Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Is organized religion losing the Millennial Generation?

~Mike L. at Sacramentum Vitae comments on Stephen Prothero's conclusions about the prospects of the Millennial Generation's "getting religion". Prothero is chair of the religious studies department of Boston University. For an experiment he had his Intro to Religion students concoct their own religions. His article was published in USA Today. The religions invented are rather pathetic. Prothero says of his students:
These young people aren't just allergic to dogma. They are allergic to divinity and even heaven. In the religions of their imagining, God is an afterthought at best. And the afterlife is, as one of my students told me, "on the back burner."

What my students long for is not salvation after they die but happiness (or, in the case of Euphorianity, euphoria) here and now. They want less stress and more sleep. (In fact, two student religions — Sertaism and ZZZ — emphasize the importance of a good night's sleep.) They want to discover themselves and to give voice to their discoveries. They want to experience joy because of their bodies, not despite them. And they don't want to be told what to do with those bodies, or with whom.
How quaint. And this is news? What does Mr. Prothero conclude?
My students' projects suggest that traditional religions are in trouble....I can't help but think that priests, rabbis, imams and ministers would do well to engage in interfaith dialogue not only with one another but also with this "spiritual but not religious" generation. One of the biggest challenges to any ancient faith is to adapt to modern circumstances and then, as circumstances change, to adapt again. American religious institutions are, as a rule, doing a poor job of listening to and learning from this millennial generation. Far too often, religious services in the USA are of the adults, by the adults and for the adults. And don't think young people aren't noticing.

Yes, the religions that students conjure up in my courses tend toward vagueness and relativism. Often they seek to entertain as much as to enlighten. But because they are invented rather than inherited, these religious creations provide a glimpse into the concerns and convictions, hopes and fears of young Americans, who are slouching not toward Bethlehem or even atheism, but toward new ways of being religious — innovative ways that ancient religions ignore at their peril.
Mike points out about Mr. Prothero (whom Mike dubs "Prospero" *grin*):
But the surprising thing is that Prospero, a man of the sort from whom one might expect at least a tad of spiritual gravitas, actually thinks the problem is with traditional religions rather than the students....

He makes quite clear his belief that traditional religions are endangering themselves by failing to accommodate such flaccid, frivolous relativism. Thus, if they don't want to lose the Millennial Generation (portentous-sounding, that), their approach had better be more to the tastes of said generation. Now for one thing, such an attitude betrays the sort of blindness that entails a complete loss of the sense of irony. Prospero, of all people, ought to know that the religions which are growing today are precisely those which make the greatest demands on the credence and practice of their adherents.

...The disconnect here between reality and prescription is so great as to afford grist for the mill of those of us given to cynical, ironic humor. Like his students, Prospero is skewering himself so effectively that all the comedian needs to do, at least for those close to Prospero's level of education, is present the facts. Which is just as well, since no comedian's talent can come up with as good a parody as that which Prospero and his students unwittingly provide all by themselves. A consequent irony is that the world's missionaries to the church, such as Prospero, end up preaching only to their own choir, thus undermining what they profess to be their main purpose. Worldliness in the guise of spirituality makes otherwise intelligent people stupid. And that should be a great source of comfort for those who keep the flame of genuine divine revelation alive.
I want to know something. What makes the Millennial Generation so much more special than previous generations? How are they somehow exempt from the same message of conversion and regeneration? Anyone who reads Scripture will note that humans in all generations have pursued desires of the flesh, giving in to vices all the while holding virtue in contempt as irrelevant. And yet, "organized religion" which stands against the tide of cultural decay somehow persists and resists the "relevance" drumbeat.


Jeff said...

We really are in trouble.

Because people who think like this are well known for marrying early, having large families, etc.

Well, Christ says, if you want your happiness in this life, you can have it.

Very sad. Fertile ground for missionary work.

Argent said...

Mission territory, indeed. Those wishing for a more "relevant" Gospel seem to forget the apostles who turned the world upside down with their witness to a radical New Way, being called to holiness to reconciliation with God.

Why else would any generation "get religion" if they do not know that the very heart of the word itself means "right relationship with God"?

The Gospel will not fail because God will not fail in drawing men to himself. This kind of doom and gloom prognostication of "organized religion" demeans God's honor, no? It reminds me of Elijah complaining that he's the only one left faithful to God and God reminds him, "Oh, no, there are those that I've reserved for myself." Ah, that's it, isn't it, it's the work of God that we have been given the dignity to participate in....only we don't quite like the message so we'll tweak it a little to make it "more palatable".

I love what Pope Benedict says to young people about encountering Christ in the Eucharist, in prayers because he is that which we long for deep down inside.