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The limits of secularity

Has American secularism reached its peak?

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The limits of secularity
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In his recent analysis of fresh survey data from the General Social Survey, respected American political scientist and sociologist Ryan Burge noticed that the steady rise in non-religious Americans has plateaued. This cluster includes “nones,” who claim no religious affiliation, combined with atheists and agnostics. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of non-religious Americans rose nine percent, from 21 percent to 30 percent, and in 2019 rose to 35 percent. But in the last half-decade, this number has remained steady.

Burge then digs into the generational cohorts and discovers something interesting. Among baby boomers, the rise in non-religious activity continues to rise, but among Generation X, it remained steady and among millennials and Generation Z, there was a significant decline. The drop among the youngest group here, mostly high school and college students, was the most significant.

Though we should be careful not to read too much into one year’s survey data, we can be encouraged that perhaps the march of secularism in American culture seems to have hit a wall and, it seems, has receded among the youngest generations. Perhaps these numbers are beginning to reflect what we are hearing and seeing among Generation Z anecdotally. Last year, at Asbury University, thousands of young people gathered for days to repent, pray, and seek God in a powerful moment that spread to other college campuses in ways that even secular observers noticed. Today, there are continued reports of students on college campuses hearing the gospel, getting baptized, and pledging to follow Christ with their lives.

Only time will tell if this movement is sustained, but Christians should be encouraged by the next generation. Too often the narrative about Generation Z is negative, as the images of pro-Hamas demonstrators at elite Ivy League institutions distorts our perception. Polls show that these activists reflect a minority view among young people.

Why might secularism be waning among Generation Z? Perhaps this is a move of the Spirit to turn the hearts of people toward Christ in a time of trouble and tumult. History shows that God often moves in a powerful way during the most troubling times in the world. We should be thankful for the many churches and campus ministries who labor faithfully to share the hope of the gospel with students at institutions around the country.

Perhaps the emptiness of the culture of self in a time of tumult—war, economic anxiety, political instability—is causing many to turn once again to Christianity.

But Christians should recognize that secularism and expressive individualism is a spiritual dead end. It has left people enslaved by their passions and lied to by the false ideologies of the age. God has wired into the human heart a yearning for purpose and meaning behind this life. As Augustine famously said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Perhaps the emptiness of the culture of self in a time of tumult—war, economic anxiety, political instability—is causing many to turn once again to Christianity. This is the testimony of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, once a noted atheist who now confesses faith in Jesus:

I’m a brand new Christian. But what I’m finding about it, which is the opposite of growing up as a Muslim, the message of Islam — but the message of Christianity I get is that it’s a message of love. It’s a message of redemption. It’s a story of renewal and rebirth. And so, Jesus dying and rising again for me symbolizes that story. And in a small way, I felt like I have died and I was reborn. And that story of redemption and rebirth, I think makes Christianity actually a very, very powerful story for the human condition and human existence.

In a time of confusion, let’s pray Ali is joined by millions of others. We should pay attention to the polling data, but we should remember that behind every number is a real person, made in the image of God, in need of gospel hope. The Christian mission remains the same, regardless of what the trend lines show. To a hopeless world, the message of the cross is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16).

God’s people might often be concerned about the times in which we live, but we shouldn’t retreat into cynicism and despair, for God has called us to communicate the good news of the gospel to a confused world. Secularism won’t have the last word, because Christ has overcome the world (John 16:33).

Daniel Darling

Daniel Darling is director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His forthcoming book is Agents of Grace. He is also a bestselling author of several other books, including The Original Jesus, The Dignity Revolution, The Characters of Christmas, The Characters of Easter, and A Way With Words and the host of a popular weekly podcast, The Way Home. Dan holds a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry from Dayspring Bible College, has studied at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Angela have four children.

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