New Study Shows Generation X Has Grown Less Religious Over Time

In 2008, the American Religious Identification Survey released its results and they looked amazing for those of us who know better than to believe in god. The percentage of people categorizing themselves as having “no religion” went up in every state:

Now, Barry A. Kosmin & Juhem Navarro-Rivera have gone through the data specifically relating to Generation X (born 1965-1972). What has happened to that generation from 1990 (when the first ARIS study came out) to 2008?

Here’s what we know (PDF) when it comes to religious belief: They’re less likely to be Christian (especially Catholic) and more likely to list themselves as having no religious faith. Success!

Generation X became more secular and also less Christian (85% in 1990 v. 75% in 2008) as it aged and grew in size. However, the proportion of the cohort identifying with Other Christian denominations and non-Christian religions hardly changed. So the secularizing change mainly occurred at the expense of Catholic self-identification which fell from 33% in 1990 to 26% in 2008.

As far as actual numbers go, Christians are still in the majority, but there are significant shifts…

The only religious traditions to show major losses between 1990 and 2008 were the Baptists, with 400,000 fewer identifiers, and the Catholics, who had a net loss of lost nearly 900,000. The Catholic decline is a surprising and significant finding. Due to immigration, Generation X grew from 29 million in 1990 to over 34 million in 2008, and this large influx of newcomers included over 1 million Catholic Latinos. Yet the influx of these Catholic Latinos during the 1990s and 2000s was not enough to offset 1.7 million losses among white Catholics. This phenomenon of wide-scale disaffection among white Catholics explains why the Catholic share of the total U.S. population remained constant at 24% despite the fact that a significant share of immigrants over these two decades were Catholics.

It’s good news to see the rise of the “nones.” And I suspect that number’s only going to grow as you move to more recent generations.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://twitter.com/momscience tjp

    Hello – I am a genxer and have traveled the road of Reluctant Southern Baptist to Catholic and now very Happy Atheist!!  YAY!!  I am more compassionate and happy than I have ever been in my life.  I hope others also find the way…thanks for the article.

  • Tainda

    Gen-Xer here who questioned and studied everything growing up and finally realized in high school that I was an atheist.  We may not care about anything but at least we do it with intelligence ;)

    • Toby

      But we do care about all things.  Losing religion and the belief in a deity doesn’t mean we lose our compassion, empathy, or convictions.  Quite the opposite – when I found reason instead of blind ignorance, I became a much more caring person, especially towards those who are different than me.  We also care about our world…right now!  We aren’t looking for rewards when we die.  We know this is it, so we try to make the best of it for ourselves, as well as for the other 7 billion people we live with on this Earth.  And yes, we are intelligent  ;)

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    Member of Gen-X who journeyed the Baptist-liberal Christian-agnostic-atheist road. It was bumpy, but the destination was worth it. 

  • http://www.everydayintheparkwithgeorge.com/ Matt E

    I really don’t like the “nones” category. It is an extremely inexact hodgepodge of a category that provides very little information. It leaves us atheists and the rest of the population with no clear notion of our numbers by including many people who are not sympathetic, and even hostile to the atheist perspective.

    I live in Seattle and have family in Colorado and Alabama. I have many friends and family members who identify themselves as “nones” and most of them are very far from anything that could be described as  an atheist, rationalist, freethinker, skeptic or secular humanist.

    Most of my Seattle “none” friends are into all manner of vague spiritual, new age beliefs and my Colorado and Alabama “none” family members may not like church anymore but they still love them their Jesus and their Bible.

    We need to pressure the people who conduct these studies and polls to either replace “none” with more specific options or to collect and publish data sub-groupings within the “none” category.

    • http://twitter.com/DFWHeathen DFW Heathen

      Test

      • http://www.everydayintheparkwithgeorge.com/ Matt E

        True, that is how you or I would classify them, but the point I am making is that when these people take part in these surveys and polls they identify themselves as “nones” and they are skewing the data.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

      Pew’s done that. There’s also a few other questions used by the GSS that can help approximate the further breakdown. Depending on exact measure (self-identification versus belief category), atheists have pretty consistently been slightly less common than agnostics, and the two combined are about a quarter to a third of the “Nones”.

