Religion and Youth: World Perspectives

The riots in London have raised the issue again as to what is happening in Western culture. Many people have been asking what has gone wrong. There will be no simple answer. The structures of contemporary society need to be re-examined. One may also ask if such events demonstrate a rootlessness, a lack of purpose and altruism which religious faith would normally be addressing. In 2010, two major books were released on the study of religion and youth. Both books spell out clearly the decline of religion among young people and the decline of religious influence on behaviour. One was a collection of essays edited by Sylvia Collins-Mayo and Pink Dandelion, and simply titled, Religion and Youth. The second book, edited by the Italian sociologist, Giuseppe Giordan, was the first in a series of annual reviews of the sociology of religion and was entitled Youth and Religion.

The picture in northern and western Europe is very largely of a loss of interest in institutional forms of religion. In France, there is a widespread lack of interest in institutionalised religion, except among religious minority groups such as the Muslims. Nevertheless, there are many who still maintain some sort of belief. For example 36 per cent of young people agree that ‘there is a God’, and another 29 per cent affirm ‘there is some sort of spirit or life force’. While 35 per cent of French young people reject both God and a higher power (Giordan, p.181), most French young people are not strongly antagonistic to religion and many still come back to religion for some personal rites of passage.

The reasons for the decline are explored in greater depth in the book Religion and Youth. Richard Flory and Donald Miller begin the book by noting that those who were born after 1975 have grown up at the forefront of the digital revolution. They suggest that this revolution has placed multiple options in front of young people. They note that religion has become a choice in which denominational labels are relatively unimportant. Religious authority is internal rather than external, as in the hierarchy of a church. They value religious experiences more than religious beliefs and have the sense of being on a journey rather than in a static community (Collins-Mayo et al., p.10). They distrust institutions of many kinds, including both political and religious, and distrust their leaders (Collins-Mayo et al., p.11), although they do participate in some institutions, usually focussing on the relationships they find within. They live with residual fear, of economic collapse, environmental disaster or terrorist attack (Collins-Mayo et al., p.12).

While there has been general decline in religious involvement, there remain many small groups within European and other societies with high levels of belief and practice. A group of scholars from the Netherlands argue that, in their country, ‘the Christian churches have lost even more of their former appeal and legitimacy than almost anywhere else in the Western world’ (Giordan, p.289).

One of the themes in both books is immigrant young people. The common theme is that, in various ways, immigrant young people must negotiate between the heritage of their families and the social context in which they now find themselves. Such negotiations are not always easy and the outcomes vary from one situation to another.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 3, Pages 1-8

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