The Twentysomething Soul: Understanding the Religious and Secular Lives of American Young Adults
By Tim Clydesdale & Kathleen Garces-Foley
Oxford University Press, 2019
There’s a specter hovering over The Twentysomething Soul, the new book by Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley (subtitled “Understanding the Religious and Secular Lives of American Young Adults”), and where in the 1960s that specter would have been the Beatles and in the 1930s it would have been alcohol, in 2019 it’s something a bit more prosaic: 2016’s General Social Survey, which polled tens of thousands of American households on a broad variety of topics. Only one of those topics concerns this writing duo: a nearly 22% response from American adults declaring their religious affiliation to be “none.” This percentage of “Nones” in the population has been steadily growing in the 21st century, and underneath their book’s calm reason and well-presented research, that fact clearly disappoints and maybe even alarms our authors. “Understanding the growth of Nones and discovering why some maintain theistic beliefs but are not interested in organized religion, others create an eclectic spirituality, while the rest reject or claim indifference to all things religious or spiritual,” they write, “is an important story to be told.”
And an important trend to combat - you can virtually hear the addendum. Interspersed with the authors’ analysis of current youth-participation trends among Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Evangelicals, there are quiet but longing glances at the theologically unified society that’s always been part of the American dreamscape precisely because it’s never been a part of the American reality:
There is a long tradition in America that views religious affiliation as necessary for a healthy and strong democracy. President Dwight Eisenhower famously remarked, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” … A moral and engaged citizenry, to be sure, is necessary for a robust republic.
Eisenhower’s bit of wry irony seems lost on Clydesdale and Garces-Foley (credit to our authors: most books of this kind simply leave out that “I don’t care what it is” part), and it hardly needs pointing out that neither they nor Ike would smile benevolently on a sudden 4000% uptick in American Wahhabism. No, when The Twentysomething Soul sifts the data to determine just what and how young Americans believe, the book is clearly hoping to find them neatly dressed and on their knees in church on Sundays.
If you hope to see that too, The Twentysomething Soul will calm your worries a bit. Clydesdale and Garces-Foley are companionable and very readable guides as they survey the inner faith-lives of a generation most Americans find baffling at best. They talk with many young people all across the spectrum of religious belief, and they come across as tactful and smart interviewers. This is no doubt in large part because they are genuine seekers after a better picture than mere data presents - and, crucially, they’re at least partly willing to accept the picture revealed by their investigation. “We see American twentysomethings as postmodern pilgrims,” they write, “freely selecting religious, spiritual, or secular tools from their cultural toolkits, and using them as much or as little as they please as they travel the spokes and nodes of our vast American social network.”
The heavily-implied argument running throughout The Twentysomething Soul is that the greater the number of young people professing or participating in some kind of Christianity, the better, the more legitimate somehow, the whole enterprise is. This is a casual type of logical fallacy, of course, and if Clydesdale and Garces-Foley get to do it, so do I: of the three dozen twentysomethings with whom I interact quite often on a weekly basis, none - not one - ever spares any kind of religion or spirituality even a single passing thought. These are all young people whose parents profess religion, but religion comprises not the smallest neglected part of their own thinking or world-view. They are not fiery apostates or preaching atheists; they are the world’s first truly non-religious generation. They might grow up to lead their countries into war, but it won’t be a war of their gods against enemy gods; they might grow up to deny social or legal rights to their fellow citizens, but they won’t look to any Scripture for their justification; they might grow up to countenance all kinds of evil, but at least they won’t hide it under the same lazy Deus lo vult that worked for their grandparents. If they have gods, those gods are Juul and YouTube.
Will this make them less happy, in the long run? Is it a phase that will end when they marry and have children of their own? Or will it help them to become rudderless, medicated psychopaths? Here’s hoping Clydesdale and Garces-Foley check back in a decade with The Thirtysomething Soul.
Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.