What Lies Behind Growing Secularism


Many of us, I think, have been troubled by the increasing secularization of American culture. I have often puzzled over this – why is it that the segment of the American population that is classed as non-religious continues to grow? Why is it that more and more young people seem to be secular in their outlook? This is quite in the opposite direction of what is happening in academia which is seeing a revival of Christian academics and intelligentsia. So what is going on in popular culture?

Well, this past week I read a very interesting article by Jaclyn Martin called “It’s All About ‘Me’ After All” in which she shares some statistics that might shed light on this increasing secularization in culture.[1] This is what she says.

Researchers studying the attitudes and behaviors of college students got a surprise when they analyzed surveys completed by this year’s incoming freshmen. The Millennial Generation is more selfish, less interested in the well-being of others and less concerned about the environment than previously thought.

Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and one of the study’s authors, told the Associated Press she did not expect the findings to turn out the way they did: “I was shocked. We have the perception that we’re getting through to people. But at least compared to previous eras, we’re not.”

Twenge and her team based their study on two long-term surveys, the American Freshman project and the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future project, given to youth for the last 40 years.

So for four decades they have been administering these surveys to youth.

Despite the Millennial Generation’s reputation for altruism, the study revealed that today’s young adults are more interested in being wealthy, less interested in politics, and less interested in protecting the environment than past generations.

. . .

According to the survey results, young adults’ inner values have been declining for four generations. The study compares responses from youth of the same age . . .

This is important to understand. It is not comparing today’s youth with today’s baby boomers. It is comparing today’s youth with the baby boomers four decades ago when they were the same age. So this isn’t biased for age. It is not a matter of saying they will change their values when they grow up. This is a long term four decade study comparing the attitudes of youth forty, thirty, twenty years ago with the attitudes of youth today.

The study compares responses from youth of the same age from the baby boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1961, Generation X, born between 1962 and 1981, and Millennials, born after 1982. The results show that each new generation places less importance on life goals, concern for others and civic issues.

The American Freshman survey, given to students every year since 1966, showed that the number of students who placed an importance on being wealthy increased from 45 percent of baby boomers to 70 percent of Gen Xers. Among Millennials, the emphasis on wealth rose to 75 percent.

So from 45 percent to 75 percent the concern for being wealthy grew.

Political interest among youth fell from 50 percent for boomers to 39 percent for Generation X. Interest among the Millennial Generation further declined to 35 percent . . .

So only 35 percent of the Millennial generation cares much about politics.

Interest in eco-friendly programs also dropped from 33 percent among boomers to just 21 percent for Millennials.

So 80 percent of them don’t care much about green issues, about the environment.

Responses to a question about the importance of “developing a meaningful philosophy of life,” showed the biggest drop . . .

So the biggest drop is the value placed on having a meaningful philosophy of life.

73 percent of boomers thought it was important, compared to just 45 percent of Millennials.

Although the study’s authors found the results surprising, David Gordon, a religion professor at Grove City College, in Grove City, Pa., did not. The Millennial Generation “simply doesn’t care about much other than its own pleasure and well-being. Self-interest is the mirror opposite of public-mindedness,” Gordon said.

Now, if these surveys are accurate it seems to me that this is very suggestive for what’s happening with the increasing secularization of American society. If you don’t care about developing a meaningful philosophy of life, for example, you are hardly going to be interested in spiritual questions. The concern among wealth that is three-fourths of Millennials make it their goal to be wealthy – well, think of what Jesus said. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” You cannot love God and material wealth. So this kind of materialism and consumerism would again stifle (it seems to me) interest in spiritual questions.

So I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t some of the reason for the increasing secularization we see in American society. Basically, a generation are increasingly a generation of selfish, consumeristic, materialistic people who are simply deadened to deep spiritual questions and importance of the spiritual life.

That is a real challenge because those of us who are in academia like to fancy that it is intellectual things that shape American culture. That it is because of the currents in the academy that the culture goes in the way it does. And I do think, I continue to think, that the American university is the most strategic and influential cultural institution in the United States. Nevertheless, this suggests that there are also social factors at work that could be very deep rooted in terms of deadening people to spiritual things and makes all the more challenging arousing a need in them to hear and believe in the Gospel.

So I think this is part of the challenge that we face in reaching the next generation for Christ.[2]

[1] Jaclyn Martin, “It’s All About ‘Me’ After All,” Religion Today, Monday, April 2, 2012. See http://www.religiontoday.com/news/it-s-all-about-me-after-all.html (accessed October 5, 2012).

[2] Total Running Time: 8:00 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)