On religious doubt in younger generations
“Well, I guess I picked the right topic.”
That was one of my thoughts when I first saw this research from Ryan Burge on the rise of religious doubt in younger generations. But it’s hardly the most important one.
My next book (out this Fall) deals partly with that very topic: the crisis of faith experienced especially by young adults within our polarized times. Though I argue that some of the ways both doubt and faith are spoken of in Christian circles can do more harm than good.
Coming back to Burge, respondents were asked whether they believed in God’s existence “with no doubts.” (I could go on here about how this is not a question that the Bible cares much about, but let’s skip to the results.) Older generations remained relatively stable and certain across time. Meanwhile, millennials and Gen Z showed a significant decline.
Now, if you’ve followed this blog very long, you know I dislike sweeping generational generalizations (e.g., Millennials are like this… .”), especially when those claims are used to cast aspersions on a diverse swath of humans across different cultural, economic, geographic, and ethnic backgrounds. (See here for one of my old rants on the subject.)
But Burge isn’t doing that. And the research raises some important questions. Of course, for one segment of the evangelical internet (aka: where fun goes to die), it might be used to justify the kind “hell-in-a-handbasket” fear-mongering that is used to fuel the culture wars and generational superiority: People better wake up, etc., etc., something about participation trophies…
But to be honest, I unfollowed those people a long time ago.
Here are few random queries I had after seeing these statistics:
1. What percentage of supposedly “doubt-free” belief amongst older generations connects to a confusion between saving faith and the profession of mental certainty?
In Perhaps, I write about a misunderstanding regarding what the Bible means by “doubt”—at least as it appears in our modern English translations. In most cases, the Scriptures don’t decry honest questions or uncertainty. Rather, they confront the cultivation of divided loyalties and allegiances in those passages that are seen to speak of “doubt.”
I don’t have time for all the biblical data here, but suffice it to say that some Christians have been led to believe that if we admit to doubts, we are essentially saying that we don’t have “saving/healing/bank-account enriching faith.” Not so. This idolization of absolute certainty probably has more to do with the Enlightenment and folks like Descartes than it does with Jesus and Bible.
What’s more, a conflation between faith and certitude leads to a whole host of problems including gullibility, arrogance, and dishonesty. After all, to say that one has no doubts about a mysterious and unseen God is to risk violating the command that says, “Thou shalt not lie.”
A better option, as A. J. Swoboda rightly notes, is that doubt should be neither vilified or valorized in and of itself.
2. What percentage of youthful doubt is resolved with laugh lines and male pattern baldness?
In other words, do humans (on average) tend to progress from a season of unsettling doubt to more firm convictions?
It seems possible that some of us undergo a period of more intense questioning (say, between our teens and middle age), while gradually moving to more settled opinions around the time we start getting wrinkles, bald spots, and colonoscopies.
I don’t think this “ageing out” interpretation accounts for all (or even most) of Burge’s data. Still, it would be interesting to know more about some of these older respondents in, say, the 1960s or 70s. Last I checked, Woodstock wasn’t an apologetics conference.
3. How much doubt amongst millennials and Gen Z is driven partly by the partisan dogmatism of certain evangelicals?
In Perhaps, my subtitle speaks of “Reclaiming the Space between Doubt and Dogmatism.”
By that latter term, I describe a confluence of characteristics among many of the most visible evangelical spokesmen (I almost changed that to “spokespersons” but that would be inaccurate). Namely,
- A tone of partisan shrillness
- A posture of false certainty
From Jerry Falwell Jr., to Mark Driscoll, to whatever small-time COVID-denier pastor that CNN loves to elevate—doubt is often driven as a reaction to an un-Christlike dogmatism. In Perhaps, I speak of this as “fringe revulsion” and “team shaming.”
To be clear, religious fundamentalists haven’t cornered the market on dogmatic shrillness and false certainty. There are dogmatic forms of secular Liberalism that are every bit as strident. For that reason, I suggest that one of the best ways to wrestle through seasons of doubt is NOT by binge reading a stack of New Atheists in the morning alongside some simplistic or rationalistic apologetic literature at night.
Rather, the Spirit often works on our “split brains” (more on that in the book…) by virtue of embodied habits, healthy community, ancient voices, and a willingness to cling to Jesus in spite of our many questions. In that way, folks of all generations can pass through the wilderness doubt rather assuming “deconstruction” is a destination.
You can pre-order my new book here; but just to prove that I’m not merely hocking my own “products”—here is another excellent one by A. J. Swoboda. (I’ve got a podcast interview with him coming soon; so stay tuned!)
Grace and peace.
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Want to support this blog? Here are some other things I’ve written:
- Perhaps: Reclaiming the Space between Doubt and Dogmatism (IVP Academic, 2021).
- Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements (Seedbed, 2018)
- The Mosaic of Atonement: An Integrated Approach to Christ’s Work (Zondervan Academic, 2019)
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