Why Are Millennials Unfriending Organized Religion?

Physicist Lawrence Krauss thinks religion could go the way of homophobia with the next generation, largely disappearing.

11.09.14 10:45 AM ET

On April 8, 1966, Time magazine’s now-iconic front cover asked in stark red font over a simple black background, “Is God Dead?” Though reactions focused more on the cover than the cover story—which, like most titular questions in journalism, was answered with a “no”—the pushback was strong and the topic was a cultural sore spot. Religion’s influence was in decline, and it was broadly assumed across most scholarly fields that a modernizing world would become a secular one, too. It became clear in about a decade that this rapid kind of secularization was a simplistic view; American Evangelicalism rapidly expanded in the late 70’s, steered by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.

A cautious and historical view is important when discussing the decline of religion, since religion always proves more robust and complicated than it’s given credit for. At least as far back as Comte and Marx in the 19th Century, scientists and thinkers have been announcing the imminent death of religion. After a few hundred years, these voices start to resemble doomsday cultists—the end is often heralded but never delivered.

It is with this in mind that I turn to theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss’ recent comments that religion as we know it might be gone within a generation.

Late last August, Krauss spoke at the Victorian Skeptics Café in Australia, and a brief clip from the talk appeared on YouTube this past Monday. “Change is always one generation away,” he told the audience, referencing the rapid cultural shifts on gay marriage and slavery, “so if we can plant the seeds of doubt in our children, religion will go away in a generation, or at least largely go away. And that’s what I think we have an obligation to do.”

Comparing religion to prejudice is a useful analogy, even if you don’t agree with the negative connotations like Krauss might. The comparison is somewhat off, though—religion resembles less a specific instance of prejudice, like homophobia or racism, and more the human tendency towards prejudice more broadly. While specific prejudices might just be a social shift or generational replacement away from disappearing, we’re far from a world that doesn’t think in terms of groups and stereotypes while preferring those most like us to those who are different. Similarly, specific brands of religion might disappear quickly (as one hopes bigoted and violent fundamentalism will) but it’s a stretch to think that something like religion—a complex and dynamic set of rituals, social practices, and cognitively ingrained ways of viewing the world—could be quite so fragile.

I spoke with Konika Banerjee, a PhD candidate in psychology at Yale University with an already-impressive set of work that explores the factors that make us religious. “I think what Krauss neglects to take into account is one of the major findings from research in the cognitive science of religion over the last few decades—namely, that people’s natural receptivity to religious ideas may be borne out of certain ordinary habits of the human mind,” she told me. “These habits are likely to be hard to extinguish entirely.”

These mental habits—tendencies to see actions as intentional, objects as the products of design, and our minds as distinct from our bodies, to pick a few examples—have proven beneficial but can over-extend. In this way, certain cognitive mechanisms can act like a hammer too eager for nails.

Banerjee’s research specifically explores our tendency to think about events, to put it romantically, as happening for a reason. In a paper published last month, Banerjee and her adviser Paul Bloom explored how people interpret significant events in their lives. Unsurprisingly, many religious believers most strongly saw these events as happening for reasons according to a plan. What was interesting, though, was that this pattern of thinking was present in nonbelievers, too. Half of them said they believed in fate. These findings suggest that to our tendency to see intention and agency in our lives isn’t culturally tied to religion, but instead a natural extension of our mental machinery—mentalizing, or roughly the ability to figure out what others are thinking, predicted whether people saw events as the product of fate or not (Disclosure: I was a student of Bloom’s as an undergraduate and worked on unrelated projects in his lab).

Past research shows that we tend to see God as behind certain events, particularly when hardships are involved. After reading a story about a family caught in an unexpected flood, people are more likely to hold God responsible when the family was killed and no one else was to blame for the harm. When the family was fine, or when a cruel employee at the dam was behind the flood, God was left out of the explanation. In a world where intuiting the thoughts and plans of others is so important, we start to see thinkers and plans that might not be there.

This tendency to see reasons behind natural events isn’t entirely learned. Research by psychologists Bethany Heywood and Jesse Bering show that even atheist in Britain see events in terms of purposes, even though Britain is a much more secular environment than the U.S. This tendency also develops early. Jean Piaget, the most famous developmental psychologist of the 20th Century, highlights this in a classic study. Piaget told young children stories about other children who misbehaved, either by stealing apples or by not listening to their parents and teachers. The children in these stories then went on to injure themselves by falling off of old bridges or cutting themselves. Almost all of the youngest children (86 percent of six year olds) said that the injuries wouldn't have happened if the children in the stories had behaved. When Piaget asked why the misbehaving child fell into the water, one of the children responded: “God made him [fall], because he had touched the scissors.” In another study published last month, Banerjee found that children tend to believe that events happen for intentional reasons like these—to send a sign or teach a lesson—even if the child has had no exposure to religion at home.

These studies only speak to one of our ingrained mental habits that make us particularly susceptible to religious belief. Others, like seeing minds as distinct from our bodies or death as something we can survive, also appear early in children. In one study, children saw a magic trick where objects placed into one box were duplicated in another. After seeing this trick with blocks and toys, children saw it performed with a hamster. Children thought physical features of the hamster (its broken tooth or the marble in its tummy) transferred to its duplicate, but not mental features (it’s memory of the picture you showed it before it went into the box). In another study, children saw a puppet show where a mouse was eaten by an alligator. Researchers asked the children certain questions about the mouse and a specific pattern emerged: the mouse’s mental life continued even if it’s biological one didn’t. According to the children, the mouse can’t eat or see but still loves its mom and wants to go home. The pattern held whether the children were in a Catholic or secular school (though the children in Catholic school showed the effect more strongly than their secular peers).  

This collection of data all suggests that built into our psychological make-up is a way of interpreting the world that makes us particularly susceptible to religion and religious ideas. It might be possible to move past these innate biases, but Banerjee suggests that it’d be difficult. “Overriding these sorts of intuitions may be effortful,” she says, “and therefore not nearly as easy to eliminate as Krauss suggests.”

We might be more accepting of gay marriage today than we were a decade ago, but it’d be naïve to suggest that a perfectly egalitarian society is right around the corner. Just the same, religion might be shifting and losing its influence, but a scientifically informed view can’t support the idea that religion will disappear so quickly. Though our cognitive biases may be less flexible than we’d like, that doesn't mean there’s nothing we can do. Krauss says that ending religion is a matter of obligation, but I think our obligations are much different. Instead of eliminating religion—a Sisyphean task if there ever was one—atheists can help to move religion in a more loving, tolerant, and open-minded direction. We can’t make much traction tearing religion down, but maybe we can make the world a kinder and better place.