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Passing on faith traditions from generation to generation has probably never been easy, but some social scientists say it's never been harder than it is today.
According to a Pew Foundation report from 2010, one in four members of the millenial generation — Americans aged 18-29 — are unaffiliated with any particular faith. That's significantly higher than members of Generation X were in their 20s and twice as unaffiliated as members of the Baby Boom generation.
And why is that? Thomas Groome, a professor and author of "Will There Be Faith?", says it's because we lack the tools to make religion relevant to our lives today.
Will there be faith in tomorrow's world. And why should it matter to us today?
- Thomas Groome, professor of Theology and Religious Education; chair, Department of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry, Boston College's School of Theology and Ministry
Will There Be Faith (PDF)
By Thomas H. Groome
There are lots of empirical data that mainline religions in the United States are not doing so well with their religious education. Even among churches that seem to have some success in retaining their youth, the research indicates that their young people’s faith often reflects a “moralistic therapeutic deism” rather than authentic Christianity. They embrace a “nice guy” image of a God who comforts and consoles, is called upon only as needed, and makes no real demands on their daily living other than that they “be good, nice, and fair to each other.”
For my own Catholic community, all the statistics indicate a significant falling away from the practice of faith. The latest report from the Pew Forum indicates that there are as many as 30 million “former” Catholics in the United States. Though the American Catholic population appears to remain stable, this is only because of immigration from the Southern Hemisphere. The Pew survey also reveals that all mainline Christian denominations are losing their youth and young adults at an alarming rate; however, the one suffering the greatest losses is the Catholic community. Rather than jumping to easy explanations or playing the blame game, however, let us first recognize that these are extraordinarily difficult times for faith on earth.
Beyond the virulent “new atheists,” there are more subtle social and cultural influences at work that actively discourage faith. The brilliant social philosopher Charles Taylor explains how the Western world once had sociocultural conditions that favored religious belief, even required it. A nonbeliever in a village might bring the wrath of God on everyone, so the village required all its members to believe and practice their faith. Up until about 1800 and for most people, ours was an “enchanted world” in which faith in God and belief in a spiritual realm pervaded daily life. Except among elites, the notion of atheism was unknown. A strong corporate identity among ordinary people disposed all to believe because the community believed. The social conditions greatly favored faith.
Taylor makes a convincing argument, however, that ours is a “secular age” in which the sociocultural conditions now actively discourage faith. For a great variety of reasons, we have become “disenchanted” in the sense of not seeing the religious and spiritual as suffusing public or private life or as necessary for keeping evil forces at bay, for legitimating the civil authority, or for human flourishing. Insofar as most people advert to God at all, they do so more in the form of “therapeutic deism,” referred to above, in which God is not unlike our childhood Santa Claus. Taylor contends that instead of relying on religious faith as the foundation of life, as it was in pre-modern times, postmodern society has embraced an “exclusive humanism,” exclusive in that it leaves out any reference to God as needed for living humanly. Instead, it encourages self- sufficiency and “expressive individualism” as the fulfillment of our human potential, without any reference to transcendent sources, values, or hopes.
In the face of such sociocultural challenges, there are some strong restorationist sentiments in my Catholic context, in other words, a nostalgia for and an attempt to return to old ways. In religious education for example, the sentiment is loud (more than large) to “just teach the catechism” or some such doctrinaire presentation of the Faith. Many imagine that returning to the memorized question-and-answer format that dominated Catholic catechesis for some four hundred years will restore people’s faith commitment. Neuroscientists have established, however, that memorized data have little lasting effect on people’s values or identity over time. Meanwhile, values and identity are the central concerns of faith communities. Although there is a place for memorizing core prayers, texts of scripture, formulas of faith, and moral codes, regressing to a question-and-answer catechism—or to any doctrinaire didaction of Christian faith—would leave our next state worse than this one.
Instead, what is urgently needed is a comprehensive approach to religious education that is effective in the context of our time and user- friendly for both teachers and parents. Will There Be Faith? attempts to propose as much.
Excerpted from WILL THERE BE FAITH? by Thomas H. Groome. Copyright © 2011 by Thomas H. Groome. Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.
This segment aired on September 6, 2011.
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