a ‘casual’ affair. It is, therefore, no wonder that our young people are losing their faith in traditional Christianity.

Popular music has played an inestimable role in detaching young people from the Christian faith. Young people see singers who are clearly extraordinarily talented, beloved by all their friends and peer groups, and who sing songs that contain themes that are clearly contrary to Christian faith and morals, in more ways than one. Naturally, over time, one comes to favour one’s friend groups rather than one’s parents and one begins to side with the more secularising culture rather than traditional ways of living.

Now, I am a millennial myself. But I am not your average millennial. In fact, I am a convert to the Catholic Church, having come from a liberal Hindu background myself. I am the black sheep, so to speak, of this modern and enlightened generation. What causes me to remain traditional and Catholic? Why don’t I simply join the great secular bus and enjoy all the many benefits its offers? Why do I remain in the shadows and willingly disassociate myself from much of the modern world and even isolate myself, at times, enjoying but a few friends?

The reasons are endless, but I will summarise it in a few brief points.

First of all, it is my firmest conviction that the conventional narrative about the Dark Ages is thoroughly erroneous, and in fact holds little water in academic circles, thank God. This view of the Medieval Church as an oppressive, science-persecuting religion has been increasingly discredited in modern times, not least by the excellent work of the Pulitzer-Prize winning Rodney Stark who, although himself a non-Catholic, has taken it upon himself to work towards exonerating the Catholic Church from baseless myths and lies, as can be seen in his work Bearing False Witness.

Moreover, this idea that the Church persecuted scientists fails to take into account the immense contributions the Church made to science, in the Middle Ages and after as well. It is true that Galileo was persecuted – on charges of heresy. But what is left unmentioned is that Copernicus’s heliocentrism fascinated the Pope of his time, who spoke highly of him on numerous occasions. What is also conveniently left out is the devoutly Christian spirit of the countless intellectuals across the course of history who laid the foundations of modern science, believing that their study and analysis of the natural world was a kind of worship of God.

What are we then left with? Is there no future for religion in the West?

Religion will survive. The Church will always be there in the West, even if it is weakened and marginalised. Popular culture and the mass media already brand the Christian faith as regressive. It is perhaps only a matter of time before popular opinion turns into political legislation.

But the Church will survive. It always has.

Not only that, it has found a new homeland. As the West continues to go down this slippery slope and continues to schism itself from its Christian roots, the great African continent has already opened its arms wide open, in welcome of the Gospel and the Church.

Soham Gupta

I believe that the relentless pursuit of truth is the most exalted goal a person could possibly strive for. And the truth, as far as I have experienced it, has only made me zealous for the greater glory of God.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.