Where Are Young People At with Faith and Religion??

I find it endlessly fascinating to teach theology to undergraduates at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. I observe two tendencies in recent years, and they’re going in opposite directions. First, there is great skepticism toward organized religion and religious authorities. Second, there is growing interest in and openness to questions of faith, spirituality, prayer, and meaning.

A recent survey of young Catholics in England suggests that there are interesting developments going in various direction there too. Greater Mass attendance (yes, you read that right), but less than orthodox views about God and widespread ignoring of the church’s moral teachings. Some of this overlaps with my observations on young people in the U.S.

I teach undergrad liturgy courses, and of course we talk about symbols – that they are polyvalent, that they both express and form, that they can hold common meanings uniting a community, and the like. As an exercise to help students think about the varied ways in which they read symbols, this past year I put up two images: an Eastern Orthodox clergyman and a megachurch preacher in jeans, on stage next to a lit-up cross .

I selected a vested Orthodox clergyman in the hope that it would be both somewhat familiar to most of them but also outside of their direct experience, since most students by far are Catholic, or Lutherans who have seen a pastor in an alb. What symbols do you see in the image of the Orthodox priest, I ask the class, and what do these symbols say to you?

Here’s what I get: His outfit says he’s a know-it-all… he looks like he would talk down to us… he seems really judgmental… I bet he’s very by-the-book and a stickler for rules. And so forth. This sort of thing is the default reaction of young people to religious authorities nowadays – it’s in the water supply.

And there I am, standing in front of the class in my habit! I guess I’m happy that they feel comfortable being so honest in my presence. I’m pretty sure that they would say, “Oh, we don’t mean you, Fr. Anthony, we like the Benedictine values and the monasteries on our campuses” – but I didn’t think it helpful to derail the discussion by asking them.

FWIW, most of them are not particularly drawn to the megachurch preacher either – they think he looks like a salesman or politician trying to sell them something that isn’t very deep.

To be sure, it could be that the students don’t like what they don’t know. Maybe an image of a vested priest or Lutheran minister would elicit from them reactions of respect for a dedicated person with a holy ministry of leading worship and preaching. This fall I might add these images to the exercise.

But alongside this skepticism toward organized religion, I detect a marked increase of interest in questions of faith and meaning, compared to five years ago. I hear more students saying things like this: I guess my parents were Catholic but we never went to church, and this course was very interesting for me to see what I missed out on… I wonder why so many people are religious and go to church… I’ve never heard of worship making one’s life more meaningful and I want to think more about this… I do wonder where to find meaning in today’s crazy world…

This past year, campus ministry at St. John’s reported that attendance at the student Mass at the beginning of fall semester was markedly higher than past years, though the proportion of Catholic students is declining and is now barely over 50%. And attendance did not decline as much over fall semester as in previous years. Student attendance at daily Mass also increased noticeably this past year.

Something’s going on. Is this the Francis effect? I’m not sure how many young people are tracking what the pope is doing. But many of their parents are – are they hearing more positive things now? And they’re probably seeing at least some headlines at Facebook or on other apps about the pope saying things like “Who am I to judge?”

On to England. Here’s what Catholic Herald reports on the recent youth survey:

With the youth synod only a few months away, a major new survey of young Catholics in Britain has some startling findings. On the plus side, Complex Catholicism: The Lives and Faith of Young Catholics in England and Wales Today shows a strong increase in regular Mass attendance (at least monthly) from 25 per cent of all respondents in 2009 to 36 per cent in 2017. Irregular Mass attendance (less than monthly) has increased from 59 per cent in 2009 to 75 per cent today.

But the survey also includes some unsettling findings about what young Catholics actually believe: well over half do not hold traditional Catholic beliefs on God, many believe that Jesus was only human and not the Son of God, and a large number are willing to ignore the Church’s moral teachings.

Is this poll an outlier? Could be. I suspect it’s an indication of something afoot with young people today.

What are your impressions of young people’s views on religion and faith and meaning? And if you’re a young person, what do you think is going on with yourself and your peers?



  1. Could the anti-authority reaction now be partaking of a consumerist haggle posture – don’t come at me, if I want you, I’ll let you know? Remember, in haggling, you avoid overtly showing your desire for what you really want, and show interest negatively. Our culture has been fundamentally consumerist for some time, but it’s being intensified by increased velocity of repetition and expansion of choices from which to make decisions.

    1. And its a generation that knows all about boycotting companies organisations who’s ethical practices they don’t like.

  2. My kids reflect two very different responses. But, the one educated in a Jesuit university does not reflect the opinion stated here.
    Suggest that she is not opposed to *organized religion* – she is opposed to poor leadership; hypocrisy of current institutional leadership; etc.
    This is a very significant difference that this opinion piece appears to skip over.

