We all know a friend or two who grew up Catholic but no longer associates themselves with religion. “What a shame,” an older devout Catholic might think, “that young people just don’t understand life.” What we may not realize, though, is that this generational gap is an opportunity for us to become good debaters.
Millennials have been labeled as “the least religious generation” in history. It’s true — young people are leaving the church. In fact, according to a longitudinal research study conducted by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, church attendance of high-school seniors decreased by half from 2000 to 2013, and three times as many college students don’t affiliate themselves with religion compared to the previous generation. What does that mean for us?
This brings me back to a conversation from last summer I had with my uncle, who is a priest. “I hope you find meaning in little things in life through connection with God,” he said in reference to a tree. “You’ll find ways to do that as you grow older.” The trouble with this line of thought is that people tend to assume that millennials lack empathy and fail to seek meaning in life — if I don’t pray before dinner, do I fail to express gratitude?
Twenge finds that millennials’ decline in religious involvement is not age-dependent. Instead, she suggests that it may be due to a cultural rise of individualism of our modern generation. In an individualistic society, there is less desire to conform and a greater attempt to maintain sense of self. But we fail to recognize this fact in practice.
From conversations with friends, I find that many students avoid talking about their non-religiousness in their Catholic homes. Maybe their devout Catholic grandparents wouldn’t understand; they don’t know how to bring it up or they just don’t care. But the main reason appears to reside in our tendency to circumvent conflict. A friend once remarked, “My dad told me that two things I should avoid talking about with people are politics and religion.”
I personally have experienced this ambivalence myself. I grew up in a Catholic household, but my relationship with Catholicism grew tenuous over the years, especially when I first took biology in college. The very first day, as the professor explained the fundamentals of evolution, he stated, “There is no such thing as God.”
The students’ reactions were divided. Some people reacted adversely, while some others, like me, were intrigued by his bluntness.
Throughout the course, I became engrossed in biology and understanding the universe as a scientist, a passion that may be looked down upon by some devout Catholics. As Dr. Kalanithi writes, “I, like most scientific types, came to believe in the possibility of a material conception of reality.” However, by viewing life in the Darwinian sense that life has no higher purpose, I grew up torn between the scientific mind and desire to foster love; between respect for my family’s beliefs and having my own voice.
As I lived my conflict, I began to initiate conversations with my own family. I told my parents the things I learned about evolution, while they reminded me about the importance of fundamental human experiences such as hope, love, suffering and striving. By doing so, I realized that my preference to leave my church was not due to lack of purpose and meaning, but rather quite the opposite.
It was in these discussions with my parents that I began to recognize the complementary aspects of science and religion. I have come to realize that we need an anti-Darwinian society, as Richard Dawkins suggests. We need to learn evolution to understand why we exist, but we should not live by it. Understanding evolution can help us learn what to avoid in human life — how to uplift those who need it most and not cast them aside.
But, are religion and science even in conflict? According to Pew Research, the famous religion versus science debate may still be relevant. Six out of 10 adults express the view that scientific knowledge and religion are at odds with each other, especially on the topic of the creation of the universe.
Michael Evans, a research associate at Dartmouth College, provides an interesting perspective: “Public conflict involving religion and science reflects a fundamental conflict over good debate.” In making this comment, Evans urges us to talk to one another to not only advance our own positions, but more importantly, to listen to one another.
To better engage older generations and millennials, I find it that we need to begin these conversations at dinner, which is the place people avoid talking about religion the most. To remind us the importance of argument, Megyn Kelly writes in her book “Settle for More,” “I believe in the right to offend. To insult. Even to horrify. It’s not that we’re supposed to enjoy it, it’s that we’re supposed to allow it and then respond in a more persuasive voice.”
Avoiding conflict is counterproductive to our education. Let’s become better debaters, starting at the dinner table.
Gina Choe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.