Boomerang Back to Religion

By: Mormon Heretic
January 30, 2012

Jana Riess

I transcribed a bit more of the Jana Riess interview from Mormon Stories.  There have been many posts on the bloggernacle (such as this one by Mike S) discussing 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.  The quote below 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 sat 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 world’s 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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21 Responses to Boomerang Back to Religion

  1. hawkgrrrl on January 30, 2012 at 3:03 AM

    Interesting topic. Some people say things like religiousness skip a generation. I think each generation partly defines themselves in relation to the prior generation, wanting to do better than our parents in the ways we think they fell short. That could be becoming spiritual where they rejected it, being more staunch where they were less committed, or leaving it where they held to it too tightly.

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  2. Bob on January 30, 2012 at 4:19 AM

    “Why do you think atheists and religionists seem to have a hard time keeping their children “in the fold”?
    I think just because YOU love pancakes, doesn’t mean your kids do. When they are old enough to not eat pancakes, they may never eat another one.

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  3. Jake on January 30, 2012 at 5:20 AM

    I agree with Hawk, and I think that A lot of it is that often Kids just like to rebel against their parents. History seems to show that each successive generation usually to some extent kicks against the world they were brought up in.

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  4. Andrew S. on January 30, 2012 at 7:01 AM

    I think these things are cyclical, and possibly related to the socio-economic climate of the countries in which the phenomena are occurring. People leave religions either because their socio-economic standings are improving or they have larger governmental safety nets to rely upon (I think this is what is happening in Europe) or because, even in times of poor socioeconomic standing, they see that religion is ineffective at helping.

    However, I think that when things take a turn for the worse, then religion goes back on the upswing.

    On one final note, I think there is a particular part of the issue that has to be addressed as well:

    John says

    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?

    Here’s the important thing…society doesn’t boomerang back to just any religion. It boomerangs back to a conservative, traditional, fundamentalist religion. The many examples of this happening from this selected transcript are of people ultimately ending up in strict religions (or observing religions in a strict way).

    So making nice accepting liberal religions doesn’t seem to cut the mustard, as it were.

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  5. Jeff Spector on January 30, 2012 at 7:44 AM

    Kind of rambling, hard to follow conversation. Yes, I suspect things are cyclical, but also, when you shine a light, you actually see what’s going on. So folks are looking at things and they are seeing things.

    OTOH, if I was ultra-orthodox, I’d say this was just part of the end times, where the hearts of men (and women) wax cold.

    And then again, it is pattern of the emotionally disconnected, socially stunted, self-absorbed, always-on, technology-dependent, lazy generations we seemed to have created, traced back to the Great Depression.

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  6. Andrew S on January 30, 2012 at 8:02 AM

    Gragh get off my lawn!

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  7. dpc on January 30, 2012 at 11:28 AM

    I wish John Dehlin would have said what Sam Harris and Michael Shermer said in answer to his question about delivering casseroles in Logan. I think that religion has staying power because it creates a community apart from our regular lives. If they do away with religion, how do atheists propose to fill the vacuum for civil society that it would create?

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  8. Mormon Heretic on January 30, 2012 at 12:15 PM

    I really had to chuckle when Greg Prince said that even atheists are having trouble keeping their kids in the fold. I think we can get very myopic when looking simply as Mormons having trouble keeping people in the faith. It’s a difficult thing to keep people motivated in the faith. I think John’s comment about casseroles in Logan is good too. Religion inherently has a great social aspect to it, and that’s a big reason why religion has been so resilient over the centuries. I also agree that adherence (or non-adherence) to a religion/atheism is cyclical. I don’t know if the social engineers have what it takes to create an atheist utopia.

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  9. SteveS on January 30, 2012 at 3:00 PM

    I think any parent that invests a ton of emotional and psychological energy into one ideology or worldview is bound to be upset by their children, who will somehow zero in on that one thing that matters so much to their parents when they start to “rebel” during their teenage years. Sociologists have done numerous studies that show that in the teenage years, young people seek ways of exploring the world outside the influence of their families, and often challenge the family’s shared values in order to differentiate themselves from the family as they seek to understand their own identity, and their identity in the larger social community.

    So who are the parents who struggle most to keep their kids thinking along the same lines as they do? Ironically, the religiously zealous ones AND the atheists. Both promote an absolutist perspective, but on opposite ends of the spectrum. The very-religious parents affirm the existence of God, and based on that belief often have elaborate doctrines and rules that govern appropriate behavior. Similarly, atheists proclaim that the is definitely NO God, and set up strict doctrines (teachings) and rules to ensure that their children never allow the twin powers of the scientific process and rationalism from reigning supreme. In both cases, the teenagers see rules as those things that were “meant to be broken”, if only to see what happens.

    What’s my point? My guess is that parents who are somewhat religious (or somewhat areligious), teaching their children principles of healthy and ethical living without really imposing a rigid theological or anti-theological system as boundaries for personal choice, have fewer children who “rebel” against their faith. In a Mormon context, I know it’s hard for contemporary LDS to orient their family life in anything other than as a high-stakes proposition, where the outside world seeks to disintegrate and distort them from living God’s way. But maybe in putting such pressure on appropriate thought and behavior and investing so much in the role of family life in religious expression, we set ourselves up for disappointment when the rebellion inevitably comes? Is there a middle way for Mormons that wouldn’t create such pressure and potential for heartache?

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  10. Bob on January 30, 2012 at 3:48 PM

    #9: Steve,
    “Is there a middle way for Mormons that wouldn’t create such pressure and potential for heartache?
    Yes__my sister who has six kids say: “Well, one goes bad, at least I won’t blame myself.

