[This post has been cross posted from Forn Spǫll Fira with permission of the author.]
I have previously used statistics from the National Survey of Youth and Religion (NSYR) to highlight that: (1) we do a better job at keeping our youth than other religions, though we still lose just over a third; (2) we lose about three-quarters of the youth we lose to secularism though there are also some losses to various sects. A third key ingredient in understanding the situation is to know why youth are leaving. In this case raw statistics do not help answer the question. Simple surveys rarely help elucidate those sorts of issues.
Fortunately, not only did the NSYR track thousands of youth for a decade but they also engaged in in-depth interviews with a significant number of the youth at various stages. These interviews let the youth explain themselves and their reasoning behind the decisions they make and why they answered some of the questions the way they did. This provides richer data than otherwise might have been the case.
Unfortunately, the data published by the NSYR does not directly address the issue of why some Latter-day Saint youth become atheist, agnostic, or apathetic. It does, however, delve into the reasons why youth in general choose that path. For the sake of discussion, we here assume that reasons why Latter-day Saint youth choose that path are similar to reasons that youth in general choose that path. The NSYR cataloged a number of different reasons why youth lose their religion. These are worth listing:
- Disruptions to routine
“Many life transitions and disturbances of diverse sorts–divorce, death of a family member, leaving home, job loss” make people “less likely to attend religious services” (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 75.)
Emerging adults engage in a number of other issues and activities that often distract them from possible religious and spiritual interests and involvements. To begin with, the central task of emerging adult life itself–learning to stand on one’s own two feet–is in some sense one big, macro distraction from religious devotion. . . . Outside of work and possibly school, emerging adults spend a good amount of time attending to various errands associated with living on their own. . . . Fun-related distractions in many emerging adults’ lives include . . . any other number of recreational and social activities that take time, energy, and sometimes money and planning. On top of all that is time spent on gadgets. . . . Social life can be distracting and draining in other ways as well. . . . More generally, there is simply too much else going on at the time to go to church, synagogue, temple, or mosque. (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 76-77.)
Part of emerging adults’ central life task of standing on their own is establishing identity differentiation. . . . Religion, particularly public religious practice, is one arena that effectively offers emerging adults an opportunity to achieve clear identity differentiation. . . . Religion also seems to many to be of less consequence than matters of education, finances, love interests, childbearing, and other more pressing areas, as a possible place to slack off, drop out, or otherwise become quite different from one’s parents (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 78.)
- Postponed Family Formation and Childbearing
The postponement of “settling down” that is associated with emerging adulthood unintentionally produces, as a causal mechanism, the tendency for Americans to reduce religious involvements during this phase of life. (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 79.)
- Keeping Options Open
Emerging adults are generally loath to close doors or burn bridges. Instead, they want to keep as many options open as possible. . . . If religion means being sober, settled, and steadfast, and if emerging adulthood means postponing those things, then it means not being particularly concerned about religion. (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 80.)
- Some youth (about 30%) want to have more of a cafeteria approach to religion, picking and choosing the beliefs that they want. They are picky
about what they are willing to adopt of their religious tradition’s beliefs and practices, some of which they think are “outdated.” They often hold certain “different opinions” and desires from what their religion allows, so they pick and choose what they want to accept. [They] disagree, neglect, or ignore the official teachings of their faiths most often on the following religious issues: sex before marriage, the need for regular religious service attendance, belief in the existence of hell, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, and use of birth control. (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 167.)
- Honoring Diversity
For most of their lives, from preschool on, most emerging adults have been taught by multiple institutions to celebrate diversity, to be inclusive of difference, to overcome racial divides, to embrace multiculturalism, to avoid being narrowly judgmental towards others who are out of the ordinary. . . . Despite the value of such inclusiveness and acceptance generally . . . this general orientation when brought to questions of religious life tends to undermine the effectiveness of particularities of faith traditions and practices. . . . As a result, most emerging adults are happy with religion so long as it is general and accepting of diversity but are uncomfortable if it is anything else. (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 80-81.)
- Self-confident Self-Sufficiency
They were authorized as individuals to know and choose what is right, at least for themselves. It was difficult for them to imagine an objective reference point beyond their own individual selves by which to evaluate themselves, their lives, and those of others. They could decide what to believe about ultimate reality based on what feels right to them, whatever fits their personal experience. . . . Why would an emerging adult want or need religious faith? (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 82.)
- Self-evident Morality
“They believe . . . religion plays an optional role in morally good living. The single thing in which it specializes–helping people to be good–is actually not needed in order for people to achieve that outcome. Religion thus serves a nonobligatory, noncrucial function in life. It does not have a corner on anything unique. Nobody has to believe in or practice it to live morally. As a result, its status becomes that of a lifestyle accessory. (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition 83.)
One of the other reasons why many, though not all, emerging adults may want to distance themselves from religion is that religion in their minds conflicts with certain other lifestyle options that are higher priorities. Most of them want to party, to hook up, to have sex in relationships, and to cohabit; or if they do not do these things now, many at least want to keep them as options for the future. . . . Many want to have sex with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or to at least be free to do so if the occasion arises, and many want to be able to hook up with someone they meet to whom they may feel attracted. Many also want to cohabit with current or future serious partners or fiancés before getting married. And all of this, emerging adults are aware, contradicts the teachings of most religions. So they simply avoid religion and thereby resolve the conflict. . . . Framed as a social-psychological causal mechanism: most emerging adults reduce a certain cognitive dissonance they feel—arising from the conflict of religious teachings against partying and sex before marriage versus their wanting to engage in those behaviors—by mentally discounting the religious teachings and socially distancing themselves from the source of those teachings. In this simple way, the role of sex, drinking, and sometimes drugs is often important in forming emerging adults’ frequent lack of interest in religious faith and practice. (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 83-84.)
