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Boomerang Back to Religion

I transcribed a bit more of the Jana Riess interview from Mormon Stories.  There have been many posts (such as this one by Mike S) lamenting the fact that the activity rates seem to be slowing for the LDS Church.  I thought it was interesting that John Dehlin acknowledged that atheists are having a hard time keeping their children “in the fold” as well.

For a bit of background, Jana Riess was raised by an atheistic dad, and her mom wasn’t very religious either.  Yet, Jana felt pulled toward religious faith, joining with the Presbyterians before embracing Mormonism.  John questioned why it is hard for atheists to keep their children away from religion.  This corresponds immediately after their conversation that I transcribed previously.

John, “Yeah, right.  Ok in this last part of the segment I am just going to bring it back to your childhood for a second.  So right now, based on our data, you know, people are leaving the church at an exponentially increasing rate. Intellectual issues really are most prominent. There are spiritual reasons people leave, there are cultural or political reasons people leave, but by and large, it’s the types of things we have been talking about today.

I think it’s important to look ahead and see where that takes future generations, because (I’m sorry that this is a bit long of a statement) I say across the table from Sam Harris.  I had lunch with Sam Harris.  I sat across the table with Michael Shermer, I had lunch with Michael Shermer.  These are two of the worlds’ great atheist writers and thinkers.  I asked them point blank.  I said, ‘when my wife gets cancer, when is one of your people going to be showing up at our door, delivering a casserole In Logan?’

What I mean by that is—and I don’t mean it socially—if you believe in evolution at all, and most people who leave the church probably do, you would probably concede that if religion weren’t adaptive to the human species, it would have died out, right?  It would have gone by the wayside, but actually, my understanding over the past century is that mankind’s gotten more religious, not less overall. Even though right now there might be a little waxing and waning going on.  So, I think there’s a lot of people leaving religions, leaving Mormonism, envisioning this sort of post-religion world where religion is dead and as soon as we can shake off the chains of religious oppression, then rainbows will emerge and it will rain gumdrops and butterflies will fly around.”

Jana, “Oh unicorns!  Don’t forget the unicorns.”

John chuckling ,”Unicorns will come out and we’ll all be enlightened, and it’s just fascinating to ask what if Jana Reiss, what if Jana Reiss is one of the outcomes of this mass movement towards secularism.  In other words, what if we just ain’t escaping this religious thing as a species any time soon?  The minute that we think we are, as Greg Prince said, atheists are having a hard time keeping their kids in the fold.

[Jana chuckles, John continues.]  What if we’re going to boomerang whether we –what if society is going to boomerang back to religion whether we want it to or not?  And if it is, why not stay and make it as great of a place to stay if our grandchildren are going to end up back here anyway?  That was not even a question.  I’m embarrassed that I just said all that and didn’t even shape it into a question.  Feel free to comment on it.”

Jana, “You have nothing to be embarrassed about.  This is a conversation, it’s not an interrogation.  You have nothing to be embarrassed about.

Well, the things that occurred to me while you were talking, first of all, I can understand that people within Mormonism will be very concerned about disaffection, disaffiliation, people leaving the church.  It is a concern, and I sure hope that people at the church are taking notes on why this happens and that they are planning to make changes in the way we do things, particularly the way we set up these either/or dichotomies in which people are essentially forced out  if they have questions.  But I would also say, and I think you alluded to this, that this is not just the trend within Mormonism.  The trend towards disaffiliation is happening everywhere, and it’s a really fascinating moment in American culture.

I read a book a few Years ago by Christian Smith called Soul Searching, where he was doing research on teenagers and religions, an then he followed up on those same teenagers some years later when they became adults, so college age and in their early 20’s to find out specifically what happened to those kids, but more generally what happens to this whole generation, and I really recommend reading those books in tandem because it’s quite illuminating of how this is affecting.

In the first book, Mormonism comes of very well actually, because Mormon teens at least know what they’re supposed to believe and they report praying regularly, they report  devotional practices that would demonstrate some kind of personal commitment. But even those things are not really enough to hold people in the fold.  So Mormonism more recently, just last year, Oxford published another book by Kenda Creasy Dean who had been one of the researchers on the youth and religion project that Christian Smith started.  (I hope this isn’t boring people.)

The upshot is that she had a whole chapter on Mormons. Are they the success story in how their kids are learning the faith, being indoctrinated in the faith, and then staying in the faith?  I think the chapter was very good in terms of how it examined Mormon kids and how they are acculturated.  I don’t think it did such a great job in terms of looking at the darker side in the fact that a lot of these people then leave even returned missionaries will come home and sometimes leave for whatever reason.  People you would expect to have the highest levels of commitment to the faith.

But much of that is because we are living in a culture in which now 14% of young adults claim no affiliation, so that is a significant change even from a couple of decades ago when it was more like 6 or 7, so it has doubled, so it’s not just Latter-day Saints.

John, “Yeah, and that’s all true, and in Europe religion’s really struggling, and there’s some predictions that in nine countries across the world religion will become extinct, but that’s kind of what I’m wondering is—I wonder about the human condition there’s just no escaping God and belief overall.  I wonder if we’re destined as a species to boomerang back to faith or if science or social engineering is going to someday lead us to a better place?  Have you thought about that at all?”

Jana, “I have thought about it some, but not enough.  I think those are important questions for the future, but no I don’t have any grand sweeping wisdom to give you.”

John, “But as far as you’re concerned, well, what you represent to me is a testimonial that it’s not as simple as yank your kids out of church, you know, and teach them secular ways, because somehow at least for some that spirit just calls them right back, right?”

Jana, “Sometimes that happens.”

John, “Yeah.  I mean I remember speaking of a faith episode with Krista Tippett where there was a liberal loosey goosey Catholics who raised their kids outside of the faith and low and behold, by the time they were adults they were like fundamentalist Catholics.  Have you seen that dynamic happen in Judaism or other religions? “

Jana, “Yes, there is a whole kind of trend and it is very interesting to observe. I think the book that you are referring to from the Krista Tippets show was called the New Faithful.  Colleen someone, I can’t remember her last name, but she was looking at this phenomenon precisely of people who you would think are going to embrace largely secular values and then take a turn for conservative religions, in that case conservative Catholicism, why?  What is it that they are finding there?  I think that the reductionistic sociological answer is that people want to know what they’re supposed to believe, and never more so than a time of confusion more generally.

I don’t think that kind of explanation gives people very much credit.  It doesn’t hold true with people that I talk to.  They don’t say, ‘I wanted to know the truth so that my life would be simpler.’  Their lives are rarely simpler because of the changes that they’ve made.”

Why do you think atheists and religionists seem to have a hard time keeping their children “in the fold”?

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