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  11. SteveS on January 30, 2012 at 4:05 PM

    in my comment, “rules to ensure that their children never allow the twin powers of the scientific process and rationalism from reigning supreme” should read “rules to ensure that their children never allow the twin powers of the scientific process and rationalism from NOT reigning supreme” Whoops.

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  12. Heber13 on January 30, 2012 at 5:20 PM

    I have noticed that there are times I agonize over issues as an adult, research and ponder over it, and spend time formulating for me how it works for my faith and helps guide me in my life.

    There have been some issues that are huge for me, and after thinking about how much I care for my high school age kids, I gently share some ideas because I want them to know what I’ve learned and not have to find things out in a painful way that I have.

    In most of those cases, my kids shrug shoulders and say, “That’s interesting. Thanks dad. But anyway, is it OK if I go out with friends tonight?” I was expecting more than that…more “Wow, Dad, that’s amazing. That makes me wonder about my church activities…”

    I think, at times, us parents try so hard to give wisdom and experience to our kids because we want them to grow up better than us…but they are only going to think about it when and how they are prepared to think about it, and my influence as a parent is only ONE of MANY factors they listen to as they make up their minds.

    If they see a friend who is happy, and that friend goes to church…that is a big influence for them to want to try something to be happy…especially since Dad doesn’t know what he’s talking about half the time (roll-eyes). As much as I hate to admit it, their familiarity with my weaknesses often hurts my credibility, even though I’m really close to my kids.

    In other words, I think we are programmed to grow up and want to discover things for ourselves and challenge what our parents have told us…and our kids have that need as well. Religion doesn’t seem to be going extinct any time soon, just changing flavors.

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  13. Andrew S. on January 30, 2012 at 5:45 PM

    I think the major point to realize is that people aren’t all the same. So, people can hear similar things as others and come to different conclusions.

    Basically, I think you can intuit why atheists have such a hard time keeping their kids in the “fold” (I so dislike that term applied to atheism…) for the same reason religious folks have that issue. Why do some people disaffect from religious households? *Because just because your parents are inclined to religiosity doesn’t mean you will be.*

    Why do some people “disaffect” from secular households? Same reason: *because just because your parents are inclined to secularism doesn’t mean you will be.*

    This kinda gets into what Heber13 was saying. Not everyone is interested in the same issues, and learning something won’t have the same impact on every person.

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  14. hawkgrrrl on January 30, 2012 at 8:35 PM

    That which we resist, persists. If you push your kids too hard in either direction, they’ll resist.

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  15. Bob on January 30, 2012 at 10:16 PM

    It’s called ‘weaning’ in Nature. It’s when you stop taking milk from your mother and go out on your own. Why are parents be so hard on themselves over this? Isn’t this what we what to happen?

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  16. mh on January 30, 2012 at 11:19 PM

    no bob. I think most parents want their children to follow their values. did you want and expect your children to reject your beliefs?

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  17. SUNNofaB.C.Rich on January 30, 2012 at 11:37 PM

    Atheists are a lot like hard-core religious types. They over-do it. Over-doing it makes your kids say “uhhh, no thanks mom and pop, i’m gonna do my own thing..”

    “Lullabies, look in your eyes,
    Run around the same old town.
    Doesn’t mean that much to me
    To mean that much to you.”

    -Neil Young “Old Man”

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  18. Bob on January 31, 2012 at 12:49 AM

    #16: mh,
    My kids know better than to reject MY beliefs or values (grin). But I did/do expect them to have their OWN beliefs/values, and they do.

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  19. Mormon Heretic on January 31, 2012 at 12:53 PM

    Well Bob, that gets to the point. We all hope that our kids OWN beliefs will be the same as MY beliefs. You seem to have avoided the tough question with a joke. If your kids rejected YOUR beliefs, would that make you satisfied? Are you saying that all kids should reject their parent’s beliefs (in the name of weaning), or are there some that you expect/hope them to follow?

    I am assuming that you would not want them to reject morality in the favor of prostitution, for example. Certainly some kids reject their parents morality. If your kids followed prostitution, for example, is that something you would embrace as a child weaning off the morality of your generation? If a child of yours rejected Christianity in favor of militant Islam, would you view that as a good thing?

    I have some relatives where the girls are all temple married, but the boys are tattoo artists, claiming their bodies are temples and they are just decorating the temple of their body. (They’re also decorating their lungs with tobacco smoke.) Is this something you “want to happen”, because it’s the “Weaning nature”?

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  20. Bob on January 31, 2012 at 3:44 PM

    #19: MH,
    It’s easy for me to talk about how I rasied my kids__they are in their 40s now.
    But yes, I did want then to think for themselves and plan their own lives, reach their own values, and they did.
    When I say they know better than to reject my thinking, it’s they know I hold my opinions/values/beliefs quite high and know not to ‘put them down’, but to have their own.
    Both married outside the Church. Both picked somethings that brought me pain. My daughter has 5 Kids and tattoos. My son is Phi Beta Kappa from Berkeley, in a mixed marriage, no kids.
    Both choose these lives for themselves and I am happy I never tried to force them one way or the other.

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  21. simplysarah on January 31, 2012 at 10:27 PM

    I really liked comments 1 and 4.

    I also think that human nature leads us to trust in authorities. As someone else said above – people long for moral authorities.

    I am familiar with a study which found that even college students who preferred scientific over supernatural explanations did so because of trust in authority figures (rather than because of trust in reason, evidence).

    It’s not surprising to me that some children raised with an emphasis on the secular/scientific will still gravitate to a voice claiming moral authority. But I personally hope that the cycle can be altered in favor of moderation and rationality (yes, I’m biased!).

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