The Belief Gap: Secularism and Young Adults

Mary Rice Hasson -Belief Gap


The Pew Research Center recently released a report, Celebrating Christmas and the Holidays, Then and Now, that offers a revealing look at the growing secularism of America’s young adults.

According to Pew, although nine out of ten Americans celebrate Christmas, barely half (51%) view Christmas as primarily a religious holiday. Nearly a third (32%) celebrate Christmas as a cultural, but not religious, tradition. But those are aggregate numbers.

The real news in the Pew report is the disheartening belief gap between older and younger generations: although two out of three (66%) Americans aged 65 and over celebrate Christmas as a religious feast, only 39% of younger Americans (18-29) see Christmas through eyes of faith. And while 62% of young adults attended church services as children, only 46% plan to do so this year (by implication, some young adults will attend church for non-religious reasons, such as family togetherness).

The Belief Gap

The significance of this belief gap goes beyond the comparative headcounts to ‘critical mass.’ For every age group—except young adults—the celebration of Christmas remains firmly anchored in religious belief, with Christmas secularists in the minority. For example, older folks who embrace the religious meaning of Christmas (66%) heavily outnumber older Americans who celebrate Christmas for cultural reasons (19%). Twice as many middle-aged Americans (50-64) see Christmas primarily as a religious (55%) rather than a cultural (26%) holiday. A smaller, but still dominant, percentage of 30-49 year olds (50%) hold firmly to Christmas’ religious roots; roughly a third (36%) do not.

The situation is reversed for America’s youngest adults (18-29). More of them (44%) reject the religious significance of Christmas than accept it (39%), creating a peer culture that bends toward unbelief, or at least toward secularization, and away from religious faith.

It’s a remarkable and apparently deliberate shift in attitude, occurring in spite of broad societal familiarity with the historical origins of Christmas and the rich heritage of Christmas religious traditions passed from one generation to the next.

It’s not as if the religious nature of Christmas demands a whole lot, either. Of all the religious holidays, Christmas surely is the most inviting, marked by gift-giving and feasting to celebrate the birth of the Savior.

But if ‘Savior’ means nothing, then why pretend?

For many of America’s young adults, it feels more natural to scrap the church service, junk the Nativity set, and bring on the snowmen. After all, America’s public schools have conditioned this generation to celebrate a generic, Christmas-y, winter holiday instead of Christmas as Christ’s birth. The traditional decorations of trees, bows, and wreaths now send a meaningless message: time for holiday cheer, just because it’s that time of the year.

Although the belief gap between young and old exists for many reasons, it’s hard to overstate the influence of today’s public schools in pre-disposing young Americans to embrace secularism and a culture of unbelief. Policed by the ACLU and similar litigation-hungry watchdogs, America’s public schools have, for decades now, banished God-talk from the classroom and cultivated the secularist mindset in their students. Day in and day out, students learn about the world, science, history, and culture from the implicitly secularist perspective that God (if He exists) is irrelevant to enlightened discussions of human fulfillment, progress, culture, and meaning. Moral absolutes, such as the ones proposed by Christianity and the natural law, are shunted aside in favor of the secularist’s preferred values of tolerance and equality.

Students learn by doing, and the pattern learned by the students of yesterday has become the pattern of young adults today. As children, eight hours a day, five days a week, ten months of the year, for twelve years, America’s now-young-adults built the habit of leaving God and His moral truths out of big conversations—and cultural celebrations. Perhaps that experience led some, as young adults, to redouble their efforts to integrate faith and daily life. Others likely internalized a divide between personal faith and public religious expression or between Sunday worship and the rest of life. For many, public education’s enforced secularization undoubtedly had a carryover effect, leaving a sizeable number of young adults feeling quite comfortable about excluding God (or organized religion) from their lives entirely.

Indeed, recent polls show that young adults are the ‘whatever’ generation when it comes to religion. In 2012, 32% of young adults (18-29) described themselves as “unaffiliated with any particular faith.” Their religious drift is compounded by their indifference towards America’s overall decline in religiosity.

A July 2013 Pew survey reported that 50% of all young adults (18-29) say that the growing number of nonreligious Americans “doesn’t make much difference” for our country or our culture—a giant generational shrug of indifference. An additional 15% of 18-29 year olds even think that the increase in the number of non-religious Americans is good for our country. In contrast, 54% of Americans 65 and older think that the increase in unbelievers has a negative impact on our country. Even among religiously affiliated young adults, those who think unbelief is either a good thing (8%) or doesn’t matter much (43%) outnumber those who think rising unbelief is a bad thing (47%).

While public schools have exerted a decisive formative influence on today’s young adults, they are not secularism’s only delivery vehicles. Secularism has gripped our broader culture as well. Pushing to erase overt signs of faith, particularly Christianity, from the mainstream culture, secularists have found businesses, advertisers, entertainers, and the media to be willing partners. (Confusing judicial interpretations and liberals’ litigation threats, of course, send governments and public institutions scurrying for cover at the first sign of religion.)

Sacred Disappearance

As a result, the sacred has all but disappeared from the commercial aspect of our cultural celebrations. This year, for example, our local Toys-R-Us stocked dozens of children’s ‘holiday’ videos—animated tales-about-nothing, which celebrate ‘giving’ with a vague ‘holiday spirit’—but none that shared the religious meaning of Christmas. Advent calendars, traditionally designed to heighten the spiritual anticipation of Jesus’ birth, have been thoroughly secularized and converted into marketing tools. Neopets, for example, invited kids to use its Advent calendar during “the Month of Celebrating” to find “free gifts, entertainment, and Neopoints,” and online fashion columnists highlighted a new holiday outfit per day in “Advent Calendar” format.

