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Believe it or not

Has the West given up on religion?

A new study from scholars at the University of Arizona and Northwestern University suggests that religion may one day become “extinct” in nine Western countries: Australia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Canada, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. The team’s mathematical model plotted data showing a steady rise in those claiming no religious affiliation.

Although the United States was not included in their model, “nones” (those claiming no affiliation) are on the rise here as well. A 2010 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that adults ages 18-29 are “significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20% in the late 1990s) and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13% in the late 1970s).”

Observers have seized on these findings to grind all sorts of ideological axes. Talk show host Dennis Prager, for example, insists “God is not doing so well” and blames a number of factors: secular, leftist universities that disparage religion; clergy who’d rather make their congregants “comfortable” than advocate their religion’s moral and religious standards; and “the evil done in God’s name” by Muslims. (He blames liberals too, saying they don’t do enough to speak out against radical Islam and in defense of the name of God.)

And yet the same Pew study of the so-called Millennials suggests that they “remain fairly traditional in their religious beliefs and practices.” Young adults believe in God, heaven, hell, and miracles at rates similar to other age cohorts. The study suggests, unsurprisingly, that people put greater emphasis on religious belief as they get older.

In other words, those secular, leftist universities are doing a lousy job of teaching disbelief, while the churches and synagogues are struggling to keep the believers in the pews.

For those who believe emuna and kehilla — faith and community — cannot be separated, the challenge is clear. Young people have a yearning for connection; we have to create the programs and institutions that help them connect.

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