Why and when do youth fall away?
“In the last few years, social scientists have ‘found that the religiously undermining effect of higher education … has disappeared’.”1
This is the conclusion from The Gospel Coalition article titled ‘FactChecker: Does College Cause Young Adults to Lose Their Faith?’ It points to a robust study done by the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) that shows higher education is no longer the ‘faith killer’ it once was.
Now CMI speakers worldwide have spoken many times on the negative effects that evolutionary indoctrination in state run schools have had on young people from Christian homes. (Our new documentary video Fallout highlights these concerns and shows the direct negative/positive impact that the teaching of origins has on young people’s beliefs.) So what exactly does this study show?
The study (done under the direction of Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame) is indeed comprehensive. Conducted over a 16 year time period (1999–2015), the NSYR is the most extensive sociological project on youth and religion ever undertaken.
Sampling over 2,000 13–17 year olds from all over the US, it interacted and collected data on participants in a variety of ways including ongoing, extensive, personal interviews. The study started in their teens and lasted into their mid to late 20s, asking in-depth questions regarding faith, spirituality, family, moral behaviour etc.
The voluminous quantity of data recorded and analysed by the NSYR produced numerous reports, articles, books and multimedia presentations from their responses.
While admitting that prior to the mid 1990’s, studies showing that influence from ‘higher education’ had definitely shown a marked negative impact on student’s faith; “ … among recently surveyed college students, 2.7 times more report that their religious beliefs have strengthened during their college experience than say their beliefs weakened”2.
So what changed (And what didn’t)?
Some reading the study may (wrongly) conclude there has been a big turnaround and the church isn't losing young people at the rapid rate often reported, but the Christian church in the West continues to decline. For example the American Culture and Faith Institute’s 2016 survey concluded;
“During the past decade alone there have been huge declines in the proportion of people who claim to be deeply spiritual (-21 points); who say their religious faith is very important in their life (-16 points); who claim to have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life (-12 points).
Belief in God, trust in the Bible, and reliance on Jesus alone for salvation have all declined precipitously. Fewer than one in five adults believes that absolute moral truth exists and is defined in the Bible … ”3
So the ‘big picture’ of a church exodus remains steady. And young people from faith based homes that attend state run schools (and the vast majority do) still tend to fall away from their religious upbringing to a large degree. So despite the NSYR study’s findings, the logical conclusion (although not stated in the NSYR study) is that the difference now is young people don’t abandon their faith at College or University age, but earlier on.
So it’s likely that the students that thrive in higher education are ones that already have a true, vibrant faith going in. It’s reasonable to conclude that they were exposed to apologetics and taught how to defend and advance the Gospel long before entering higher education. And this seems to be what the interviews in CMI’s Fallout video4 support.
As the video’s promotion states;
… the pattern we found demonstrates the importance of training young people with a defence of biblical creation.
Our interviews show unequivocally that the majority of young people who were not exposed to creation teaching in their youth now embrace evolution and no longer attend church. Yet, every student we spoke to who was equipped with answers as a young person still retains their Christian convictions, in spite of the evolutionary teaching they received in higher education. Better still, every single student we spoke to who affirmed biblical creation still attends church regularly.
Train them up the way they should go …
The key point that CMI has been making for years is that young minds need creation apologetics training from very early on. It is those who do not get answers from an early age that seem most vulnerable to apostasy.
The Fallout video shows only a very small microcosm of the landscape of University students in the US, but the results can reasonably be extrapolated to the large majority of young people. Yes, there have been some that were exposed to biblical creationist teachings that have fallen away, but the video vividly shows the positive effects a foundational teaching on creation can have on a student’s faith. Properly interpreted the NSYR study confirms that those who think that the conclusions revealed on our Fallout DVD are too far reaching should think again.
How ‘science’ affects faith
In an online video explaining the NSYR’s findings titled ‘How American Youth (Mis)Understand Science and Religion’5, Professor Smith specifically addresses how the topic of ‘science’ affects youth in America. He explains his research indicates that seven out of ten college-age emerging adults believe there is a conflict between science and religion and that religion is “always the loser”6. However, these conclusions were reached earlier on in life. He says by age thirteen, seventy percent of youth from all Christian denominations indicate they ‘strongly agree’ that “The teachings of science and religion often ultimately conflict with each other”7.
A summary of his research is;
“Nearly all American youth associate ‘science’ with ‘evidence’ and ‘proof’, but associate religion with ‘blind faith’ and ‘private’, subjective ‘opinion’.”8
In Smith’s presentation, it is interesting to note that there is no reference to the important differentiation made between operational and historical science. So, what Smith is referring to is actually not a conflict between ‘science’ and ‘religion’, but the manufactured evolutionary ‘history’ contrasted with true Biblical history. By ‘science’, he is not referring to chemistry, biology etc. The real conflict is reflected in a quote Smith uses in his presentation from a NSYR participant;
“I mean there is proven [scientific] fact and then there is what’s written in the Bible-and they don’t match up. So it’s kind of whatever you wanna believe; there’s fact and there’s a book, and some people just don’t wanna believe the truth [of science].”9
Since creationists and evolutionists do not argue over operational science, what this (“ … just one illustrative quote out of very many”10) confirms is that it is the teaching of evolutionary presuppositions that drive young people away from a belief in the Bible. And because they are taught this interpretation as ‘fact’ they appear to have a veneer of scientific credibility that outweighs what they have been taught is simply ‘faith’.