What is interesting about this list is that for the most part, intellectual reasons play a secondary role in conversion to secularism. This is not to say that intellectual reasons play no role, or that certain actions have no intellectual ramifications. The list is mainly behavioral or event driven rather than philosophically driven. Doubts in religiously held beliefs do not show up on the list.
Unfortunately, the NSYR gave no approximate weight to the frequency of the various reasons. One can hunt around the data and get some indications (and I provided one of these in point number 5 above). Among emerging adults (18- to 23-year-olds) in America, 84% have engaged in sexual relations and 66% have done so with more than one partner (Regnerus and Uecker,Premarital Sex in America, 25). Thus about five-sixths of emerging adults may potentially fall under those whose sex lives conflicts with their religion and, if they give it much thought, will fall under the temptation to make their beliefs conform to their practice. For teenagers we have better separated data published. Among Americans 37.2% or teenagers have been sexually active and another 24.5% wish they were. Among Latter-day Saints 12.6% of teenagers have been sexually active and another 14.9% wish they were. (Regnerus, Forbidden Fruit, 132-33.)
So the desire to sin in ways that fundamentally conflicts with their religion affects about 30% of LDS teenagers. We lose 13% of our teenagers to secularism. So the desire to sin does not automatically lead to an abandonment of religion, but the NSYR found a statistical correlation on keeping religion and obeying the law of chastity (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 218, 271-75). On the other hand, having doubts about religious beliefs was only weakly correlated with retaining or losing faith to the point that the NSYR deemed it not significant (Smith and Snell,Souls in Transition, 216). Doubts play a role in loss of belief and commitment but only in combination with other factors. (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 229-31). For instance doubts play a role in the loss of faith of emerging adults only when faith did not play a big role in the teen’s parents’ lives, and the parents were lax in their church attendance, and faith already played less of a role in the teen’s life, and is usually accompanied by the youth’s less frequent religious devotion, i.e. prayer, church attendance and scripture reading (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 229-30). In other words, doubt usually needs to be combined with other factors to come into play.
The list of issues should not be thought of as necessarily mutually exclusive reasons for abandoning faith. If 84% of youth have potential issues with sex lives incompatible with their faith and 30% want to pick and choose their beliefs, there has to be some overlap. We are looking at a list of prominent factors not a list of separate causes.
Only three of the nine reasons deal with intellectual issues (6, 7, and 8). One of these (number 6) is an uncritical commitment to diversity. Diversity can be a good thing. Society needs a variety of occupations to function well: it needs farmers and pharmacists, engineers and educators. But that occupational diversity does not mean that criminals are either necessary or desirable. Diversity, in and of itself, is not an unalloyed good. A simplistic example is that diversity of answers to 2 + 2 is not a good thing. Answers of 3, 5, -87, and 2,000,003 are not equally valid answers to the question 2+2 (they are all invalid answers). Diversity can be a good thing or a bad thing and thus one needs to exercise discernment about whether diversity is desirable in any given instance. Diversity can be a cover term for disguising that “they seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:16).
Discernment requires some external criteria for deciding right and wrong. Latter-day Saints can become susceptible to point 7 if they confuse two points of view. The Latter-day Saint point of view is that each individual can know for him- or herself what is right; he or she is then a moral agent who can choose whether or not to do what is right; he or she is then accountable for his or her actions and must accept the consequences for choices made. This should not be confused (although it sometimes is) with the position that each individual can choose for him- or herself what is right and that God will automatically ratify that choice without accountability or consequences because God loves us or Jesus’s atonement somehow nullifies all the adverse consequences of our actions.
The best data available to me indicates that we are not primarily losing youth to doubts that spring up in their minds as a result of something that they read on the internet (which is not to say that such a thing does not ever occur). The losses seem to be the result of a combination of factors (in which doubt sometimes might play a role). Loss of faith seems to be a complex play of factors rather than some simplistic story. Other factors weigh more heavily including sin or the desire to sin. Far more detrimental to loss of faith than doubts are notions of relativism, or the uncritical commitment to politically correct notions of diversity, and misunderstandings of moral agency and accountability.
Instead of indiscriminately accepting diversity or declaring that all points of view are equally valid, we ought to be discussing when diversity is good and when is it bad, what sorts of diversity are beneficial and which types are not, and what are the long-term consequences of various points of view. We ought to be clarifying the consequences of moral agency and stressing accountability. We ought to be paying attention to the consequences of choices and teaching those consequences.
Now, I am willing to consider that there might exist better data for Latter-day Saints than the NSYR data. The NSYR has the advantage of being publicly available and addresses the issue being discussed. I am also open to the possibility that the NSYR data is focusing on the general picture of youth in the United States and that a different story might be playing out among Latter-day Saints (which is demonstrably the case on a number of issues that the NSYR looked at but not all of them). A better analysis of the data focusing on the particular problem could help but if such an analysis has been done it is not publicly available. Those interested in the problem really owe it to themselves to work through the seven books comprising nearly two-thousand pages of analysis that the NSYR has generated. The narrative that Latter-day Saint youth are leaving the Church in droves because of something they learned from the internet that raises doubts in their minds is not supported by the available data.