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Have Americans Turned Against Religion?

If you want to predict the future of religion, talk to young people

Older Americans are not all that religious by some criteria. Younger Americans are considerably less religious. They point to a future where religious people will be a minority.

How religious are Americans?

The majority of Americans still believe in God (about 76 percent, with 12 percent atheists and 12 percent agnostic, 1). Most also say that religion is important in their lives (65 percent).

Yet the depth of American commitment to religion is questionable. Although about 40 percent of Americans claim to attend church each week—a number that has changed little over decades—the number actually showing up in pews is much lower and is declining. Based on actual head counts, the true number showing up in church is only about one person in five (1), or fewer than the number who do not believe in God.

What older Americans believe and how they practice is not the most relevant information for gauging the future. If one wishes to know what the future will bring, then young people are the ones to study.

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How religious are young Americans?

Only 18 percent of young Americans “Millennials” (aged 18-29 years) reported attending church “weekly or nearly weekly (2).” Given that such self-reports may be inflated by a factor of two, it seems likely that fewer than one young person in ten actually shows up in church each week. 

Religion scholars do not see the low attendance rates of 18-29-year-olds as of any great significance. Pointing out that the younger generation has always had much lower church attendance than older people, they anticipate a rebound in attendance as the Millennials get older. For there is a well-established pattern in the U.S. of self-reported church attendance picking up with age. 

The key drivers of increased church attendance with age are marriage and child bearing. As young people marry and reproduce they perceive church attendance as a source of help in socializing their children. The fact that fewer young people are getting married (with more preferring cohabitation outside marriage) means that their church attendance is unlikely to rebound as happened for earlier generations.

Cohabitation is a feature of life in most secularizing countries. Once young people choose to live together without a religious sanction of their union this implies a significant break from formal religion. Moreover interest in religion is unlikely to revive as they mature.

Church attendance is just one measure of religion and it may not be the best one for young people. Another approach is to ask people how important religion is to them. By this measure, known as “religiosity,” the majority of young American adults (ages 18-29) have crossed over to secularism. 

Only 45 percent see religion as very important compared to 56 percent of the adult population as a whole (2). Just 15 percent of young adults consider living a very religious life as a priority. This compares to 52 percent placing a priority on being a good parent and 20 percent placing a priority on home ownership.

Although 64 percent of young American adults say they believe in God (and only 25 percent lack a religious affiliation), their attitudes to religion evince unmistakable signs of secularism. Not only is religion unimportant as a life goal—losing out to home ownership, for example. The majority of young people are not strongly committed to any religion (72 percent, 2).

Despite frequent protestations to the contrary, this country is becoming progressively more secular and the secularization process is playing out here pretty much as it does everywhere else with younger generations becoming more and more casual about religious issues and rejecting church views on social issues like homosexuality and gay marriage (1). 

Young Americans are tuning out religion more than they ever did before. They are unlikely to come back to their churches. If that were in the cards, religion would have to be more important than home ownership.

 

 

1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B008...

2. Pew Research Center (2010). Millennials: A portrait of generation next. Confident, connected. Open to change. Accessed at: http://www.pewresearch.org/millennials on 12/8/2011.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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