Young People Chasing Atheism? The Breakdown of Modern Religion!

While I disagree, I have a respect for rational atheism, because there is a cogent argument that can be made for evolution, humans existing alone, no afterlife, and an enlightened secular lifestyle. Sadly, atheists, like Jews, have long suffered for their inherent beliefs. Even today, according to a report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, fifty-five nations outlaw “blasphemy.” Ironically, Russia, which in the Soviet period was the world’s most overt atheist state, now supports its Orthodox Christian church by criminalizing blasphemy. In the Islamic world, “apostasy” is outlawed in nineteen countries, and 13 Islamic states have made blasphemy or apostasy a capital offense. About a dozen countries also have laws that can take away the citizenship of atheists and deny them the right to marry. Even in the United States, supposedly a nation where religious beliefs (or lack thereof) are themselves sacred, Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas still retain (unenforceable) laws on the books barring atheists from holding public office. In the 21st century, religious leaders around the world continue to fear and persecute atheists rather than respectfully engage them. Why is there so much fear and anger toward those who arrive at different intellectual and spiritual conclusions?

The notion that holding atheistic beliefs is antithetical to the American ideal is long-held. Thomas Paine, whose eighteenth-century pamphlets “Common Sense” and “The American Crisis” helped create and sustain the American Revolution, was a committed secularist. Whether out of conviction or because he felt he had to say it, Paine wrote that he was a monotheist. Nevertheless, he emphatically rejected all organized religion. Still, his moral convictions reflected a common bond with many devout religious reformers: “I believe that religious duties,” he wrote in Age of Reason, “consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy….My own mind is my own church.” Yet, in spite of Paine’s efforts to raise moral awareness during the American and French revolutions (unlike most of the other Founding Fathers his strong opposition to slavery as early as 1775), he would later purportedly be dismissed as that “filthy little atheist” by none other than President Theodore Roosevelt.

Despite having an understanding of an atheism and secularism from a rationalist’s perspective, I don’t, however, have a respect for lazy atheism nor, for that matter, lazy religion. Today, many people without a well-defined philosophy of atheism turn in that direction nonetheless. As a fervent “believer,” I feel that a relationship with the Divine has an enormous amount to offer and that we are failing many who are seeking for that relationship. Today, only about 1.5 to 4 percent of Americans admit to being “hard atheists.” A much larger number (around 20 percent), have embraced skepticism and have completely moved away from organized religion. These so-called “Nones” (those committed to no faith) are the fastest growing “religious” group in America in comparison to the growth of any other faith. They seem to be fleeing religious communities more than they are running toward other forms of enlightenment. Could the religious institutions themselves be at fault for this phenomenon?

Part of the mistake may indeed be religious institutions, especially ones that Christian sociologist David Kinnaman writes are “not safe and hospitable places to express doubts” (You Lost Me, 11). He argues that young Americans today value skepticism, choice, and personal expression and want to steer clear of hierarchies, certainties, and identity barriers that may lead to intolerance. Can 21st century religious communities embrace these needs while maintaining their norms and cherished values?

Alternatively, this phenomenon could be attributed to the fact that religious leaders have too drastically moved to the political extreme, expecting to win cause for their moral pursuits. In doing so, those members many who may be centrists or more liberal are left to feel alienated by religious leadership often advocating more conservative agendas. Robert Putnam and David Campbell argued, in their book “American Grace,” that this religious alienation of the left began in the ‘90s.

I would suggest though that the main reason atheism, agnosticism, and a move away from organized religion is spreading is due to a perceived lack of relevance of God in our lives. If religious people are not demonstrating that they are more giving, kind, compassionate, and spiritually attuned then they are telling younger generations that belief in God is irrelevant to living a good, meaningful, and successful life.

Further, we have long been left without the tools to process the Divine’s role in how to lead our lives. We need big questions from religion, not simple answers. How does our relationship with God give us more perseverance and hope? How does religion deepen the sanctity of our human relationships? How does faith empower us rather than make us more passive waiting for a miracle? How might our moral imagination and consciousness grow rather than shrink when in religious community? How do we collectively navigate our conjunctive emotions (like joy, humility, and compassion) along with our disjunctive emotions (like sadness, fear, and loss)? These are important, oft-forgotten questions that are vital to our spiritual well-being.

I believe that religious communities and secular humanists are not too far apart in their commitment to making the world a most just place. By cooperating to stimulate people to make spiritual commitments that alleviate enormous problems people face in the world, whether it’s income disparity, environmental issues, the unprecedented number of refugees in the Middle East and Africa, or whatever issue seems pressing to the individual, there is much common ground. A religious commitment can give people the spiritual stamina to transcend the apathy and disillusion that is so pervasive in our world.

We must stop blaming the “consumer” fleeing from religion. Rather, we must revisit how religious people are representing religious virtues and how our religious leadership is honestly articulating 21st century religion as compelling, relevant, open, and transformational.


About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.