Blame Jerry Falwell for Millennials’ Rejection of Religion

That pastor should've left the Teletubbies alone.

“He is purple—the gay-pride color,” wrote fundamentalist Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell in an issue of his National Liberty Journal back in 1999. “And his antenna is shaped like a triangle—the gay-pride symbol.” Jerry was, of course, talking about the beloved Teletubbies character Tinky Winky, the group’s red-bag-carrying appointed leader and apparent homosexual. Falwell’s comments went on to generate a media firestorm, complete with utterings that Tinky Winky could inspire homosexual behavior in the show’s young viewers.

For most people, what Falwell had to say about a character on a children’s show was irrelevant and asinine (which it was). But for American millennials—many of whom were just getting a solid grip on basic critical thinking at the time—Falwell’s piously hateful, anti-gay screed represents an early memorable experience with religion on a large public scale. Among the first of many faith-zapping public events during millennials’ development, Falwell’s remarks seem now to have ingrained a certain amount of religious doubt in my generation, and put us on a path toward non-religion.

A recent Pew survey found that more millennials are debating God’s existence, with around 68 percent of those surveyed saying they “never doubt the existence of God”—a 15 percent drop from 2007.  Comparatively, 89 percent of millennials’ grandparents, the “silent generation,” agreed with that same statement. That difference carries over into other areas of religion, with just 55 percent of surveyed millennials agreeing on the importance of prayer, the imminence of a Judgment Day and the existence of a God altogether.

“God is dead” might be empirically false, even if the figures do represent the largest percentage of non-religious Americans in history, but a more accurate statement might be “God is currently getting his affairs in order.” A recent study found that 25 percent of surveyed 18-to-24-year-olds identified as “religiously unaffiliated” (atheist, agnostic or nothing specific). Of that 25 percent, only around 11 percent grew up without religion, meaning that more than half of those who answered as unaffiliated have abandoned the faith in which they were raised.

Most affected by the move to non-belief are the Christian denominations, primarily Catholics and Mainline Protestants, with 7.9 percent and five percent drops, respectively. In terms of Christianity overall, 40 percent of all millennials say religion is not relevant to their lives—its practices, they say, are anti-gay (64 percent), judgmental (62 percent) and hypocritical (58 percent).

One might assume this trend is nothing more than youthful questioning, confused skepticism in the face of the unknowable—they’ll move back into the fold once they get older, as has traditionally been the case with young people and religion. Public Religion Research Institute research director Daniel Cox, however, says otherwise, indicating that “there’s not a lot of evidence most will come back” due to the trend dating back to the early ’90s. Cox’s sentiment was recently mirrored by Huffington Post columnist Nigel Barber, who computed that atheism will, if current trends continue, overtake traditional religion as a belief system by 2038. Probably a long shot, but it was nice of him to take the time.

Is it really any wonder, though, why twentysomethings are losing their religion? Consider what college-aged people have been witness to on a large scale in terms of what faith can do nationally: hard-line politicization of religion in general and Christianity in particular, browbeating of gays and women, continued attacks on scientific inquiry that border on anti-intellectualism, numerous sexual abuse scandals that destroyed the lives of countless children—the road to hell could even begin, we were told, with Tinky Winky’s less-than-masculine appearance and behavior. What it seems to come down to is cognitive disequilibrium created by being raised with the traditional notion of religion as a wholly accepting, loving force, only to later see it as a harsh divider.

Simply put, the millennial generation’s values are much less traditional than those of previous generations, and as such our concerns lie beyond conventional hangups like homosexuality, abortion and marriage. Culturally and ethnically diverse—moreso than any other generation—millennials seem to be leaving by the wayside the notion of moral absolutes, opting instead for non-judgment and acceptance overall. As the civic generation, we want to see results in action over being subjected to platitudes that lead approximately nowhere. We’re looking for equality, or tolerance at the very least. A connection, something to alleviate the existential angst with which we are all so familiar, is on the list too, no doubt (OK, maybe that’s not so different).

In that sense, it’s not a matter of confusion. We’re just increasingly not sure that that connection or those values can be met by as antiquated an institution as religion.