Humanist Fellowship of San Diego Message Board › Religion in America Is Dramatically Different for the Children of Baby Boomers
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The children of Baby Boomers are the children of divorce and war—but how does that influence their life choices?
The following is an excerpt from Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations by Vern L. Bengston with Norella m. Putney and Susan Harris (Oxford University Press, 2013):
How have the dynamics of intergenerational relationships about religion changed over the thirty-five years since the beginning of this study [which began with Baby Boomers, their parents, and their grandparents in 1970]? In the context of the many demographic and cultural changes that have occurred during the time between then and now—increases in marital instability and single parenting, a growing cultural emphasis on individualism, declining adherence to religious traditions, media-driven youth cultures—has there been a significant change in the degree to which families exert influence in the religious orientations of younger generation members?
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Changes in American Religion
While in many families the religious practices and beliefs of parents greatly affects those of their children, in the broader society American religion itself has changed over the past few decades. Involvement in churches increased sharply following World War II, hitting a peak in 1950–1959. Then starting in the 1960s, church attendance gradually declined, with the sharpest decrease occurring in the period from 1970 to 1980. Attendance then increased until 1986 but made a sharp downturn in the 1990s, followed by participation creeping up and then down in the 2000s. Membership in both mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches reflected these trends, growing through World War II but seeing sharp declines in the 1970s and 1980s, though with the influx of Hispanic immigrants the number of Catholics has remained stable in the past two decades, offsetting losses among non-Hispanic whites. Evangelical Protestant churches experienced significant growth during this time, growing considerably from 1974 to 1993, but then their numbers declined slightly until 2004, followed by a small increase, and then began declining again. Mormons emerged in the 1990s as the fastest-growing Christian community in America, although there are signs the rate of Mormon growth may be softening.
But what seems most remarkable is the increase in the numbers of “nones” in American society—those who say they are “none of the above,” who claim no traditional religious affiliation. By 2012 the unaffiliated represented almost 20% of the U.S. adult population, having doubled in just one decade. The religiously unaffiliated are a varied group, as we discuss in chapter 8. Some are explicitly antireligious, articulate in their discomfort with any institutional form of religion such as churches, creeds, priests, ministers, or rabbis. Others are skeptical about God or have only vague beliefs about religion, while some define themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Many of the unaffiliated think of themselves as being religious, but they just don’t go to religious services. Still others say they are still looking to find a religion they feel meets their needs.
In analyzing these trends, a number of religious researchers have described a rapid diversification of faith in our society, what Wade Clark Roof terms a growing “religious pluralism.” Others suggest that American religion has become culturally individualistic and subjectivist or point to the growth of religious “seekers” who have consumer mentalities about faith. Related to this is the observation that a religion of “place,” located in church traditions and creeds that characterized much of the twentieth century, has been supplanted by a religion of seekers who shop around for those elements of religious experience deemed more promising or fulfilling. Still others argue that American religion is losing its meaning and coherence as individuals create their own personal belief systems by mixing and matching spiritual practices from diverse faiths. Finally, many scholars see a growing separation between “spirituality” and “religion” and increased individuation of religion, as linked to the increased diversity characterizing America’s emerging adults, leading to what Jeffery Arnett and Lena Jensen have called “a congregation of one.”
The spiritual and religious orientations of emerging adults have been the focus of many recently published books—some based on social science surveys of youth and religion, others reflecting concerns of religious leaders and youth ministers, and still others analyzing more general aspects of “delayed” adulthood. The many ways in which these writers characterize the religious beliefs and practices of today’s young adults is a study in diversity. Some describe how American youth, alienated from traditional religious expression, are constructing more authentic versions of spirituality for themselves—with many becoming part of the growing number of religious nones. Several others see a trend in which youth are increasingly returning to religious tradition, orthodoxy, and conservative certainty. Still others have identified a self-oriented, instrumental religious style emerging among contemporary American teenagers—what Christian Smith and his colleagues in their survey of youth and religion have named the “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” brand of religion that is based only loosely on Christian theology or church tradition. Perhaps, as Robert Wuthnow has suggested, many twenty-and thirty-somethings today can best be labeled “spiritual shoppers.”
Some important studies have pointed to religious differences between age groups that have become pronounced since World War II. Wade Clark Roof, in his pioneering work on the role of Baby Boomers as religious trendsetters, calls them “a generation of seekers” because of their contrast to older Americans who held firmly to more traditional expressions of religiosity. In a follow-up study, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion, Roof describes how the Boomers created a market for diverse religious and spiritual practices that, he felt, represents the wave of the future in American religion. In a similar vein, Robert Wuthnow, another giant in the sociology of religion, titled his 2007 best-seller After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion. His thesis is that “the religion and spirituality of young adults is a cultural bricolage [French for mosaic or patchwork] constructed improvisationally from the increasingly diverse materials at hand.”
Reprinted from Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations by Vern L. Bengtson with Norella M. Putney and Susan Harris with permission of Oxford University Press. © Oxford University Press 2013