The Future of Doctrine

We’ve talked about the meaning, the message, and the motivation of doctrine. We’ve talked about how it has emerged and evolved. We’ve discussed whether doctrine says more about us or more about God. We have looked at it in granular detail and from a 10,000-foot bird’s eye view. We’ve explored whether God wanted doctrinal diversity in order to prevent weaponization of a single, powerful doctrine. 

The future of doctrine is related to the future of religion, and given recent research finding that Millennials are generally not as religious as older Americans, that future seems somewhat in doubt. (See the end of this post for an excerpt from the Pew report.) 

Another Pew paper notes a significant increase in religious shifting among the generations from a similar study 9 years earlier, which itself noted significant shifts. Both studies show that switching religious profiles is a common occurrence in the United States. Among non-evangelical Protestants, Catholics, and nones, the latter have grown while the former two have shrunk. 

Nearly one-in-five American adults (18%) were raised in a religion and are now unaffiliated, compared with just 4% who have moved in the other direction. In other words, for every person who has left the unaffiliated and now identifies with a religious group more than four people have joined the ranks of the religious “nones.” By contrast, both Catholicism and mainline Protestantism, the two groups whose shares of the overall population have declined most sharply in recent years, have lost more members to religious switching than they have gained.

The Christian share of the population is declining and the religiously unaffiliated share is growing. The decline is greater among whites than among Hispanics and Blacks. The declining rate is the same among men and women. The retention rate in the unaffiliated has increased. The number of nones calling themselves atheist or agnostic has increased. Evangelical Protestants have remained stable, compared to non-evangelical Protestants, whose numbers are significantly down. Evangelicals now outnumber non-evangelicals. 

Another Pew poll found that generational changes in religious affiliation is greatest in the US and Western Europe, with fewer children identifying with the faith of their parents. In the Islamic world, the changes are minimal. 

In short: In the West at least, there is less religious affiliation, less attendance, less belief, less adherence to doctrine, and less reliance on authority (governmental or religious). What does this imply for the future of doctrine and religion? What does it say for the granular versus the condensed doctrinal principles we have been discussing? 

Robin: Things have changed since we were young. Doctrine should always be examined in the light of Scripture. God does not change, but we do. In fact, we see change all around us—and not necessarily for the better. How much effect the media and violent videogames and so on have on young people’s minds, I don’t know; but it does not seem to bode well in light of what the Book of Revelation talks about. 

David: In social science it is wrong to simply extrapolate a documented trend—to assume it will continue into the future. We must think about what forces and factors might disrupt or even reverse the trend, because if there aren’t any, it is then reasonable to assume that the trend will continue to the point where everyone will be a “none” and there will be no organized religion left standing. 

I agree that the media are a significant factor. Marshall McLuhan’s dictum: “The medium is the message” is apt. We now have a global, interpersonal communication medium (the Internet) that lets everyone see into the lives and cultures of everyone else. This was just not possible on any scale until mere decades ago, and I would hypothesize that it is the key factor driving the civilization-shaking trends revealed by Pew; that part of the diminution of faith in institutions has to do with our ability to see other faiths in action and learn their points of view. 

For instance, except for a few insubstantial mentions of “Mussulmen” in the seafaring novels I was addicted to in my youth, I neither heard nor read a word about Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism until I joined the British Army and was sent to Malaysia, where I was surrounded by all three! There were no mosques or temples (that I was aware of) in the English city I grew up in. There were only Protestant and Catholic churches, plus a few synagogues huddled mainly in a more-or-less segregated part of town. Now, everyone is surrounded by every religion from birth, without having to travel to Malaysia. This must have some impact on everyone, and I think it is a key factor underlying the trends that Pew reports. 

I tend to see this optimistically, as leading toward a better world. 

Don: The trendline of inter-generational change is much flatter in the Middle East and Islamic countries in general. Children almost invariably adopt the faith of their parents. There are many potential factors that contribute to that finding, and it would seem constructive to compare and contrast the factors as they apply to all faiths and non-faiths. 

David: There is clearly a strong parental obedience factor at work in Islam. Why not in other religions? I would hypothesize, based on my own observation, that in fact Islamic generations too are increasingly exposed to and affected by the Internet as well as by physical exposure to Western cultural influences through refugee flows/immigration, and therefore their obedience will increasingly be mediated by those factors. I suspect that they are in fact on the same trajectory but are simply behind the curve. I predict they will catch up.  

Donald: Our younger generation is starting to waver. The younger Moslem generation may not be quite there, yet. But perhaps our older generation is wavering a little bit, too, and that is bound to have some effect on the younger generations. The future of religion and the future of doctrine may go hand-in-hand, but what about the future of faith? Can one truly be faithful but not religious? These are people who do not want to be tied to doctrine, but to faith. Doctrine seems to be up for grabs, but the mindset of America is broadening all the time. Education alone broadens it, not to mention Hollywood. What about in other countries? In my experience, Africa remains more tied to doctrine, but as we see this could change in a generation or two. Doctrine is losing ground. 

