What’s Happening To Religion In America?
Religion is suffering from generational replacement. Older generations in America, which were very heavily Christian, are passing away, and they’re being replaced by younger cohorts that are far more unaffiliated, not only than older generations are today, but than those older generations ever were. Within any self identifying group, there are people who don’t believe and there are people who are very strong believers. Those who are unaffiliated are much less likely to attend religious services. They pray less often. Religion is less important to them.
When asked if they believe in “God or a universal spirit” in the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, 89% of U.S. adults say yes – down from 92% from the previous RLS in 2007. Nearly one-in-ten (9%) now say they don’t believe in God, up from 5% in 2007. The changes have been even more substantial when it comes to certainty of belief in God: 63% of Americans are absolutely certain that God exists, down 8 percentage points from 2007, when 71% said this.
These shifts have been especially sharp among the growing share of Americans who do not identify with any religious group (and call themselves atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular”). While 22% of these religious “nones” said that they did not believe in God in 2007, that figure has risen to 33% in 2014. And just 27% of the religiously unaffiliated are absolutely certain that God exists, down from 36% in 2007.
Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa’s generation, born between 1928 and 1945, is 85 percent Christian (57 percent Protestant, 24 percent Catholic). Their Baby Boomer children are 78 percent Christian. The Generation Xers are 70 percent Christian, and Millennials are between 57 and 56 percent Christian depending on when they were born. In 2014, 22.8 percent of American adults described themselves as unaffiliated with any church. While 70% of those ages 65 and older express an absolutely certain belief in God or a universal spirit, only about half of adults under 30 feel the same way (51%).
Millennials and Religion
The decline in religious identification among millennials is often misinterpreted. Church attendance has been low since the 60s. Most baby boomers were never that religious; identifying only with the religious tradition they grew up in and attended on holidays as a social occasion. Millennials are less likely to identify with a religion solely for social purposes. There are apps for that.
Yes, millennials track more liberal on social issues, but a lot of millennials don’t think issues like abortion, drugs or same-sex marriage matter much. “If it doesn’t hurt anyone” is solid ground to be on nowadays. Most millennials are socially moderate. The politics of some of these issues have changed, but most people of both generations support what they think are practical, rather than ideological, policies. If religion is anything, it’s certainly an ideology.
I don’t even think it’s accurate to say millennials are religion-hating libertarians. They’re politics just more likely to lean towards libertarian politics on social issues, because “letting people do what they want” is the easiest way to resolve social issues.
The public debate on social issues matters, and it’s causing people to challenge their own long-held religious beliefs. It’s important to be able to openly discuss the merits of legislation on sex, drugs even if in terms of policy the country moves away from religion.
In today’s America, the line between what it means to be in the church and out of the church is very fluid. In evangelical communities, that demarcation is much sharper and the pressure not to leave the community is greater. An important to question for any religion to ask itself is whether it’s good or bad that churches shrink. In other words, do you want greater influence or truer believers in adherence to the doctrine?