Torah Musings has an article by Rabbi Joshua Berman about why young people are leaving religion. Of course you can blame the internet (which he does), but that’s not all. During the last century, societies around the world have undergone massive changes. In the article, Berman identifies four "core values" (his term) of young people that lead them to leave religion: (1) Choice and tolerance, (2) complexity, uncertainty and doubt, (3) individual expression and (4) reduced regard for hierarchy and authority. I am not a social scientist or any authority on the topic, but I am a young person and I have seen many of my friends and family leave religion, so I would like to offer my perspective on the topic.
I think he is correct about choice being a major factor for people abandoning religion. Never before has society as a whole been as tolerant of different choices. We live in democracies with freedom of speech. Religion and state are separated. Mainstream frowns on people who say there is only one correct way to live. We are performance-oriented instead of status-oriented, where you come from is less important than what you can do. For the first time ever, leaving your social group is manageable and might not even be that hard (provided you grow up in a culture that’s not completely isolated from the mainstream and you have the skills mainstream culture presupposes). Of course there’s still discrimination and unequal opportunities, but society as a whole strives to abolish them. And when it is ok for others to be different, why not be different yourself? Why not abandon the things you don’t find meaningful if you can still keep your job, your friends and everything else? And I don’t think this is a bad thing. It is bad to keep people just because they cannot leave. It cannot be what G-d wants.
I am not sure individual expression is that relevant a factor for people leaving religion. The concept of individuality is not new in our time and age, it emerged in Europe already during Renaissance. It is true that individuality and self-realization is important for young people today. And yes, if you are in a sect that completely frowns on any self-expression that’s outside the prescribed box, you will want to leave. But young people don’t leave because services are the same every day or the same holidays are celebrated or it’s a group experience not something individual. They leave because they cannot find meaning or relevance for their lives in the services, because they don’t understand the language, because religion is taught in a way that completely misses the point they are looking for. We don’t have to personalize religion to appeal to young people. We have to make it meaningful.
The other two points (complexity, uncertainty and doubt and reduced regard for hierarchy and authority) belong together for me. We have access to vast amounts of knowledge through the internet. We are encouraged to think for ourselves and question everything. Plus, as said above, society has opened up, we are not concerned with status so much. With the natural consequence that we just don’t do X because somebody tells us to. We ask why. And if the answer is not satisfying or can be proven wrong with a simple internet search, why should we do X? But that’s a good thing! Blindly following authority hasn’t produced humanity’s greatest achievements. Real authority can deal with questions. Real teachers don’t see it as a threat when their students doubt what they are saying, they see an opportunity to grow. In the long run, intelligent questions and dealing with complexity will make religion better.
I have more to say, but this post is long enough already. So I will turn to what we can do to prevent people from leaving in my next post.