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Failing Our Youth: A Call to Religious Liberals

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A revered general falls to infidelity; an unflappable president can't quite quit nicotine; a star athlete lives strong but engages in blood doping. The cascade of unwelcome revelations about people we admire could, nonetheless, have an upside.

The series of scandals could nudge progressive churches and educational institutions to overhaul the ways we provision our youth to grow into healthy, resilient adults.

Our postmodern propensity to teach adolescents the facts of life in value-neutral ways and to encourage thoughtful choice-making made a great deal of sense in the half century in which the human mind was regarded as a "blank slate" and "rational choice theory" shaped our expectations of human decision-making. "Learn how to make wise choices," we would counsel our youth -- the implication being, "and then you will make wise choices."

As all too many families have discovered, knowing right behavior and even achieving a buff prefrontal cortex do not make any of us impervious to serious lapses in judgment. Adverse consequences may darken a life for decades.

Mismatched Instincts/Supernormal Allurements

Today, the biological and behavioral sciences are painting a very different picture of what it means to be human in a fast-paced, high-tech world saturated by consumer and digital temptations. We learn that our rational powers are all too easily hijacked by our unchosen nature. Rationality is seduced into serving deep ancestral drives that no longer serve us, and self-deception rules the roost.

The fundamental challenge is this: We all have mismatched instincts and we are surrounded by supernormal allurements. Supernormal allurements are anything that our instincts say "yes" to that now exist in forms, abundances and potencies that previous generations never faced. In her 2010 book, "Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose," Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett identifies a smorgasbord of ramped up allurements that our ancestors (even just a few generations back) never had to say no to: processed foods rich in sugar and fat, sitcoms and reality shows, Internet gaming and porn, romance novels, social networking sites, gossip-rich and fear-mongering "news" 24/7, as well as a plethora of mind-altering substances now available even at the playground. (Those who missed the June 9, 2012 Newsweek cover article, "iCrazy: Is the Web Driving Us Mad?" can find it here.)

At best, these allurements waste our time or expand our waistlines; at worst, they become compulsions that trump any healthy priorities and dreams that happen to get in their way.

Our animal instincts to survive and reproduce, and to bend our behavior toward whatever feels good, served our ancestors exceedingly well and for millions of years. None of us would be here were it not for those instincts. To them we bow in gratitude.

Unfortunately, inherited instincts are no swifter in responding to cultural change than is the architecture of our vertebral column now that we sit 12 hours a day. Thus we can no longer expect our instincts to actually "serve" us and our communities if left to their own devices. Unlike all the wild creatures that fly and burrow and scurry around us, we alone must monitor our autopilot. To lead healthy, contributing lives, we need to choose against our instincts dozens, if not hundreds, of times each day (less so if we carefully manage what we bring into our homes and with whom we interact). We have to scrutinize our natural urges; we may need to enroll the support of others; and we will sometimes need to make amends and forgive.

The Opportunity For Churches

Here lies an extraordinary opportunity for theologically progressive institutions to do what the fundamentalist churches cannot. Liberal churches can offer the youngers an evolutionary worldview that delights children in their wonder years, offers immensely practical insights and guidance for those going through puberty, and empowers teens to ponder the meaning of life -- and their life -- as they edge toward adulthood.

Young people, as we have seen, find little of interest in the usual progressive-church fascinations with parsing scriptural passages to discern the actual utterances of the historical Jesus, or in our redefining what we mean by "God" when patriarchy and supernaturalism have been discredited.

What the youngers are drawn toward is practical and scientifically proven assistance for living. Many youth suffer the traumas of divorced parents who treat one another as enemies. They have witnessed the stresses of life that lead older siblings into depression. Peers in their school have already been to rehab. They themselves may be slipping toward addiction or obesity. All this makes today's youth famished for help and hope -- a possibility that with the right guidance and resolve, they can do life better.

A Call To Action

Henceforth religious education must be first and foremost about realistic and resilient living grounded in "public revelation" -- that is, what Reality/God has revealed through evidence (also here). Progressive churches need to bring the fruit of the evolutionary and other sciences and humanities into the classroom -- and do so in fun and artistic ways.

Consider: If progressive churches do not pioneer relevant and motivating learning paths for our youth, who will? Where else are children and teens going to be given a broad and inspiring, evidence-based perspective for living and a sustained opportunity to reflect on their lives and cultural conditions?

In our view, this is the primary reason why progressive churches should not be allowed to die. Half-empty churches are, of course, still doing important work in bringing elders together for their mutual enrichment and for serving the needy in their communities. But it is what churches can bring to the youngers that is the focus of our advocacy.

The supernormal stimuli of texting, Facebook friendships, music videos, fashion magazines, vampire fiction, video-gaming, Internet porn and endless sitcoms are guaranteed to capture all the waking hours of our youth above and beyond their scheduled classes, homework, team sports and other enrollments. Even so, many families still impose on their children (at least through Confirmation class) weekly church attendance.

Therein lies the opportunity. So long as progressive churches continue to exist, parents who may not themselves be interested in church services will shop around for somewhere to install their kids on Sunday mornings. Their deepest hope: that their sons and daughters will pick up solid values, develop healthy habits of thought and action, engage in social action projects that move them out of self-indulgence, and bond with peers in a healthy setting and with admirable adult mentors. Their deepest fear: that without this enforced opportunity, even the best parental efforts will be no match for the allurements and norms of frivolous and sometimes-dangerous popular culture.

Toward A New Religious Education Platform

We propose a three-stage frame for revising religious education programs. (See the PDF, here, if you'd like more detail and access to supportive curricula):

Stage 1: Elementary-age children must be given the true story of their origins and identity from which they will acquire pride of ancestry and discover that they are related to everyone and everything -- even the stars. This is the stage of learning that early 20th century educator Maria Montessori called "cosmic education," that esteemed biologist Edward O. Wilson calls "the epic of evolution" and that we call "The Great Story." Historian David Christian recently gave a secular name to the interdisciplinary research that supports this big-picture form of education: "big history."

Stage 2: Children navigating the challenges of puberty must learn that the ancient instincts they inherit have not kept pace with fast-changing cultures and technologies -- and that caution, support and compassion are therefore essential. Learning to observe ("witness") each of the four components of their evolved, quadrune brain is a skill no less necessary for successful living than is basic literacy.

Stage 3: Older adolescents should be encouraged to reflect on the cultural and technological gifts they have inherited from preceding generations -- and what satisfactions they, too, might achieve by contributing to this immense, unbroken journey of life. Philosophical questing, skeptical inquiry and meaning-of-life discussions are easily evoked and supported at this stage of life.

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In summary: Teaching Bible stories is not the way for today's churches to discharge their formidable responsibilities to serve theologically progressive (and outright secular) families. Instead, our churches need to take on the worldview and self-cultivation tasks that public schools and religiously diverse private schools will never fully be able to do. The mere hour or so that churches have with children and teens on a weekly basis -- and unburdened by any need to drill and test -- is, after all, too precious to waste on merely religious education.

This post was co-written by Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd. For more on this subject, and to access audio, video, and text resources, see here and here.