Sunday, September 19, 2010

Why Are Young Americans So Interested in Religion?

I was grading my students' essays yesterday and was taken aback by how many of them thought it necessary to mention that they are Christians. Believe me, I did not solicit this information from them in any way. They had to show an admirable degree of inventiveness to insert this information into an essay on a completely unrelated topic. This made me wonder why so many young Americans, especially in the Bible Belt where I happen to live for the moment, are so interested in religion.

In other developed countries, you will be hard-pressed to find anybody in their teens and twenties who would mention their religious affiliation with this degree of insistence. Most young people in Western Europe have no religious affiliation. Even in Spain, the country where a Catholic fascist dictatorship remained in power until 1975, you will not find anybody younger than 50 attending Mass. Even 50-year-olds are few and far between at religious functions. Most people who give any thought at all to religion in Spain are in their 70ies and 80ies. So why are young Americans so different from their European peers in this regard?
Part of the answer might be that if you don't go to church in this area of the country, there is nothing else to do, no other way to entertain yourself and spend time with other kids your age. Churches are the only institutions that organize activities for kids and young adults. Otherwise, life in the American Midwest is mind-numbingly boring. Young people here can't go to bars or night-clubs until they are 21. Even then, there are hardly any bars and night-clubs worth visiting. Most of them are geared towards a far older clientele. In the tiny college town where I live, there are quite a few pricey bars and restaurants where a university professor can go to partake of expensive wine and gourmet dinners. There is one sleazy looking place where one can go to dance and imbibe really horrible liquor. There are a couple of family-oriented bars/cheap restaurants. There is one tiny movie theater that is sold out pretty much every weekend. And that's all there is for miles and miles and miles. Mind you, our town is the liveliest place in the area. The rest of small towns here don't even have these paltry entertainment choices.

It isn't so surprising, then, that kids gravitate towards churches. This, of course, works to the advantage of the religious Right. These children and young adults can be brainwashed at an early age and turned into faithful Republican voters starting with their very first visit to the voting booth.


Melissa said...

I've always had trouble understanding church youth groups. Granted, there are some that are full of genuinely kind people who also seem genuinely faithful and practice what they preach. These, however, are few and far between. It's much more common for church youth groups to be like social clubs for people who'll usually loudly profess Christianity without actually "walking the walk," so to speak. There's a large Christian youth organization called "Young Life" which a lot of my high school classmates attended--and based on the activities of the members and the things they said when they asked each other "hey, are you going to Young Life tonight?"...I honestly thought that "Young Life" was some sort of all-ages nightclub. It wasn't until college that I found out Young Life is a Christian organization.

Clarissa said...

Thank you for this enlightening comment, Melissa. I guess I'm at least partially right in that young people look for ways to spend their free time in such religious groups for lack of anything better.

Pagan Topologist said...

I grew up thinking that the Xtian Bible is literally true, and that I was REALLY lucky to be growing up in an environment where children were taught this from an early age. The combination of fear of divine punishment and lack of other entertainment and social opportunities dovetailed to make it profoundly difficult to escape from this worldview. There were no school dances, since our high school principal was a devout (Southern) Presbyterian who believed that dancing was sinful, since it might lead to thoughts of sex. This indoctrination was pervasive throughout the culture.

Many young people would have made it a point to tell people they were Xtians if they thought it might be doubted. Someone not from the area would likely have elicited such a response. I wonder if any faculty who might be from the area where you teach would get this response.

As I have said before, escaping from Christianity was the most important thing I have ever done; I still suffer emotional scars from Christianity, as do many other people I know.

BTW, "Xtian" is not intended to be disrespectful; it is just an abbreviation. The "X" is actually the Greek letter chi, the first letter in the (phonetic, at least) spelling of "Christ."

Anonymous said...

For the same reasons that young Russians are interested in Nazism.