It’s interesting that the millennials are going back to socialism and faith in government. 

Don: Recent research seems to show that. 

Donald: Millennials may have hit the bottom. They don’t see social security in their future, but they do see higher education loan debt in their future. To what entity can they turn? 

KB: Millennials are practical. They think that their parents were not practical. They don’t see religion or doctrine as practical. Government, however, has at least the potential to be moved in a preferred direction, through the ballot box. They don’t look to religion for answers. Africa looks to the West for answers, because it was the West that gave them the idea of modernization—and religion was part of the package. African Adventists are viewed as modernized because of the way they live—they read Western books, they don’t eat or dress in the African tradition, they don’t mourn in the traditional way. 

That makes it difficult to identify with traditional fellow Africans, who question our “white” ways, including our music. It is causing some Adventists to look for ways to re-affirm their African-ness in their worship and in life. The pastors generally don’t know how to respond. They understand—they are African, too—but they don’t want to get involved in something that might be frowned upon. I might want to introduce an African drum to liven up the hymn Chief Of Sinners Though I Be, to help me connect with it better, but they would be uncomfortable with that. 

If a religion cannot respond to one’s true identity, can it be one’s true religion? African millennials think: “I am an African before I am a Christian How does this white religion accommodate me?” We have an addendum to our Adventist hymnal with about 90 hymns written in the Xhosa language. When we sing them, we give them a beat and we clap to the beat. But we are not allowed to sing those songs in the 11 o’clock Sabbath service. They make the older Adventists very uncomfortable when sung on the Sabbath, though they enjoy the music as much as anybody after Sabbath ends.  

This is not just an Adventist issue, either. Lutheran friends have told me they play the drum in church, but hide it when the bishop visits.  

Robin: It happens everywhere. We had a small group with a drummer once, but it was felt they did not belong on the church stage. Yet the people who objected to their music had no problem singing to the recorded music—which included drums!—played through the loudspeakers on the church stage. 

Donald: So we must add culture to the doctrinal equation. It is coming it pretty strong for a doctrine to tell a culture that it is wrong. It would be like proselytizing the Amish—they cannot remain Amish while converting to Adventism.

Don: Some cultures allow polygamy. How does a polygamist become a Methodist or Catholic? Should doctrine rule in such cases?

KB: Zulus who have multiple wives can become church members but they cannot hold any kind of office in the church. The church sort-of hides them, but it does at least try to accommodate them. 

Donald: The Old Testament makes frequent reference to polygamous relationships—without censure.

David: Scripture is the source of doctrine. If belief in doctrine is declining, is not belief in the Bible (and the Qur’an, etc.) not declining also? And could the decline be attributable, at least in part, to growing awareness of all doctrines? 

At this year’s Jehovah’s Witnesses annual Memorial commemorating the death of Jesus, the speaker explained (as they do every year at Memorial) the Witnesses’ Revelation-based belief that 144,000 people will be anointed to sit alongside Jesus in heaven as administrators of the earthly paradise set up for everyone else who passes judgment. The anointed are all Christians, he said, because according to Revelation they all have the name Jesus stamped on their foreheads. Hence the JW doctrine regarding the anointed, and it seems to me a not unreasonable doctrine for anyone to hold who believes that Scripture is the everlastingly immutable word of God. 

Don: Could technology throw a spanner in the works? 

David: It is doing just that, but in what seems to me (not to everyone) to be a beneficial way. I am able to discuss such issues with a Moslem friend—because he speaks English. But the technology is almost here that would enable me to discuss such issues with Moslems who speak no English. Dialog—communication—makes a difference. It can throw spanners into a status quo. The status quo hitherto has been division, and the division is largely the result of lack of communication. The technology of instantaneous language interpretation will disrupt the divisions and tend to unite, rather than further divide, in my hypothesis.

KB: So the pendulum has swung too far, and needs to swing back? 

David: Pendulums seek equilibrium. This is clearly the case in South Africa as you have described it so well. Africans are recovering some of the roots they abandoned, and Whites are abandoning some of their own roots, which they foisted on others. Music exemplifies this perfectly, with today’s African parents as upset over drums in church as yesterday’s White parents were upset about Chuck Berry’s music at high school proms! There was probably a racial component but parental fear of Chuck Berry was more cultural than racial. Those young whites who screamed in ecstasy at Chuck Berry’s songs are today’s parents and grandparents. They would probably be delighted if their children would only listen to the saintly Chuck Berry instead of the rubbish that masquerades as music today…. (Uh, oh; here we go again…! 😉 )

Donald: Is the pendulum swing linear? If our parents were in this room with us, would they be comfortable with what they hear us say? 

Don: Probably not. Their presence might not change our minds, but we might be a bit more circumspect, a bit less forthright, in pursuing and presenting our views. 

