WASHINGTON, D.C. — Changes in American parenting combined with advent of social media, disappearing local journalism and declining community participation have contributed to the major reduction in religious participation among young adults, panelists said at the second annual IRF Summit.

“Diminishing faith matters,” said Daniel Cox, a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute, speaking to an audience at the International Religious Freedom Summit.

Regular religious participation produces a litany of positive effects, he said during the summit on religious freedom abroad and in the United States. The IRF Summit included dozens of events, including video presentations by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

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“There’s a generation of scholarship that shows that being a member of a religious congregation or being active in a religious community is associated with a whole host of social and personal benefits, from feeling less alone and feeling more connected to your community to actually being healthier,” Cox said.

But changes over the past 25 years have accelerated a withdrawal from religiosity by young Americans, said the panel’s moderator, Deseret News Executive Editor Doug Wilks.

Today, just 28% of young adults under 30 attend church at least once or twice per month, according to Deseret’s State of Faith survey, released in April.

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The survey found that 31% of members of this age cohort believe in God as described in the Bible, compared to 50% of Americans ages 30 to 44 and more than 60% of Americans older than 45.

Cox and Eric Baxter, Becket vice president and senior counsel, said those differences are explained in part by changes in the life experiences of American children. Children eat dinner with their families less often, which means they learn less about society, complexity and larger issues than they did in the past, they said.

“Among baby boomers, three-fourths said that they had meals together every day,” Cox said. “You want to hazard a guess where a Gen Z ended up there? Only a quarter report that they had meals together. That’s an absolute massive change across a couple of different generations.”

He said this reflects a growing value placed by middle- and upper-middle-class parents on child achievement over establishing community. They value providing enrichment opportunities like camp, music classes or sports over hosting neighbors in their home or participating with their children in religious activities or services or civic activities.

“These decisions that parents are making are trickling down,” he said.

Baxter said parents are spending more time with children but talk less with them about larger issues. He cited late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who had nine children and said he chose not to go sit and watch all of their baseball games. He said he valued that they learned, like he did, to negotiate lessons on working out his own with other children what’s fair or not on the ball field.

Social media is no substitute for parenting

Instead of learning to process complex issues over dinner or while reading scripture or from religious teachers or while sitting in church with people with whom they may disagree, children and youth instead get their information from peers on social media.

“That’s very different information,” Baxter said. He added, “When that information comes up, young people jump to conclusions without grappling with the complexities.”

It’s also determined by algorithms, said Pixstory CEO Appu Esthose Suresh, whose new social media platform is constructed to fosters structured, meaningful debate instead of oversimplified interpretations of complex issues.

“We have two problems. One is addiction. A like button is 20 times a dopamine kick,” Suresh said during another IRF panel discussion. “That’s like substance abuse. So you’re already hooked on to that. The other problem is anonymity.”

Religion would benefit from improved social media and from religious people behaving differently on social media, panelists said.

“What we need is an incentive which is higher or equal to addiction, and we need to get away from anonymity,” Suresh said during a panel called “Faith and Media: Partners for Resilience in Civil Society.” “So we need to focus on ways and means in which we need to rebuild this from a moral perspective not from that perspective.”

Baxter said social media “has definitely made everything worse.”

“You look at people engaging on Twitter, and people saying really grotesque or heinous stuff, and the first thing on their description on Twitter is ‘Christ follower,’” he said. “How people communicate and what they’re leading with when they’re communicating (is important). Are you coming to Twitter and engaging as a Christian, as a Muslim, as a Hindu, or as a Republican or somebody who hates Trump or somebody who hates Joe Biden? I think that we really have to think long and hard about what we’re presenting to the public, how we’re engaging with people who disagree with us, both in person and in these more impersonal social contexts.”

Faith and media

The faith and media panel included the release of a new white paper titled “Coming Together or Coming Apart: An Analysis of Resilience and Freedoms of Media and Religion.”

The white paper found a dearth of religious journalism and reporting and suggested that newsrooms hire more religious diverse reporters. It focused on Brazil, India and Ethiopia and, amid a raft of suggestions, said that improved and more diversified local journalism would benefit those societies.

“We do believe that there should be freedom of press and increased access to social media,” said Wendy Wilson, a senior program administrator at the Fund for Peace, “but that has to be balanced against increased access to digital literacy and media training. And this is should be happening for both journalists and consumers of the news.”

Cox expressed deep concern for children.

“We are seeing a major crisis when it comes to social disaffection, loneliness, other mental health issues that flow from that among young people. And this is partly the response to this focus on nonsocial activities, nonengagement, not building out social bonds, but on the individual achievements you get through college and on into life. 

“So what we’ve got is one of the most amazingly accomplished generations we’ve ever seen that is also the most lonely.”

Solutions also were part of the discussion during the Deseret News panel, which was titled “Keep the Faith: Overcoming Barriers to Religious Expression Among the Rising Generation.”

“It’s obviously something without an easy answer,” said Cox, who also is the director of the Survey Center on American Life.

In addition to improving social media interaction and helping children be more involved in scripture and social and community activities, he said that communities miss the hyperlocal journalism common in the past.

“So much of the issues that we’re talking about are national issues,” he said. “We talk about abortion. We talk about LGBTQ rights. We talk about federal economic policy. But a lot of media is not covering what’s happening in your community, issues about which there’s not a clear line between Republicans and Democrats, between perhaps Muslims and Hindus and an atheist and evangelical Christians. We may all care about the fact that the trash trucks haven’t come for three days or the rat problem on 14th Street.

“There’s a lesson there, that when you get to more local contexts, you can find commonalities, common spaces where we can come together, and everything’s not politically divisive and the conversation’s not so fraught.”

Cox said young Americans crave open and compassionate discussion. Both parents and religious leaders need to understand that and respond, he said.

“Many of them respond much more effectively when it’s done outside of the political landscape, without trying to tie it into ongoing political issues,” he said. “It’s very difficult, because everything has become has become so political in our discussions. But learning to think about, if you’re a religious organization that is really focused on life, how do you speak about the importance of life issues without voicing it around political issues? If you have traditional views on marriage and sexuality, how do you speak to those, explain those, how do you give them everlasting significance or purpose to your values? I think that there’s a lot of work to be done in teaching those principles in ways that don’t tie into a political discussion as much.”