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The Real Reason Religion Is Declining In America

Why the U.S. will eventually resemble Europe

Are American young people less religious than they used to be -- or not?

Most studies you might have heard about -- like those from the Pew Center -- can't really answer that question, since they are one-time polls or only go back a few years. If today's young people (often called Millennials; I call them Generation Me) are less religious, maybe that's just because they are young -- unsettled, childless, and far from the serious illness and death that religion comforts.

There are other unanswered questions. Are Millennials moving away from religion during young adulthood, or does the disconnection begin earlier -- are more being raised without relgion at all? Why is religion on the wane in American society -- and what does it mean about where were are headed? Religion doesn't exist in a vacuum.

To find out, my co-authors and I (including Julie Exline) located four large, nationally representative surveys of adolescents ages 13 to 18 that asked the same questions on religion across several decades. All told, they included 11.2 million respondents since 1966. As far as we know, it is the largest study ever conducted on changes in Americans' religious involvement.

The analyses, published this month in the journal PlosOne, reveal a seismic generational shift in religious commitment. Twice as many high school seniors, and 3 times as many college students, described their religion as “none” in the 2010s (vs. the early 1980s). Even among 8th and 10th graders, who have only been surveyed since the early 1990s, 40% to 50% fewer now affiliate with a religion.

Some older studies concluded that just as many Americans were attending religious services and describing themselves as religious, concluding that changes in religious involvement among young people were weak or slight. That no longer appears to be the case. Twice as many 12th graders and college students in the 2010s (vs. the 1970s) said they never attend religious services. 75% more 12th graders said that religion was “not important at all” in their lives. The figures in the paper show these large changes that accelerated just in the last few years -- things are changing, fast.

Globe Views
Source: Globe Views

Other scholars have theorized that spirituality has replaced religion. We instead found that spirituality declined, with 20% fewer college students saying they are above average in spirituality than in the 1990s. In addition, fewer say they pray or meditate. At least among young Americans, the movement away from religion is not toward more spirituality, but toward true secularism.

These analyses compare adolescents of the same age to each other (say, 12th graders in the 1970s vs. the 2010s). Thus, Millennials are not less religious just because they are young: They are less religious than Boomers and GenX’ers were at the same age. Millennials are the least religious generation in the last 6 decades. If we assume that Americans in the 1950s and earlier were just as religious as those in the 1970s, Millennials are the least religious generation in American history.

Are more children being raised without religion at all, or are they giving up on religion during adolescence? We find some of both. More adolescents now say that their parents don't affiliate with a religion, suggesting they were raised without religion at all. The trends are stronger in the older groups (12th graders and college students) compared to the youngest (8th graders), suggesting that more adolescents are abandoning religion during their teen years. Parents are losing the battle getting their teens to come to church or religious services.

Why did this happen? It’s important to consider trends in religion in the context of broader cultural changes, and this context is often missing in polls on religion. We found that religious involvement was low when individualism was high in the society. Individualism -- a cultural system focusing more on the self and less on social rules -- has been on the increase in the U.S., with increased self-focus (more positive self-views, more use of “I” and “me” in books and song lyrics), more tolerance and equality (around race, gender, and sexual orientation), less adherence to social rules (with acceptance of premarital sex at an all-time high), less social support (lower empathy), and less interest in large groups and social rules (declines in political and civic participation). Things are not all better, and they are not all worse. But American society is more focused on individual freedom, and less focused on social rules, than it used to be.

It makes sense that a more individualistic culture would be a less religious one. Religious orientation implies some commitment to a larger group or organization. Belonging to a religious group means following its beliefs and practices, which can be difficult in a cultural environment favoring personal choice and individual freedom. Religion often involves respect for authority, and Americans are now less likely to respect authorities such as the government, schools, or even the medical establishment. These are the forces acting on our teens, and parents have a tough job trying to get them to fit with religion. Have you experienced this? Or did you give up on religion as a teen?

If individualism is the driving force behind these changes, we can expect more to come. The U.S. may begin to look more and more like Northern Europe, where marriage is optional and religious participation is low. More young people will decide not to marry, even when they have children; 41% of babies were born to unmarried mothers in 2013, and this will likely continue to rise. Prejudice may never entirely leave us, but will increasingly be tossed into the dustbin of history, with transgender rights becoming the new civil rights movement after gay and lesbian rights become taken for granted. More Americans will disassociate from religion – not just in affiliation but in participation, religiosity, and belief. The America of the future, if these trends hold, will be unchurched, unmarried, and unprejudiced.

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