Donald: Perhaps we understand our parents better than they understand us. We can see how church has played a very positive role in their lives, but in a somewhat different way to the role it plays in our lives. Adventism was viewed as raising people up on the socioeconomic ladder, a laudable goal that people could subscribe to. But do millennials not have reason to doubt that it is any longer a viable goal for them, no matter how laudable? 

I am inclined to be optimistic, but do we need to focus our energy on faith more than on doctrine—on the 15 fundamentals we discussed recently instead of on the 27 Beliefs? 

David: I too am optimistic, in part because of the statistics Don quoted at the beginning of class about continuing belief in heaven and hell and in sharing faith—in spirituality. To me, this equates to belief in God. The world may be growing less religious, but is not growing less spiritual. Thank God for that! 

Don: It is interesting that Adventists value education highly and promote it strongly. Education is the most liberalizing of influences on the mind, yet here we have a rather conservatively-minded faith group that emphasizes it, with considerable success. There is potential for a conflict of minds, clearly; and this conflict may be what we are seeing in relations between the liberally educated West and the conservatively minded East. 

Donald: It seems to be a matter of balancing scientific research with religious indoctrination. 

KB: Today’s class has begun to tie together many of the things we have been discussing. 

Don: We will try to make this a feature of class going forward, so that we look not only at religion and religious practice through a historical lens but also through a futuristic one. 

* * *

Excerpts from a Pew report:

By some key measures, Americans ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older Americans. Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today. They also are less likely to be affiliated than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations were when they were young. Fully one-in-four members of the Millennial generation – so called because they were born after 1980 and began to come of age around the year 2000 – are unaffiliated with any particular faith. Indeed, Millennials 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). Young adults also attend religious services less often than older Americans today. And compared with their elders today, fewer young people say that religion is very important in their lives. (

Michael Hout, a professor of sociology at New York University, to examine possible reasons Millennials are generally not as religious as older Americans. Hout, who has spent years studying generational and religious changes in the United States, is the author or co-author of a number of books, including “Century of Difference: How America Changed in the Last One Hundred Years.”

By many measures of religious commitment, Millennials are less religious than older Americans. Why do you think this is? 

Most age differences at any given time are the legacy of the times people grew up in. Many Millennials have parents who are Baby Boomers and Boomers expressed to their children that it’s important to think for themselves – that they find their own moral compass. Also, they rejected the idea that a good kid is an obedient kid. That’s at odds with organizations, like churches, that have a long tradition of official teaching and obedience. And more than any other group, Millennials have been and are still being formed in this cultural context. As a result, they are more likely to have a “do-it-yourself” attitude toward religion.

Is what we’re seeing with Millennials part of a broader rejection of traditional institutions or is organized religion the only institution being affected?

Oh, it is widespread. It’s just easier to quantify religious change because we have such good data on it. But Millennials’ faith in nonreligious institutions also is weaker than they used to be. You see evidence of their lack of trust in the labor market, with government, in marriage and in other aspects of life. General Social Survey data on confidence in the leadership of major institutions show that younger people particularly are not as confident as older adults when it comes to institutions like the press, government and churches. But I think trust is not the whole story.

For one thing, there has been a long list of scandals in recent decades, such as Watergate, that have undone the reputations of major institutions the Greatest Generation trusted. Millennials didn’t grow up trusting these institutions and then had that trust betrayed like older Americans might have. They didn’t trust them to begin with. And these institutions have let people, particularly young people, down.

Are these trends likely to be long term? 

I’m reluctant to make predictions, but we can see how things have worked out lately. There used to be this view that there was a religious life cycle, that when you got older and married and had kids you got more active in organized religion. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. In the past 20 years, we really haven’t seen a lot of evidence of that cycle continuing.

With respect to the Catholic Church – lack of trust is fueled by the sexual abuse scandals in the church. What we see across all denominations is a gap emerging between politically liberal and moderate young people and leadership among conservative churches who are taking political positions on abortion, gay marriage and other social issues.

When that happens, people who are politically liberal and not active in a particular church often put distance between themselves and organized religion by answering “none of the above” to questions about religious preference. Moderates show the same tendency, just not as clearly. As a consequence, in the most recent General Social Survey (2014), 31% of political liberals who were raised in a religion had no religious preference compared to just 6% of political conservatives.

On a couple of measures of religiosity – namely belief in heaven and hell and willingness to share their faith with others – Millennials do seem more similar to older Americans. Why is this the case? 

I think you see higher levels of these things among Millennials because they require very little in the way of institutional involvement. They also are harbingers of the “make your own way” or “do-it-yourself” religion that characterizes this group.

I think people assume that people who do not belong to an organized religious group reject religion altogether. But many “nones” believe in God and heaven. And spiritual experiences are still attractive for people who don’t go to church. Some people find God in the woods rather than in a church.

I have to admit that the data on “sharing faith” is a bit confounding. But I’m sure many Millennials who said they share their faith don’t mean that they engage in missionary work. The choice of the word “share” is vague, so maybe some of them who answered the question thought of it in a more casual way, as in they discuss religion with others.

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