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Friday, October 13, 2006

Evangelical Teens

It seems that evangelical Christians are becoming concerned about their teens leaving the church, according to an article passed along to me from Jim Knierien, "Evangelicals Fear the Loss of Their Teenagers" on the New York Times website.[1]

I found many other instances on the web discussing the trend. As one example of the evangelical concern, Summit Ministries' website features an article on the issue[2]. In it, they say:

"Each year thousands of Evangelical high school students take the Nehemiah Institute PEERS worldview test, a survey revealing their worldview perspective regarding politics, economics, education, religion, and social issues. Every year since 1988 our Christian students have been answering those questions more and more like Humanists and less and less like Biblical Christians...

According to findings published in a UCLA dissertation, Dr. Gary Railsback notes that between 30 and 51% of Christians renounce their faith before graduating from college."

The author goes on to interpret the meaning of the study:

"That means one out of two professing Christian youth are turning their backs on the 18 years of Christian instruction from their homes and churches and embracing the atheistic ideas of their professors."

This interpretation puts the blame on the 'evil atheistic college professors'. In reality, a strong majority of college professors in the U.S. consider themselves not only spiritual, but 'religious'[3] (this is not Humanism). Furthermore, most classes never even touch on such subjects and in those that do, it is standard practice for professors not to do anything that reveals their own beliefs. More likely, contributing factors are the learning of raw facts about the world (which form foundations of our opinions), interactions with a wider variety of students and student groups with more diverse beliefs than existed in their home town, and the general inquisitive soul-searching that comes with that period in life.

It seems to me a more accurate interpretation would be that the conservative Christian mindset and worldview are based on such flimsy medieval reasoning that, for anyone not predisposed to want to believe it, all it takes is a few bits of rational argument and facts to overturn 18 years of indoctrination. You don't see the same percentage of conversion to such types of beliefs coming from people who are well educated and raised with Humanism. The reason for this has less to do with politics, culture, media, or 'evil influences' by either party than with the objective qualitative differences of reasonableness inherent within the two viewpoints - and how they each resonate within any healthy human brain, given a fair chance.

I didn't find any mention of the internet in these articles, but it seems to me that the internet will likely have a profound impact on society, including religion. I believe many of these kids raised in conservative, fundamentalist, or evangelical religious homes before went many years before ever interacting with people of other beliefs. Some out in small towns even get well into their adulthood without ever seriously examining or being exposed to alternate worldviews.

I remember asking about Buddhism as a child and getting an answer something like, "Oh that's those crazy people that worship cows and think when they die they're going to come back as dogs and chickens and so on".

But now we have young teens interacting with, reading, and learning about the viewpoints of many different worldviews, from their own mouths. This tends to have an overall effect of casting doubt over everything, which is a problem for fundamentalism. Perhaps the only way to "protect" their children from that evil 'doubt' will be for evangelicals to become extreme isolationists, similar to the Amish. I wouldn't be surprised if we see some small branch of this develop over the next few decades, but I digress.

Concerning this generation of teens, we should wonder how many will return to evangelical Christianity once they have children or grow older? I would expect some recidivism. Right now, these teen beliefs are residual, based only on exposure to a variety of contradictory views and typical teen rebelliousness. As humanistic as their beliefs may tend to be, most have never heard of Humanism per se. If Humanists hope for this trend to remain intact, they'll need to reach out to these young people and make sure their beliefs are informed by Humanist principles and philosophy, and not merely based on rejection of something else.

I have recently thought of writing something I plan to call "12 Things All Conservative Christian Teens Should Know", which might be helpful to teens (I hope). It will be in a very informal conversational style, not too long, and should be an easy read. I have all 12 things in mind, but haven't written it yet, so I think I'll save the details for now.


  1. To be fair to the evangelicals, I think up to a certain point they're correct, though I think it has less to do with systematic liberalism on the part of professors (though again to be fair, I think that is a little part of it), as much as the devolution of constraints that "college life" puts these young people in the midst of. Frankly, casual sex and recreationally getting drunk/high will have more of an allure for a lot of these young people than "staying faithful" will. The justifications/rationalizations will come later.

    I think it's a little "pie in the sky" to assume that the defections being cited are due to these young people becoming "more enlightened". I'm saddened to say "losing one's faith" in this or that religion usually has little to do with "seeing the light" (for most people) as much as it has to do with the heart being tugged in different directions. IOW. the reasons for losing faith are often much like those for arriving at it to begin with - fundamentally arationale (but easily argued for and justified after the fact.)

    Indeed, broadly speaking I think this is true of most of what we do as human beings, whether we call it "religion" or not. We're far more impulsive and Dionysian than we'd care to admit - our web of nerves already having it's "mind" made up, with our conscious mind playing a slightly delayed game of catch-up.


  2. Those are excellent points Timothy. I can't really disagree. I think sometimes, because I went through a conscious and deliberate exploration of my beliefs during college, and then based my actions off of my conclusions, I forget that most people don't do this.

    Still, I wouldn't think it's *all* just giving in to temptations either. Rather, I think it's a general sort of impression that they get when exposed to all these things - something like, "well, maybe mom and dad didn't have it all figured out after all" even if they don't consciously think that. For something like that, all it takes is merely seeing a person they know is called by some other faith, living their daily life and getting along fine.

    I'm guessing the difference between those who change because of concepts and ideas and those who do it out of temptation or rebellion, is probably somewhat related to the number we'll see later on returning to evangelical Christianity.

  3. why WOLDNT they leave?? once they see the REAL world and see they have been brainwashed with a pack of lies and myths and fables, there is NO reason to believe in such garbage.
    If truth was TAUGHT they would continue in their beliefs. but you teach them LIES and MYTHS. from that book of filth called the bible its only human nature to leave and find what the greatness of god is outside of distorted dogma
    freedom comes from WITHIN . NOT from the external bondage of religious dogma. its inherent in a person to search TRUTH and NOT live a life based on tradition based in ignorance and what some one ELSE calls TRUTH .

  4. DT,

    Yes, I think I may have spoke a little too strongly. I do think that even for the "unwashed masses" (my daily moment of snobbery), the more "open" space provided by higher education is not simply one populated by loose men and women and chemical bliss, but also one which does provide a kind of multiplicity of perspectives which they'd been previously unfamiliar with.

    I suppose all I was saying (being the killjoy at heart that I am) is that it's quite rare that a person's motives are not incredibly mixed.

    Though, to look at things from a not-so-desparing perspective... I'm not sure those "mixed motives" are always invalid (including their less savory bits.) I mean, it begs the question...if one's convictions can be killed by a few keggers and a naughty girlfriend, perhaps they were not so deeply rooted after all?


  5. Haha, perhaps not. Another good point Timothy :)

  6. I get the vague feeling Jung said something (or at least one of his modern day disciples, who I was hearing a little lecture from) to the effect that despite what people may say, their real "gods" (in terms of what they truly desire and serve) are manifest in their actions. I suppose that goes back to what Jesus said about "God or Mammon". I'd say this is especially relevent to the case of American evangelical youth, because despite the message of their religious leaders and supportive parents and/or peers, they do not escape (and neither do their parents or peers) the larger culture and it's "civic religion". This is why, I think, when they leave the nest (and no longer have the previously mentioned supports) they so often end up like everyone else.

    Of course there are exceptions to all of this...but I suppose we're not talking about them.

  7. Thanks for the comment Anomymous. That sounds reasonably accurate to me as well.