Gen D

Gen D

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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The trouble with millennial bashing (A response to Simon Sinek)

The trouble with millennial bashing (A response to Simon Sinek)

Recently, my social media feed was practically glutted with recommendations to watch the latest viral rant about “millennials”—that amorphous population blob between age fourteen and thirty-four.

This group is supposedly recognized by their armloads of participation trophies, their entitlement, and their helicopter parents.

This particular installment comes from Simon Sinek, and it has received around four million views.

Because I am eager to encounter insights that have been described as “Yes!” and “Boom!” I watched the video.

It’s easy to see why it caught fire.

Sinek is witty, well-spoken, and has smart-guy glasses.

But while he makes a couple of fairly obvious points (like: social media can be addicting <Now share this in-no-way ironic insight from a viral video>), I had a different reaction than did “Yes!” and “Boom!”

Apparently, I was not the only one (see here; NSFC).

THE CLAIMS

For Sinek (pun intended?), the problem with people born between 1982 and 2002 is that they were given lots of participation medals, and as a result, this self-esteem parenting has given them an insatiable desire for—in Sinek’s words—“beanbags” and “free food.”

In short, millennials are lazy and entitled.

And when the world doesn’t match their “Lo-Fi” Instagram filter, they become impatient and depressed–which makes them difficult to manage.

But don’t worry, Sinek sells books and courses that can teach you how to get more out of such lazy, narcissistic, and developmentally “Lo-Fi” people.

RESPONSE

To be fair, not all of Sinek’s claims are baseless.

So it would be wrong to follow the “crowd-pounding” of millennials with the crowd-pounding of Simon Sinek.

Some millennials are lazy, entitled, and surgically attached to smartphones.

I know: I’m a college professor.

In the words of a colleague:

“You are entitled to your opinion, but your opinion is a C minus.”

Some are even so surrounded by viral videos that they think success comes by becoming a YouTube sensation who plays fast and loose with data. It’s weird; I don’t know where they get it.

In sum, the trouble is not that the allegations against millennials are totally wrong, it’s that they are exaggerated and oversimplified.

In Sinek’s case, the flaws are masked by wit and supported by completely unsubstantiated appeals to things like “science” and “research.” And the glasses.

In my view, the problems are threefold:

  1. Wild generalizations,
  2. A bogus boogieman in the form of “participation trophies,”
  3. And a not-so-subtle marketing approach that succeeds by validating attitudes of superiority that are (ironically) similar to the faults discerned within millennials.

I’ll tackle these in order.

  1. THE TROUBLE WITH “GENERA(TIONA)LIZING”

            “All generalizations are false; including this one” (~Mark Twain).

Imagine if someone started a sentence with “You know what’s wrong with black people… [or Asians, or Jews, or the elderly].”

Then imagine that they proceeded to give a ridiculously reductionist answer like “they all want X.”

The trouble with such sweeping stereotypes is not just that they’re offensive, it’s that they’re wrong in many cases. You need actual data to make claims like this.

One cannot speak of millions of people, born in different regions, in different decades, under different economic conditions, to different parents with the tagline that “they want beanbags and free food.”

When dealing with runaway generalizations, one useful exercise is to look at what is being assumed. What face is Sinek putting on millennials?

Based on the description, his portrait is a child of privilege, showered with parental compliments (i.e. continually told that she was special), and ferried about to numerous after-school activities in which medals were awarded for participation.

Picture a Chevy Tahoe, orange slices, and a nice house in the suburbs.

And while this certainly describes some millennials, I’ve known just as many who struggled for nearly OPPOSITE reasons (And some who don’t struggle at all).

Some millennials were born poor, rarely heard words of affirmation, never knew a loving dad, and were rarely able to participate in activities that didn’t involve a television or the struggling schools tasked with fixing all manner of parental and societal shortcomings.

In fact, Sinek’s “millennial” looks strangely like himself: a reasonably affluent white kid with cool glasses and a bizarre beanbag fixation.

It is as if he looks into the deep well of culture, sees a distorted reflection of his own face, and calls it “millennials.”

I’d say look again; and this time leave the suburbs.

Now for the bogus boogieman:

  1. THE DREADED TROPHIES 

Participation medals are silly.

Lots of people think so.

So decrying them takes about as much courage as yelling “Yankees suck!” at a Red Sox home game. “That’s right Hahvey; Derak Jetah’s a bum!!!” 

It’s red meat.

But while the golden knick-knacks may be silly, they are not the major reason why some millennials are struggling to find jobs and pay off student loan debt.

The millennials I know (myself included) don’t even recall receiving the dreaded trophies. And if we did, they were likely lost beneath the minivan seats before we got home.

To explode the absurdity, Mark Hill recalls his reaction to one of these shiny little WMDs:

My response was not “Well, clearly I’m going to be handed a six-figure job as an adult.” It was “Neat, a trophy! Now I’m going to go back to thinking about Pokemon or farts, because I am a child.” [As] I got older, eventually only the teams that won were rewarded. This did not shock and sadden us — it was what we expected, and wanted, because we were actually capable of observing adult society, and we noticed that pro sports teams weren’t handed many trophies for constantly losing.

To blame a plastic trinket for the loss of a generation is like blaming the 2008 financial collapse on an ill-chosen Happy Meal toy (probably the Hamburgler; he totally normalized greed).

Participation medals are like Vin Diesel movies, Jar-Jar Binks, and men with bangs: they’re absurd, but they are not among our biggest evils.

The trouble is that we crave simplistic answers to complex problems. So along comes a pitchman, or a demagogue, to say:

  • “It’s the Jews!”
  • “It’s the rich people!”
  • “It’s the ab-roller for five minutes!”

It’s not. It’s really not.

And while Sinek bases his case on vague appeals to “science” and “clear research” Hill refutes this also:

It took me five seconds to find science that says the exact opposite. [So] maybe, just maybe, giving a kid a plastic knickknack when they’re eight doesn’t forever shape their psyche.

Now for the biggest problem:

  1. “FIRST, REMOVE THE [TROPHY] FROM YOUR OWN EYE” 

The most insidious issue with millennial-bashing has to do with a not-so-subtle marketing technique: the validation of self-righteous attitudes in the land of “Yes!” and “Boom!”

“God thank you that I am not like those people” (Lk. 18.11), I don’t even like beanbags.

Ironically, this sense of “special-ness” is quite similar to the fault decried within millennials. Funny how that works.

It is as if we all have a satisfied smirk while failing to notice that there’s a trophy sticking out of our own eye.

This happens in two ways:

First, there is the reaction of an older generation that sees the rant as validation: “I walked to school uphill both ways, and these spoiled brats get trophies.” This is nothing new. Every generation sees the next as upending everything. But the accusation is especially rich when coming from the children of the 1960s.

Second, it’s worth noting that many people laughing with Sinek are millennials themselves (see video). And for us (since, again, I technically am one), the pride comes from knowing that we are not like our peers. We’re better. “I sit on a real chair; I pay for my food; I drive a Dodge Stratus!”

Either way, such rants inculcate a sense of self-righteous superiority over a population that is not exactly what Sinek makes it out to be.

CONCLUSION

So yes, entitlement does need to be quashed.

And we can thank Sinek for reminding us.

But it doesn’t happen best by caricature and mockery devoid of data.

Believe me; I’ve tried.