Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center reported that nearly a third of Americans under the age of 30 have admitted that they've doubted the existence of God. That's more than twice the number who admitted to such doubts in 2007.
Some news outlets have interpreted those stats as a sign that huge numbers of millennials--generally described as those born after 1980--are turning away from God and toward atheism. "God is Dead--For Millennials, Anyway," read a headline from Mother Jones. And there's probably some truth to that. We know that rates of self-described atheists are growing, and CNN reports that anti-religious organizations like the Secular Student Alliance are expanding rapidly on college campuses.
"For a lot of millennial atheists, they are expecting to find a group, they are coming to campus, and if they don't find one, they are starting one," Jesse Galef, communications director for the Secular Student Alliance. "This is completely different than what other generations grew up with."
But faith is a tricky thing to quantify. And I believe that the question that grabbed most of the headlines--the "doubt" question"--was ever-so-slightly misinterpreted by some news organizations.
Some journalists reported that 31 percent of millennials now doubt the existence of God. But Pew was asking something quite different--whether they had ever doubted the existence of God. The answers received were startling, yes, and marked a significant upturn from just a few years ago. But the question doesn't address so much a person's present religious outlook as much as it does that person's past religious experience. Some respondents, if given a chance, might've said, "Sure, I doubted that God was out there ... but I don't anymore."
I wonder if Pew's question wasn't just tracking a rise in unbelief in American youth, but a greater willingness to ask tough questions and grapple what it really means to have faith. And if so, I don't think that's necessarily an awful thing.
Frankly, I think Christians should ask tough questions ... because I'm confident that Christianity has the answers. They're not always easy answers. But for those who truly seek the truth--those who really want to know Who or What is out there, and whether that Who or What cares for them--the answer would be a game-changer.
I'm less concerned about Millennials honestly grappling with questions of faith than about how we, as Christians, respond to those questions. I think it's easy for us sometimes to get a little defensive or serve up a paint-by-number answer that doesn't completely satisfy. Really engaging with the honest doubts and uncertainties of another person can be difficult, even scary. Our own faith can be challenged.
But challenge is part of what Christianity is all about. Christianity is supposed to challenge us--challenge us to be better reflections of Christ every day. And sometimes I wonder if that's really the issue: Whether we Christians--and I know I'm as guilty of this as anyone--don't reflect Jesus as much as we just talk about the guy while looking an awful lot like the world around us.
When non-believers look at Christians and don't see the love and beauty of God somewhere inside us, maybe it's not so surprising that they might have their doubts. When we claim that Christianity can change lives, but our own lives aren't changed at all, what does that say?