The Pew Center, one of the most respected survey and research centers in America, has consistently explored the impact of religion on American society.
The center recently looked at the effect of a higher education on religious belief and observance in America. It found that a higher education — college and beyond — leads to less religious commitment. The study focused on three criterion:
▪ belief in God
▪ how often people pray
▪ how people feel regarding the importance of religion in their lives.
Alternatively, the survey also found that Americans with higher education degrees report attending their worship services the same amount as folks with less education than a college degree.
What does it all mean? Does the study suggest that the more formal education people have, the less interest they have in religion? Are we to assume that Millennials have less interest in religion because they have a college degree? Is this another one of those studies that predicts the decline of religion in America?
We already know that America’s secular culture is often pitted against religion in American society. Of course, people in college broaden their horizons and read literature and philosophers who challenge our traditional way of thinking about God. Undoubtedly this is going to impact our thinking about religion.
Technology also becomes a substitute for the mystery of the universe rather than God. The diversity of our society alone is another reason why married couples from different religious traditions may ultimately decide to distance themselves from religious institutions. Some of these couples choose to disaffiliate from their respective religions to keep peace in their marriage. In effect, religion becomes collateral damage in a much broader discussion about how young people — with or without college degrees — are going to make a go of it.
Let’s not forget that religions have different ways of understanding and defining belief in God. Many religious studies programs exist on campuses today that provide a scholarly and historical perspective about the world’s religions that students could never receive inside their congregations. These schools often report that their most popular and heavily attended classes are the religious classes. Yet, these kinds of courses often lead students to rethink their own commitments. Is that a bad thing that stifles religious aspirations or is it part of a phase that young people go through in their evolving into adulthood?
It is important to note that young people grow in their understanding about the importance of religion in their lives. Aging and raising children eventually brings many back to a new understanding about religion that they did not have before.
Religion does undergo a challenge in the world of ideas in a democratic society. People can make choices to convert to other faiths or simply drop out of their familial faith tradition. Religious institutions and clergy should not shy away from addressing the issues of religion in the public square, particularly when it comes to the most important issues of the day. I say this because these are the times when young adults and burgeoning families are looking for a community of like minded people. A college education has taught them to question traditional doctrines and practices, not just in religion but also in many other aspects of life. Is questioning a bad thing? Should religious faith prohibit adherents from challenging their minds and their hearts with regard to long-standing beliefs and traditions? Does a person of deep faith have the right to question or even challenge one’s own faith without being branded as a heretic?
If we have learned anything about religion in a modern world it is one cannot rest on the laurels of one’s religious history.
The truth is that people and religions, in order to be relevant, must continually reevaluate and sometimes even reinvent themselves, including their policies and practices. Times change and events such as an economic depression, war or social injustice can and will influence young people in deciding whether to affiliate with a religion.
Ecclesiastes wrote: “What advantage does a man have in all his work which he does under the sun? A generation goes and a generation comes but the earth remains forever.”
Religion must contend with each generation’s way of understanding its purpose and mission in the world. Nothing is above this generation’s ability to question. That is a reality which adherents to the status quo should acknowledge if religion is going to be relevant for young adults — with or without a college degree — and future generations.