Of course, as the sacred disappears, the profane takes center stage. Kmart’s 2013 ‘Christmas’ ad treated TV audiences to a chorus line of men in boxers, shaking their hips to the rhythm of Jingle Bells. Secular holiday movies follow a standard script of dysfunctional families spewing potty humor and sarcasm until they finally resolve their differences through a ‘Christmas’ lesson in tolerance and good cheer.

This is the Christmas Present embraced by a significant segment of our young adults. Religious observance of Christmas, for this generation, will soon be ‘Christmas Past,’ swept into the dustbin of cultural memory, a quaint relic of times gone by. And their ‘Christmas Future’ seems likely to resemble a series of meaningless parties, individualized celebrations in search of a theme (kind of like the random collections of inflatable cartoon characters that pass for ‘Christmas’ decorations).

A culture that trivializes the meaning of Christmas inevitably finds itself searching for meaning among the trivial.

So where does this leave us?

The culture certainly has assumed a hostile posture towards believers of late. But while cultural battles must be fought and won, the most important place to effect change is in our personal relationships.

The belief gap between young and old should be seen for what it is—a personal call to action, not only to deepen our own relationship with God, but also to introduce the Lord to a generation that has forgotten—or never knew—what it’s like to be loved by a personal Savior.

© 2014 Mary Rice Hasson.  All rights reserved.


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6 thoughts on “The Belief Gap: Secularism and Young Adults”

  1. Catholic in public school

    MY public schools are not anti-religion at all. Indeed, our winter choir concert had African hymns, Christian carols and Hannukah songs, too. We have a large Jewish and Muslim population in our public schools. The schools are so far from anti-religion I was shocked to read that comment. We Catholics in my parish that send our kids to public school feel very blessed to see our children learning so much about other faiths through their friends, and our school’s effort to accommodate all faiths. We have a school calendar that accommodates Jewish high holidays and Good Friday, so there is no way to accuse our school of being anti-religious. Unless you have children in public school (which I assume you don’t), you cannot possibly speak authoritatively on this.

  2. I am sorry that you placed so much onus for secularism on the public schools. I believe that it is misplaced and I say this as a former public high school principal of 30 years. Public school are secular. Legally, they are required to be absolutely neutral to religion; culturally, they have students who are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sufis, and on and on…also atheists. No single group should be favored nor disfavored….it’s the law and the nature of a secular institution.

    Sectarian schools are non-secular in nature and can advance any religious theory or belief they choose. Religion finds a worthwhile home in sectarian schools and they have virtually unfettered power to deliver their message.

    The fault is not the public schools. The Churches and clerics have failed in the inculcation of their message; the family has failed in handing down their message. As Benedict stated “Today we see in a truly terrifying way that the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from enemies on the outside, but is born of the sin within the Church,” Not the public schools; they are doing their job

    1. Phil,
      Thanks for your comment. Public schools in general do not maintain a level playing field when it comes to religion–in practice, many of them have become anti-religion. In light of the cultural hostility to religion (through entertainment and media, in particular), are public schools a healthy place for young people of faith? I would argue that in most cases they are not, because they condition children to operate through the day as if God (and His moral teachings) were irrelevant.
      I agree with you about the failure of Churches and families to instill faith more deeply in the young. We have not adapted well to the reality that the culture is toxic to our young people’s faith–we are still functioning, in terms of youth outreach and catechesis, as if the culture were “neutral” or even supportive of faith. Those were the old days. And if we don’t adapt and find a way to reach our young with a vital message of faith, the cultural antipathy to faith and traditional morality will carry them to a very different place.

    2. Public schools are a microcosm of society with kids most often bringing to school the influences of their families (both good things and bad things). It seems to me that the people who complain the loudest about the dynamics of public schools students are the same ones who have already pulled their kids out of it.

      Imagine for a second that we really believe what we say that we believe – that a person unreached by the Gospel is in danger of going to Hell. If we really cared about the souls of unreached kids, why in the world would we ever want to miss a chance to allow our well taught kids to interact with those who most need to hear the message that we teach clearly in our homes? What if one kid missed the Gospel because one of us was too busy building a safety bubble around our kids?

      Jesus didn’t tell us to build bubbles around ourselves or our kids…He said “Go out and make Disciples of all nations” and that starts at home at the beginning with the people that we AND OUR KIDS run into on a daily basis. When my oldest son was in a public HIgh School, his faith was vibrant..he went off to a conservative Catholic Univ and so disenchanted on the bubble mentality he saw there, he is currently soured on the whole topic. Did he reach anyone while he was in HS? I dont know but I sure hope so and Im glad he had the opportunity.

  3. Pingback: John Allen Joins the Boston Globe -

  4. It is a malaise that affects our young, an aggregate of terrorism, poverty, homelessness
    joblessness, being relatively privledged in a world of have nots, being one in 7 billion and counting, seeing the possession of auto home and small family turn into a pipe dream of yesteryear. Religion has failed them because religion has failed itself. It has
    not lived up to the beatitudes or the koran or Vedas. Religion has failed to become part of an aggregate, to crystalize into diamond instead of so many lumps of coal. When the mere handful of different faiths sit down and barter their best, to come away with a new tool that has all f humanity in mind, then the young will take up their family traditions and celebrate truths and beauties that all can appreciate. As the great Jewish prayer
    exaults ” Hear, O Israel : The Lord our God, the Lord is One.

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