Will young adults gravitate more towards Humanism?

March 2, 2010

A new Pew Forum survey of Americans compares the religious views of young adults with the general population.

The Pew website offers this summary:

“Americans ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older Americans. Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today. They also are less likely to be affiliated than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations were when they were young. Fully one-in-four members of the Millennial generation – so called because they were born after 1980 and began to come of age around the year 2000 – are unaffiliated with any particular faith. Indeed, Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20% in the late 1990s) and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13% in the late 1970s). Young adults also attend religious services less often than older Americans today. And compared with their elders today, fewer young people say that religion is very important in their lives.”

What can this data on young adults say about the future of Humanism? Millennials are helping push the overall demographic trends towards more secularization: religion is less important to them, less church attendance, less prayer, less fundamentalist, less confidence that god exists, more pluralistic and open-minded.

All the same, the fact that there are fewer Millennials in churches doesn’t mean that they don’t like authoritative institutions in general. As the Pew website notes,

“Surveys also show that large numbers of young adults (67%) say they would prefer a bigger government that provides more services over a smaller government that provides fewer services.”

The Pew website adds,

“more than three-quarters of young adults (76%) agree that there are absolute standards of right and wrong, a level nearly identical to that among older age groups (77%). More than half of young adults (55%) say that houses of worship should speak out on social and political matters, slightly more than say this among older adults (49%). And 45% of young adults say that the government should do more to protect morality in society, compared with 39% of people ages 30 and older.”

Millennials still want to join institutions and they like moralistic institutions (see more data on their social and political attitudes here ). They will punish and flee from institutions suffering from moral hypocrisy or harboring unfair prejudices.

Their combination of confidence in institutions, demanding that institutions meet high moral standards, and greater pluralism are all excellent signs that the Millennials will help push the overall trend in America towards inclusive ethical humanism and away from segregational denominational orthodoxy. Furthermore, there are good signs that Millennials will gravitate towards strong institutions advancing ethical humanism.

From other surveys, we also see how Millennials are very peer-oriented, prefer group effort over lone effort, and they regard morality as what promotes civic welfare (the opposite of the Boomer notion of morality as what promotes personal enlightenment when Boomers were younger).

This means that Millennials are now seeking big strong institutions advancing inclusive civic welfare and demanding unified group effort.

By the way, American has seen this sort of generation before — these trends were all in place by 1925 with the young GI generation, the last generation America has seen with such a combination of civic morality and secularity. And when that generation decided to join institutions in young adulthood in the 30s and 40s, they swelled the ranks of the Unitarian/Universalist and Humanistic societies just constructed by the next-older generation of progressive pragmatists .

We are now poised right on the cusp of the same generational line-up that produced the rise of 20th century Humanism about 80 years ago. As predicted almost 20 years ago , Boomers have now refocused from their inner perfection to conforming society to their moral vision. A pragmatic and progressive X-er generation is settling into an mid-life admission that it time to rebuild institutions rather than disdain them. The Millennials are fast deciding which civic institutions deserve their allegiance and vast energy. Millennials will go to churches — churches that are more humanistic. And churches have already noticed the generational differences .

If Humanism wants to be more appealing to many Millennials, these propositions are recommended by the demographic data. (These propositions do NOT equally well apply to “secular humanism” and NOTHING should be interpreted as any recommended policy or agenda for the Center for Inquiry, which represents diverse interests.)

1. Humanism has to stop worrying whether it looks religious or churchly, since it must be supportive, principled, communitarian, and offer group projects for the social good.

2. Humanism should have plausible answers for the big metaphysical, existential, and ethical questions.

3. Humanism cannot merely encourage nonbelievers to be content to be privately stoic in a personal disdain for religion.

4. Humanism must be poised to join alliances with religious groups where common moral and civic aims can be advanced by group effort.

5. Humanism should continue to criticize religion where it deserves moral rebuke, but it must be prepared to defend its own moral and political vision.

6. Humanism will be rewarded for its tolerance of pluralism and diversity, so long as it also avoids internal contradiction and hypocrisy.

7. Humanism cannot afford the risk of appearing angry, prejudiced, intolerant, divisive, and more interested in tearing down than building up.

8. Humanism cannot afford the risk of forming coalitions only with other anti-religious organizations simply to celebrate being “smarter” than religious people.

9. Humanism cannot afford the risk of forming coalitions only with other anti-religious organizations simply to fight anything that religious organizations want.