It hasn’t received much publicity yet, but a new report from the Pew Research Center shows something remarkable: a tremendous drop in religiosity among the “millennial generation.” The most revealing figure on their website (above) shows a remarkable decline in various measures of religiosity, such as doubts about God, regular church attendance, and belief that religion determines morality (based on the questions that were used in the survey). As one article reported:
The trend was also reflected in declining numbers of millennials who agreed with the statements “Prayer is an important part of my daily life” and “We all will be called before God at the Judgment Day to answer for our sins.” Answers to those questions also didn’t change much among older generations.
Although this is only one survey, it jibes with a whole range of other polls that show an increase in non-believers and a decline among deeply religious people in the U.S., especially among young people. Some polls estimate that the non-religious sector is about 15-25% of the American population. It’s consistent with the many polls that show young people are growing up tolerant of all races, genders and sexual orientations, and unsympathetic to the prejudices of their parents and grandparents. It certainly matches what I have seen in 33 years of teaching college students, where there is very little or no religiosity among most of them (and certainly very little narrow-minded fundamentalism in a small liberal arts like Occidental or Vassar or Knox, where I’ve taught). But few polls or surveys show this striking a generation gap among the youngest generation of adults. And if you click on the link in that website to all the other factors, no other variable (sex, political party, etc.) shows this trend: only age and generational affiliation deviates to this degree.
I’m not aware of much rigorous research yet on the possible causes of such a generational change, but that hasn’t stopped those reporting on the story from speculating on their own pet theories. Reading the responses to this report, I see several possible factors:
- The most likely hypothesis in my mind is that the millennials have been raised as an internet generation, able to check facts and look up answers on their iPhones in mere seconds. They are linked in a cyber-community of other such young people, especially if they developed doubts in their college education (another strong predictor of low levels of religiosity), and they learn from their peers in cyberspace in a way that was previously unimaginable. In older generations (like mine), there was almost no way to find resources which might challenge your Sunday School teacher’s dogmas, so you either accepted it or became uneasy with it (as I was as a child), but you couldn’t find a book that would contradict what you were taught. Now, any dogmatic belief (such as creationism) is readily answered by websites such as www.talkorigins.org, or numerous books as well. Thus, when the millennial generation reached an age where they questioned their elders, they could easily find answer that my generation could not. I noticed this as I walk around TAM the past two years, and see all these young men and women who are geographically isolated and have no skeptical/atheistic community in their small hometowns, but are elated to be hanging out with huge numbers of like-minded people at TAM that they knew previously only through electronic communication.
- Others have pointed out the fact that American religious leaders (as well as other world religions and their leaders) have managed to disillusion nearly everyone who wasn’t already a convinced member of the faith. These include the continuous scandals of Catholic priests and the conservative dogmatism of the Vatican, as well as the American evangelicals and their hateful anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-women’s rights agenda, to the non-stop perp walk of American religious leaders exposed as hypocrites for being closeted gay homophobes (e.g., Ted Haggard), adulterers (e.g., Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart), and all-around crooks (e.g., creationist Kent Hovind, now in Federal prison for tax evasion). And American youth see the effects of Islamic fundamentalism in a post-9/11 world and come to the conclusion that there isn’t much difference between religious fanatics. No one needs to indoctrinate the younger generation—the actions of the religious leaders speak louder than any words.
- One story claims that this is the influence of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens) and their best-selling books about atheism (along with P.Z. Myers’ “Pharyngula” blog). I’m sure those authors would love to think that they’re that powerful, but as P.Z. puts it, it’s far more likely that their popularity is an effect, not a cause, of people who are drifting away from religion and find their writings appealing.
We could all list other possible causes that we think are more important (as I’m sure many commenters will), but I’m more interested in rigorous testable hypotheses. Is anyone out there in the SkepticBlog community aware of such rigorous studies which truly isolates why millennials are losing their faith? My bet is that the first one I listed is the most influential.
On another note, I see with sadness that my Boomer generation no longer stands out from the pack, falling within the middle of the trend, along with our grandparents’ generation and our successors, the “Gen X” gang. Of course, the survey starts in 1987, when the oldest members of my Boomer generation (born in 1945, for example) would be 42, and most would be in their 30s. At that age, one would expect them to be following the common demographic trend of getting more conservative and conventional as they become older and have families and jobs and more responsibilities. There certainly has been a change since we were so young and radical in the late 60s and early 1970s, and could not imagine doing what our parents did. I remember well our slogans, “Never trust anyone over 30″, and the song by The Who: “Talking ’bout my Generation.” The “Big Chill” of the Lawrence Kasdan film is no myth. But my recollection of my fellow Boomers during our late teens and early 20s was that we questioned almost all authority, especially religious authority. I just wonder what this survey would look like if we had data going back to the 1960s?
And that leads to the other question: will the millennials become more religious as they grow older, or will they maintain their low levels of religiosity? The plot doesn’t show the 1960s and 1970s when my Boomer peers were at their least religious, but there is a drop of the “Gen X” curve in the late 80s-early 90s, when they were in their less conventional ages of the late teens-early 20s. Yet their drop wasn’t nearly as low as the millennials today, so it didn’t have far to go to recover to normal levels. The steep drop of the millennials seems to be something unprecedented, if these data are to be believed.
I sure hope so. I’d love to see the U.S. finally make progress, grow up, and reach levels of religiosity like those of most other industrialized nation, instead of being the only rich nation on earth that is as dogmatically religious as the Muslim theocracies….