  3. “Moral teachings” – I assume that is referring to teachings about sex etc and not about matters to do with social justice, poverty, just war, death penalty and so on. My experience in 25 years as a high school Religious Education teacher in England leads me to believe that those other issues resonate deeply with young Catholics (practising or not.)
    Trouble is that these are not the issues the church is perceived to be banging on about.

  4. As a millennial, I think that the biggest issue for the Catholic Church is the never ending cycle of sex abuse revelations followed by cover ups/denials, acknowledgment, promises that things have now finally changed., followed by new revelations followed by denials, followed by promises to change, followed by new revelations followed by….you get the picture.

    Most of my peers associate the church with this cycle to some extent, and after a while the good priests and religious start to look like enablers. This is how Pope Francis, ultimately will turn more young people away from the church. He’s been demeaning/dismissive of victims and by his own admission was part of the problem AND he’s the game changing radical good pope. He’s said that the devil is behind same sex marriage, and that gay people can’t be priests AND he’s the liberal tolerant pope.

    I know this is harsh but this is the reality when it comes to people who grew up in a post 2002 church.

  5. The scientific community has greatly influenced society’s view of religion. While their atheism has only slowly trickled into the mainstream, they have dismantled the notion of “revelation”, the idea that God (or whatever they chose to call the Higher Power) speaks concretely in human history. Jesus was a great teacher but no incarnation. The Bible is solely a collection of a subsection of humanity’s best guesses about the transcendent, not the inspired word of God. So to the extent the Revelation is built in to a particular religion’s DNA, the greater the skepticism to that religion in our secular age.

    Next, you have to deal with the idea of inclusion. It is the primary value of our age. See all of the glowing stories about Anthony Bourdain’s life and you will see how inclusion is celebrated. Christianity has certainly started to adapt the language of inclusion and there is significant overlap between the secular value and the Christian value, but there is much opposition as well. So this also leads to rejection.

    And of course there are attacks on institutions for at least 100 years, religious and secular. The horrific impact of the Catholic sex abuse scandal, the individual trickle of scandals in other denominations, the attacks on the press and government institutions all bleed into one another. When one institution is hurt, it impacts all others.

    1. I would offer a note of caution on the influence of science. Science is at least as misunderstood as religion these days. What you may be detecting at is the indulgence for the factual. And that goes back to the invention of the printing press.

      Religion is not immune to the rise of reason–it’s one of the main driving forces behind evangelical Christianity, and some aspects of a neo-Gnosticism. The problem with the Bible is not that it doesn’t reflect scientific truth, but that its proponents have attempted to suggest it does, or did.

      What you see as attacks on institutions I would see as horrific blunders: the waging of world wars, genocides, political corruption, and perhaps less the scandal of sex abuse and more the cover-up and hard line taken toward victims, survivors, and allies.

      People are starved for good leadership. When they don’t get it, they’ll go looking. They will forgive mistakes and errors. They are slow to warm to hypocrisy.

  6. I think the key point in the article is that the respondents are comprised, “two-thirds of the respondents self-identified as Catholic; the remaining third did not, but came from a Catholic family or had attended a Catholic school.”. Even among self-identified Catholics, I’d imagine there is a strong contingent who would be better described as ‘cultural Catholics’, than ‘practicing’.

    As a mid-20s Catholic, I see these exact groups among my peers who come from a Catholic background. There are certainly a significant number of people who have been raised Catholic, and still self-identify as Catholic not sharing any core beliefs. My question in this case is what weight does self-identification hold if going to Mass and Confession, professing to be Catholic, and obeying the Church on matters of marriage, prayer, fasting, etc. are unimportant? (Numbers in the study.)

    I think my desire would be that the Church looks less to the issues that cause these people to fall-away, and more towards the things that draw in the young people who are excited by, and impassioned about their faith. The reasons for leaving are known, widespread, and unchangeable. (Teaching on sexuality and abortion likely cover >70%.) But how many of us know the reasons why young people (and in particular young families) are showing up? We should look to parishes filled with young people and emulate their practices. We should amplify the aspects of the faith that draw people in.

    1. It’s a misreporting by the CH of the statistic from the report. What the report said was that 75% of respondents in 2017 attended “at least irregularly” as opposed to 59% in 2009. The 36% who attended regularly in 2017 (which is defined as at least monthly) are a subset of the 75% who are basically those who attend Mass at all. It’s on page 18 of the report which is here: https://www.caminohouse.com/complexcatholicism/

  7. Young people have arrived and they are moving ahead making their own contribution during the time allotted to them by the Giver of life.

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