On Losing Our Religion
NPR ran a series recently called Losing Our Religion. Jen posted a discussion question on it here. The thrust of the series was to examine the growing number of people in the United States with no religious affiliation.
According to the Pew Research Center, reports NPR, one-fifth of American adults chose none for religious affiliation, and that number has been on the rise. Nones include atheists, agnostics, and those who are on a spiritual path but unaffiliated. One-third of people age 18-29 identify as non-affiliated, one-quarter of those age 30-39.
NPR talked with young people about why they are where they are, including some who come from religious traditions in their family. NPR also addressed people who have never believed and a case of a couple with one affiliated and one non-affiliated.
It’s not a big surprise why people are not affiliated: either they never have been, or something has happened to cause them to lose their faith. Perhaps it was a tragic event such as the loss of a family member, or observation of hypocrisy among believers. Some simply couldn’t believe the stories they heard as children, and others continue to affiliate culturally, but not spiritually. Some did not believe the rigid code of conduct (like no premarital sex or no homosexual sex) was right. Some miss the comfort that religion brought them, and some seem still conflicted about the decision not to affiliate.
As I read the series, I reflected on my own children. Several have chosen to leave the Church, and each has a different story, just as the young people interviewed in the NPR series. I found some striking parallels.
I believe that one of my children never believed. His religious experience was neutral at best and perhaps negative. He felt a great deal of pressure from me to participate, and many moments that had the potential to be spiritual were likely marred by my response to him at the time. I don’t write that to take the blame or to lament my poor parenting, but simply to describe what I think was his experience. One reason children fall out of bed is that they aren’t in bed far enough, and I think that’s where this son was regarding the Church, and my approach at the time did not help him.
Another son understood very well the path that would be expected of an active Latter-day Saint boy. He knew that if he were active, he would be expected to serve a mission. He did not want to serve a mission, and I think fundamentally it was because he had such divergent views on social issues compared with what he believed the Church taught. He could not connect the dots between being an active Latter-day Saint with his social views; he choose to follow his social conscience. (That he may have misunderstood what the Church, in fact, taught is beside the point; his perception was what it was.)
Another son was very active until he turned 16. He participated fully, but he was a quiet young man with few close friends. He faced a tragedy in his life at that age in the loss of a friend – a tragedy that he would not or could not discuss with his parents or anyone else that I’m aware of. He tried to make sense on it himself with his gospel understanding and in the end could not. He found solace in other places, some of which ended up being quite destructive. But he could no longer feel comfortable at church with us, for sure.
Each of these men is very respectful of our association with the Church. They see the Church as a good organization, and they recognize it for the good work it does, particularly with the poor. One of our sons observed that his mother and I were church enough for him; he could get his church through us. (We were flattered but assured him we were not enough.) Another of our sons has pursued other spiritual paths, including attending other Christian denominations and participating in some Eastern religious practices.
I confess that as my sons each walked away, I wondered if I would lose my own religion. In a Church where no success can compensate for failure in the home and where empty seats at the table would diminish happiness in the eternities, I felt as if I had failed. (And my wife felt it much more that I did.) But over time, I have come to terms with the choices my boys have made. I am not wild about their choices, but I am wild about them. I’ve written before about how I’d rather have them willingly at my dining table that force them to be on my sacrament meeting pew.
As I read the interviews from the NPR series and as I reflect on my own sons’ experiences, I see that many of these young people continue to search, and I have hope, ultimately, that their search will lead them to a loving Father in Heaven.
Speaking for myself, and myself only, I believe that our Father in Heaven loves all His children. He has an eternal view that, unlike ours, is not constrained with earthly urgency. As a former stake president of mine used to say, “Eternity is a long time.” I believe eventually those who search will be among those whose knees will bend and whose tongues will confess that Jesus Christ is the Lord.
I have come to know people who participate in 12-step programs, both the Church’s and others. I have realized the spiritual nature of that work of recovery, independent of any religious observance. The Higher Power of Alcoholics Anonymous and other non-LDS programs is defined by the participant’s own understanding. It occurred to me, sitting in an AA meeting in Arizona years ago, that surely our loving Father in Heaven recognizes those upward looking eyes who may not know what it is they see or where exactly to look, but who are searching – as we all are – for the blessings of the atonement. And I believe with His long view, he may see a path that I cannot, a path that eventually will lead them home to Him.
- Are there ways we can help young Latter-day Saints make the transition into adulthood without losing their religion?
- How do we juxtapose our focus as a missionary Church against a trend of so many adults who do not seek religious affiliation?
- If you accept the long-view approach I discuss in the latter part of the post, how does that position influence your behavior as a member missionary?
Image credits: npr.org