Today, 68 per cent of Generation Y-ers can firmly state that they have never doubted the existence of God. This figure seems high, until you compare it to the same study done five years ago, at 83 per cent. And there is nothing to indicate that this percentage isn’t still on the decline.
Michele Boorstein of the Washington Post reported that ‘the percentage of Americans who call themselves Christians has dropped dramatically over the past two decades, and those who do are increasingly identifying themselves without traditional denomination labels.’ Nor is this a lifecycle effect, meaning that as people age, they take recourse to religious belief: studies on generational patterns show that ‘the Millennial generation is far less religious than were other preceding generations when they were the same age years ago.’
Source: Pew Research Center
What I want to know is this: how hard is it be religious, or irreligious in our world today? In a free society bombarded with competing claims on our political, economic, cultural, social attitudes, how much space do we have for religious freedom? These statistics seem to tell us that the answer is none to little. If this is true, then what is the alternative, and is it enough?
As a young girl I often accompanied my friends to church; I attended a Baptist primary school and later, an Anglican high school, both where learning R.E. and going to Mass was compulsory. Later on, when my father embraced Buddhism in his forties, I was exposed to another widely different set of religious customs and values. To this day, I identify somewhat as an atheist, meaning I reject the existence of god/s – but I draw from the teachings of both religions openly – I do, for example, believe in being a good Samaritan, karma, and I’m still very undecided about reincarnation. We had medieval crusades and the purging of Catholics and Protestants. Is this crisis of atheism now a common theme amongst young people?
As fiercely independent Gen Y-ers who thrive on technology and media, we are the first generation born with freedom of information at our fingertips. Our umbilical cords may as well have been internet modems connecting us to the wise, wide world. Modern media forces are the tip of the iceberg of information revolution, which does precisely that: it informs us of the multitudes of views and facts out there. Some of these might even be opposing views to those taught to us by our teachers, parents or religious practitioners. This might explain why young people can increasingly take control of their beliefs, and seek the vast amount of diverse information available out there. In secular Australia, where church and state function independently, everyone enjoys freedom of religion without fear of discrimination or hatred, and this includes the freedom of religious conversion also. This is a different story in non-secular societies like Saudi Arabia or Iraq where freedom of religion, though constitutionally protected, still faces massive cultural hurdles. So political liberty to choose or leave your own religion might contribute to the decline of religious affiliation in Western countries compared to in the Middle East.
But here, religion is no longer a dominant part of the lives of most Gen Y-ers. Instead of religion and morality, our everyday existence has slowly been taken over by the modern logic of capitalism and global consumerism. Education, intellectual self-development and professional achievement is held as the highest standard of man; religion is viewed as backward and irrational. More than this; science is commonly referred to as the primary authority on humankind’s biological evolution. In a world where the scientific method is the guiding light to enlightenment, where can a young person find the personal and social freedom to uphold his or her own religious beliefs?
Wherever you look, the most common answer is in the family and community. The conditions for religious faith are deeply entrenched in our cultural systems, and an ever-important structure of the family unit. Strong community bonds forged through years of churchgoing and participation are lifelong, and give a young person the opportunity to deepen his or her faith. The hereditary nature of religious belief is also understated: How many Christians do you know were born into Christian families?
On the other side of the argument, atheism is not a religion; it has no church or ceremony. It is the denial of God, the absolute inverse of religion. To get to the depth of atheism, you have to evaluate the appeal of irreligion, or No Faith as it is sometimes known. According to Reuters, the no-religion group is the fastest growing religious affiliation category. Each year 1.3 million more adults claim identification with ‘no religious affiliation’. American economist and atheist Bryan Caplan gives a blunt and uncompromising statement on why he considers religious believers to be irrational.
- accept their religious beliefs with little or no evidence
- accept religious beliefs that are contrary to the evidence
- accept religious beliefs without studying competing views
- are certain about religious beliefs that are dubious at best, and
- accept their religious beliefs not because they are intellectually compelling, but because they are emotionally comforting.
Once we examine these points though, an important question arises: does atheism relieve the anxiety, isolation and disappointment that many seek to soothe through God, community and prayer? Most of us already live as if there are no gods. Atheists may have the upper hand on ideological justification – not satisfied with the rationale of believing anything, they opt to believe in nothing – but this lonely superiority could leave them feeling more bereft than their religious counterparts.
Perhaps we do reject brick and mortar religious institutions but we can’t deny that spirituality is something we all feel strongly. A friend of mine, a staunch atheist who was recently forced to sleep at the airport due to unforeseen circumstances, chose the Airport Prayer Room as his refuge that night. He jokingly insisted that philosophy was his religion, and as we were in the midst of phone conversation that night, he considered ‘all philosophical discussions a form of prayer’. Another friend has on occasions cited kindness as her religion.
Can these simple moral philosophies really take the place of entire belief systems? Why or why not?
Finally, I want to point out that alternatives to religion do exist if you’re after existential validation. Humanist and agnostic theories are not mere negations of religion, but pose sound arguments of their own. You may like to read about some of them here.
To end this off, religion is fast waning in a world of…well, trivial pursuit. This is unrelated to the intensity of faith of those who do declare themselves to be devoutly religious. But those numbers are steadily decreasing. Maybe it’s a matter of political liberty and choice, maybe it’s the media opening up more corners of the world to us. But at the end of the day no matter what you believe in, it should matter what kind of person you strive to be. And this is true for all of us regardless of religion or irreligion.