Today, a growing share of Americans are raised in homes that have little connection to religion. Most young adults grow up in households that are not engaged in regular religious activity. Even those raised in a religious tradition do not participate as often as previous generations. Increasingly, young people who are not religious have always identified that way. As a result, they have few personal experiences with religious communities and the people in them. Their understanding of the practices and priorities of religious people is drawn from the broader culture rather than personal experiences.
This has important implications for how secular Americans understand the motivations and values of religious people. Without personal participation in a religious community, more nonreligious Americans are exposed to religion in its most divisive and least charitable form—in online arguments over politics.
Negative interactions on social media are incredibly common, but religion researchers are beginning to note that the combative engagement of online Christians can be especially alienating. Sociologist Samuel Perry suggests that the reputational damage self-identified Christians are doing online is considerable.
If our primary interactions are online, or informed by online discourse, then more often than not these interactions will be negative.
Online engagements have left many Americans, including secular people, feeling utterly alienated by the “Christian” approach to politics. One respondent from a recent Pew survey typifies the fundamental change in how Christians are viewed: “‘Christian’ used to be code for polite and decent; now it’s code for the opposite. A ‘Christian nation’ would be intolerant, inflexible and ultimately brutal.”