The Belief Gap: Secularism and Young Adults


Church InteriorThe 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 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.)

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.


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