The 26%

Blake Ellis’ piece at CNN, “Want Cheaper Tuition? Find Religion,”  raises a fascinating question. “With church membership dwindling and more families struggling to afford the cost of college,” he writes, “many private religiously-affiliated colleges and universities are slashing tuition and offering incentives to attract new students — and to stay afloat.” Importantly, the reasons for dwindling student populations at “religiously-based” schools transcend the recent Great Recession as well as fewer Americans self-identifying as “Christian” (down from 86% in 1990 to 76% in 2008). “Religious membership has been on the decline,” Ellis explains, not merely among Americans generally, but “especially among young people… About 26% of Americans ages 18 to 29 say they are unaffiliated with any denomination, according to a generation gap survey conducted by Pew Research this year.” This percentage is significantly higher than that of “nones” among the general population, about 15%.

Here’s the fascinating question: Will the 26% experience a “generational return” to the traditions in which they were raised, or at least raised “around,” as they grow older, likely marry and have children themselves? For, as the scholar of Chinese religion, Jonathan Herman, once remarked to me, “religion matters most when we are hatched, matched, and dispatched.” And if the 26% do experience some sort of generational return, what will their traditions look like, having been re-embraced in an increasingly postmodern context in which movement, fluidity, and blending with elements of popular culture, predicated largely upon personal satisfaction, are the order of the day?


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