      Interesting, the recently released Georgetown/PRRI study of Millennial religiosity seems to indicate Atheists and Agnostics are about equal to the “nothing in particular” — a significant shift.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gregm766 Gregory Marshall

    Hey, I be one of those ex-Catholic Gen-Xers. That’s what they get for teaching me evolution and critical thinking in a Catholic high school. Not to mention in freshman year religion (yeah I said religion) we debunked the whole Genesis  creation story.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

    Part of that is simply a function of getting older. As people develop into adulthood, they’re more likely to reflectively change their beliefs away from the reflexive habit of their childhood upbringing. About half of religious (de)conversions first occur between ages 16 and 25; another quarter, by age 35.

    At present, the leading form of religious conversion is de-conversion.

  • http://twitter.com/butterflyfish_ Heidi McClure

    Yay, us! I’m a Gen-Xer, and I probably would have said Christian Generic in 1990. Especially since “I believe in a god, I guess” was not an option. But within a couple of years, I was happily identifying as an atheist. Reality FTW!

  • Lars

    I noticed in Figure 4, the other “demonination” that is growing is Christian Generic, which says to me that people are coming off of religion in stages. First they drop their specific religion and take more of a deist standpoint, and then from there it’s easier to transition in to agnosticism, and then atheism.

    • dorothy30

       i agree, and i also noted that the percentage of ” don’t know/refused to answer” went up. I think this is the next stage after “christian generic”. In other words, these people no longer really believe but don’t want to admit to atheism or aren’t sure what to call themselves

  • http://twitter.com/nicoleintrovert Nicole Introvert

    I thought Gen X went up to 1980.  This alone skews data.

    • Mark

      I thought the same thing.  GenX has almost always been designated as those born between 65-80.

      • http://twitter.com/nicoleintrovert Nicole Introvert

         Those 8 years would probably account for MANY more “nones”.   Myself included.  I definitely identify with Gen X but would have been left out of this particular poll.

  • Jparizona

    I am a GenX person as well. I was raised Catholic, attended Catholic school until about middle of Second Grade. Forced to attend CCD Classes and do all the other religious pageantry.
    As soon as I was out of my parents’ home I was pretty much done with church.  During my second year of college I tried to believe and went to some church group things with my sister.  It was a charismatic Catholic Church which was more interesting but I just could not believe in some higher being.  It just never made sense to me.
    I am glad to see more and more people are leaving that mindset of believing in mystical beings.
    I agree that the polls themselves are flawed.  There are some people that do not even know the true definitions of some of the terms on Polls so maybe they should be define them.  I would like to know where all these Polls are done because I have never been asked to take a poll.  The only thing that I have ever filled out would be the US Census.  Obviously this poll was not from that if it was done in 2008.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

    The first graph left out Alaska and Hawaii. But that always happens.

  • http://twitter.com/openib Guy Fawkes

    Probably why religious zealots are so insistent on getting religion back into public schools and evolution out.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Am I the only one who doesn’t get the FAIL and WIN graphics?  Decrease in Catholics and increase in Nones.  Win for ‘us’, Fail for ‘them’ on both counts, no?  I don’t get it.

    • Josephmail7

       That’s OK, smart atheists will know how stupid militar atheism is.

  • judith sanders

    The change in the number of people who are “other religions” looks pretty insignificant.  I thought there was supposed to be this big tide of Islam rolling over us, a copy of the 
    Bhagavad Gita in every motel room, people from  island nations sacrificing white goats and chickens, etc., etc .

  • Sinfanti

    Now THESE are the graphs that will make me happy for today.  Thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003701170501 Corey Robey

    Don’t say “know better than to believe in god,” say “know better than to believe in any gods.”  That way you’re not feeding into any monotheistic presuppositions, which many of them take as evidence for yahweh the hebrew god.  Before we engage whether there are any gods, we need to know which gods we are talking about; entering the debate as if it is a dichotomy between the christian trinity and atheism, or deism and atheism puts the believer at a sneaky advantage, allowing him to use “god” to refer to “any reality transcending possibility that might ever be found anywhere in the universe that can post-hoc be called a ‘god’ or ‘godlike’” and then in the same sentence use the same word “god” to mean “the christian trinity.”  Every apologist there is plays this game, and appears to not even be aware that they are playing it.  Let’s help them out, and start using the plural, not the singular, when talking about sky daddies.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003701170501 Corey Robey

    Pentacostal membership jumped more than 30%!  Now that’s a little scary…

  • Josephmail7

    However, culture stills low. Just ask them if they know what the moons orbits.

  • http://twitter.com/blamer ɹǝɯɐןq

    >>
    Success!

    Good news, though perhaps overstated. I could be wrong but one imagines “success” to be more a measure of religio-political wins, as distinct from the number of voters falling away from the financially-advantaged monotheist team… ;)


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