The Problem With Assuming That It's the Millennials' Fault for Abandoning Religion

By Derek Penwell

[Note:This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.]

I used to work with a guy who had a gift for breaking up with girls. He was so genuine and kind that afterward the girls would invariably leave feeling affirmed and cared for, like George Clooney had just fallen apart on them, relating how unworthy he was of their affections. Masterful. He was the ultimate “it’s-not-you-it’s-me” guy.

If you’re going to get dumped, that’s the kind of person you want lowering the boom, isn’t it?

But most people can’t pull off that level of empathy. Most people struggle between the poles of blame, between “your fault” and “my fault” -- all too aware of the other person’s problems, but also painfully suspicious (if not quite aware) of their own complicity. It’s normal.

Then there are the people at the other end of the spectrum, unencumbered by the decided disadvantage of ever entertaining the possibility that they’re wrong. This is the “it’s-not-me-it’s you” person. These are the folks who believe that no problem is too big or too complicated that -- with the application of a little intellectual candlepower -- it can’t be successfully blamed on somebody else.

Now this shedding of responsibility can come in two different forms. The first type is what I call “the slippery blame-caster” -- able to weasel out taking responsibility for anything that goes wrong by deflecting it onto someone else. This is the person who always seems to be standing behind you when the boss is around, pointing a finger at you when she thinks you’re not looking.

The second type I’ve labeled, “the belligerent blame-thrower” -- unfailingly staking out the moral high ground, convinced that culpability must lay with someone of obviously inferior moral fiber. This is the person who is sure you’ve screwed up somehow, but hasn’t quite figured out your tricks yet -- because you’re a slacker, and who else would do something like this?

I find the belligerent blame-thrower much too regularly in the church. Something goes wrong and this person’s default posture is “it’s not me; it’s you.” I knew a leader at one church who -- if he showed up late for something -- wouldn’t think of apologizing for keeping you waiting, but would proceed to blame you for giving bad directions, or changing the time, or failing to remind him.

I thought about that guy the other day as I was reading an article about whether Millennials are leaving religion because of the treatment of LGBT folks. The author cites a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey entitled, A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues, which indicates among other things that (31 percent) of Millennials say they are leaving religion over LGBT issues. Interesting, but come on, we pretty much knew that, didn’t we?

No, what I found particularly difficult to wrap my mind around emerged as I read the last part of the article. Turns out that, at least when it comes to appearances, fully 7-in-10 Millennials “believe that religious groups are alienating young adults by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.” That is to say, (70 percent) of people born between 1980 and 2000 believe that the church is hostile enough to LGBT issues that it’s driving people away.

On the other end of the age spectrum, however, only “roughly 4-in-10 (43 percent) members of the Silent Generation believe that religious groups are alienating young people, while nearly as many (44 percent) disagree.” That is to say, after looking at the decline experienced by American religious groups over the last fifty years,1 a larger portion of the Silent Generation responded to the trend by protesting, “It’s not us; it’s them. We don’t know why they’re leaving, but we’re pretty sure it’s nothing we did.”

I find this stunning lack of self-awareness on the part of older generations of religious people troubling. Notice I didn’t say that I find the inhospitableness of older generations troubling (although, the survey numbers do suggest that the older you are the less likely you are to be welcoming of LGBT folks). My problem has to do with the apparent inability of older generations to understand how they appear to others. Saying, “Well, I’m not intolerant of LGBT issues, and I’m tired of getting blamed because people misunderstand me” misses the point.

Pro tip: If you don’t consider yourself anti-gay, but you find yourself expending energy repeatedly defending against charges of homophobia, you probably ought to consider the possibility that maybe you’re not just being misunderstood.

This penchant for viewing the problem of the exodus of young people as unrelated to anything you’ve done is very near to the heart of the problem.

Case in point: One of the commenters on the article, a man who appears to occupy the graying edges of the age spectrum, implied that Millennials leaving religion because of anti-gay bias is their problem: “Saying, ‘I am not going to church anymore because of their hostility to gay and lesbian people’ is akin to saying, ‘I don’t eat seafood anymore, so I am not going to eat in any restaurant.’”

Now, the commenter may be right that young people have just misunderstood the message that religion presents on LGBT issues, but that misses the point. If you desperately want young people to help you stem the tide of religious decline, blaming them for not coming to your aid because you’re misunderstood, only soothes your own sense of inadequacy by blaming someone else for it.

“It’s not me; it’s you” is the death rattle of the isolated.

  1. 1. While I’m thinking first about the majority of those religious groups associated with Christianity, Judaism is also experiencing difficulties around declining membership. ↩