By Kristin Rudolph
The “nones,” those generally between ages 18 and 30 who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” have been a frequent topic of discussion and speculation recently. From questioning what has caused a drop in religious affiliation, to examining if the trend is growing, the “nones” have been poked, prodded, and dissected over the past few months and years. Further, it is not uncommon to hear that the politicization of Christianity in the form of the “religious right” is to blame, at least in part, for young believers’ disillusionment with church.
But according to a recent Pew Forum study, “when religiously unaffiliated Americans who were raised with a religious identity are asked why they left the religion of their childhood, politicized religion seems to barely register.” And according to research reported in Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, only 14% of evangelicals report hearing politics discussed from the pulpit once a month or more.
Although we may want to isolate one cause, and it is fashionable to blame the “religious right” for American Christianity’s problems, it is not that simple. When actually interacting with and hearing the stories of those who have left the Church, it is much more common to hear that a complex mix of personal beliefs, experiences, and relationships caused a young person to question the faith of his or her childhood. Politics may play a role for some young Christians, but more often, deeply complex decisions of faith are motivated by much more personal factors.
In fact, just this week, a report from the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values titled “Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith: Challenging Churches to Confront the Impact of Family Change,” suggests that in examining the “nones” trend, we should look closer to home. According to the report, “when children of divorce reach adulthood, compared to those raised in intact families, they feel less religious on the whole and are less likely to be involved in the regular practice of a faith.” The report points out a striking disparity between people from “intact families,” two-thirds of whom say they are “currently a member at a house of worship,” compared with just under half of “children of divorce,” who are.
The influence of divorce on a person’s religious life in the future is more complicated than it initially appears though. The authors point out that “Some individuals from divorced families eventually become much more religious in the wake of their parents’ divorce, while others become much less.” Although there are these exceptions to the trend, and many theories about why those whose parents divorced are likely to be less religious than their peers, among sociologists studying the family, “little doubt exists about the correlation or connection.”
The religious practices and involvement of parents – particularly fathers – is a key factor affecting whether someone will remain faithful into adult life or not. Researchers speculate this is the case because grown children of divorce may be “less likely to recall finding sources of religious and spiritual guidance within their families.” According to the report, “one-third of grown children of divorce [say] their fathers encouraged them to practice a religious faith compared to about two-thirds of those from intact families.”
Overall, those who come from divorced families are “much more likely” to describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” For a number of reasons, “children of divorce appear to have a more difficult time practicing their faith within the sanctuary of traditional religious institutions.”
Aside from the religious influence of parents, church clergy and congregations also play a significant role. Sadly, among those who regularly attended church or synagogue when their parents divorced, “two-thirds say that no one – neither from the clergy nor the congregation – reached out to them during their lives.”
It seems quite plausible that the Millennial generation’s distrust of religious, political, and other institutions is connected in a significant way to the prevalence of divorce and family fragmentation – especially if those in the church don’t stay involved in the lives of children whose parents divorce. Millennials tend to distance themselves from institutions in general, as they hesitate to align with a particular political party and don’t join service organizations as older generations did. They also seem to distrust the institution of marriage, and are delaying marriage, or not marrying at all.
Of course none of these trends and statistics make for a simple diagnosis of the “nones,” but the high correlation between lack of religious affiliation and divorce demands attention from the Church.