My greatest fear is that children today, even those from the happiest families, face much larger obstacles than I did, given the current chaos on a cultural and national scale. Looking back at my adolescence and early adulthood, I see little lifelines everywhere: books, teachers, music, the tremor of a pipe organ, an intelligent sermon, a pious professor—all the little things that set my metaphysical Geiger counter to crackling, as Walker Percy puts it in The Moviegoer, all the clues that set me off on the search. It would seem that fewer such lifelines are available to young persons today, though the need for them has increased.
I see my fears realized in sociological data collected by the Springtide Research Institute, which focuses on the religious beliefs and practices of Americans aged thirteen to twenty-five. Their 2020 report “Relational Authority: The State of Religion and Young People” is full of what the authors generously call complexity, but what I would call—with equal generosity—contradiction. More than half of the young people who said they were affiliated with a particular religious tradition also said they have “little to no trust in organized religion.” A fifth of affiliated youth said that, despite their affiliation, they are not religious; nearly a third said they don’t think it’s important to have a faith community, and exactly a third said they attend religious services once a year or less. Among unaffiliated youth, the majority say that they are at least slightly spiritual (60 percent), while significant minorities say that they are religious (38 percent), that they “try to live out their religious beliefs in their daily lives” (28 percent), and that they attend religious gatherings at least once a month (19 percent).