A very key point in the NSYR study (and multiple other independent studies) revealed the fact that it was specifically in the mid-nineties that there was a marked change in when going to College started no longer affecting people of faith to the extent it had in the past. Smith admits;
“I don’t frankly know what it was, I have a bunch of theories … ”11
One of his theories (and the only one expressed in his lecture) is;
“ … somewhere around the mid-nineties … young people stopped going to College in order to figure out the big questions in life … ”12
But this leaves one wondering what possible influencing factor could have caused virtually all young people to simultaneously change their entire ethos regarding higher education. However, the timing is so precise that looking for a specific correlation is justified.
While it is true that correlation is not always tied to causation, and that many factors may have contributed, could one possible factor be the 1990’s onset of the population boom of Muslims in the US?
In the article ‘Islam in the United States’, the Euro-Islam.info website states;
The majority of Muslim Americans are first-generation immigrants (65%) hailing from over 68 countries.
Most foreign-born Muslim Americans arrived in the United States either in the 1990s (33%) or in this decade (28%).13
Could it be that the increasing presence of Islamic students in classrooms dulled the more blatant attacks against religion in Universities?. Because teachers can no longer go on tirades against (and attempt to undermine) 'religious' ideas without risking backlash from the Muslim community in this politically correct society, Christian students may well have begun to be shielded from such assaults as a direct result. Although there is no study with hard data to back this up, this would explain the timing quite well.
Regardless of the cause, students are now immersed in a much more relativistic culture where ‘all views are equal’. In support of this, the Gospel Coalition article discussed one of Smith’s reasons why ‘the university is not the faith-shredder we imagine it to be’ as;
“The increase of relativism and the decline of strict scientism … allows for discussion of faith and spiritual speculation … ”14
However, a 'faith' that never contends with anyone else's beliefs because 'everyone is right' is not a strong faith at all. If young people from Christian homes adopt this relativism they may still identify as 'Christian' and will report that they have not left the ‘faith’. However, this type of relativism would not exhibit belief in Biblical inerrancy, will accept modern cultural 'morality'/sexual ethics etc. and will not share the Gospel purposefully. (It should be noted that the concept of theistic evolution [the marrying of two completely opposing concepts as somehow compatible] is just another form of relativism.)
As the article says;
“More broadly, adolescents today … are generally content to continue in the faith traditions in which they were raised, however much that faith may or may not mean to them.”15
What’s the solution?
Professor Smith’s research also contains a giant clue as to what the antidote to this huge problem of youth falling away from church is.
“We did look at which … teenagers are the ones that are most likely to say religion and science can integrate fine … they are not in conflict. Which are the ones who had the combination of answers that said it can all work together? The one factor that put kids way up there … is that they went to private, Protestant schools … ”16
Of course Protestant schools are more prone to teach creation science concepts than Catholic schools that predominantly teach theistic evolution, and in fact-
“ … Catholic teens contributed to nearly one-half of the growth in non-religious youth … ”17
However, the point is not the school environment, it is the content of what was taught.
Those that think teaching evolution is compatible with Christianity are sorely wrong. The experiment was already done in mainline churches over the last 150 years. The overwhelming result? Liberalism, heresy and apostasy (in most cases).
The bottom line …
The data is in from multiple sources and it is conclusive.
- Young people from Christian homes that attend state run schools already believe ‘scientific facts disagree with religion’ by the end of junior high/beginning of high school level and so are already gone before they even enter College/University. Overwhelmingly these people will cite 'science' (read ‘evolution’) as the reason they don't believe the Bible. The majority never received effective teaching on creation apologetics.
- Those young people that are taught creation apologetics from an early age and throughout their formative years are much more likely to identify as Christians and hold to the fundamental teachings of the evangelical church later on in life.
- The creation/evolution issue is not a side issue and the church will continue to suffer the loss of the next generation if they do not deal with the problem and equip their youth.
[To see these conclusions played out in real people’s lives watch CMI’s powerfully eye-opening documentary Fallout! For maximum impact why not invite a group of Christian friends and/or your pastor to watch it with you? Order your DVDs today.]
References and notes
- FactChecker: Does College Cause Young Adults to Lose Their Faith?, TheGospelCoalition.org, June 18, 2013, www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/factchecker-does-college-cause-young-adults-to-lose-their-faith Return to text.
- Christian Smith, Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 248-249. Return to text.
- The Cultural Context for the 2016 Election, American Culture and Faith Institute, March 28 2016, www.culturefaith.com/the-cultural-context-for-the-2016-election Return to text.
- Fallout is a documentary style video presentation showing actual interviews with University students revealing (among other things) why they left or remained in church and whether or not they had received Biblical creation apologetics training in their youth. Return to text.
- Christian Smith, How American Youth (Mis)Understand Science and Religion, YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=OaS1SV7xwWQ Return to text.
- Ref 5, Time code 6:48-7:49 Return to text.
- Ref 5, Time code 11:53-15:12 Return to text.
- Ref 5, Time code 15:24 Return to text.
- Ref 5, Time code 17:18-17:52 Return to text.
- Ref 5, Time code 17:14- 17:17 Return to text.
- Ref 5, Time code 21:47-21:49 Return to text.
- Ref 5, Time code 22:49-22:55 Return to text.
- ‘Islam in the United States, Euro-Islam.info, www.euro-islam.info/country-profiles/united-states/ Return to text.
- Ref 1 Return to text.
- Ref1 Return to text.
- Ref 4, Time code 43:55-44:28 Return to text.
- Ref 4, Time code 34:40 Return to text.