Religion, Atheism and the Young

You quite often hear it said that the youth of today, the Millennials and so on, are less religious than the older generations. This is certainly true in America as research has consistently shown. However, this can also be seen more globally. As ever, there are some countries who defy this pattern. That said, where there is a gap between younger generations and older generations in what they believe, the results almost always show that the younger generations have less religiosity than older ones.

Recently, the Pew Research Center reported:

But this is not solely an American phenomenon: Lower religious observance among younger adults is common around the world, according to a new analysis of Pew Research Center surveys conducted in more than 100 countries and territories over the last decade.

Although the age gap in religious commitment is larger in some nations than in others, it occurs in many different economic and social contexts – in developing countries as well as advanced industrial economies, in Muslim-majority nations as well as predominantly Christian states, and in societies that are, overall, highly religious as well as those that are comparatively secular.

For example, adults younger than 40 are less likely than older adults to say religion is “very important” in their lives not only in wealthy and relatively secular countries such as Canada, Japan and Switzerland, but also in countries that are less affluent and more religious, such as Iran, Poland and Nigeria.

While this pattern is widespread, it is not universal. In many countries, there is no statistically significant difference in levels of religious observance between younger and older adults. In the places where there is a difference, however, it is almost always in the direction of younger adults being less religious than their elders.

Overall, adults ages 18 to 39 are less likely than those ages 40 and older to say religion is very important to them in 46 out of 106 countries surveyed by Pew Research Center over the last decade. In 58 countries, there are no significant differences between younger and older adults on this question. And just two countries – the former Soviet republic of Georgia and the West African country of Ghana – have younger adults who are, on average, more religious than their elders.

It is well worth checking out their article for their explanation of the statistics and further analysis. However, I thought this excerpt might be worth including here:

But a substantial number of countries have much bigger differences. There are gulfs of at least 10 percentage points between the shares of older and younger adults who identify with a religious group in more than two dozen countries – mostly with predominantly Christian populations in Europe and the Americas. For example, the share of U.S. adults under age 40 who identify with a religious group is 17 percentage points lower than the share of older adults who are religiously affiliated. The gap is even larger in neighboring Canada (28 points). And there are double-digit age gaps in affiliation in countries as far flung as South Korea (24 points), Uruguay (18 points) and Finland (17 points).

And there are differences between religions as well:

Age gaps are also more common within some religious groups than in others. For example, religion is less important to younger Christian adults in nearly half of all the countries around the world where sample sizes are large enough to allow age comparisons among Christians (37 out of 78). For Muslims, this is the case in about one-quarter of countries surveyed (10 out of 42). Among Buddhists, younger adults are significantly less religious in just one country (the United States) out of five countries for which data are available. There is no age gap by this measure among Jews in the U.S. or Israel, or among Hindus in the U.S. or India.1

Although it might be easy to think that the world is becoming progressively more secular, there are a couple of points to make here. Firstly, there is some element at play in that is as one ages, one is more likely to become more religious. Having said this, I don’t think this even remotely accounts for the size of the gaps shown here. One of the more interesting points is that in the areas where the younger generations are becoming less religious, fertility rates are also lower than in other parts of the world. Where we have fervent religion integrated with politics and society, particularly in the Muslim world, we have much higher fertility rates. Deconversion in certain areas of the world is being counterbalanced by the higher fertility rates in very religious parts of the world.

In my next post, I will look at why there is variation in religious belief between generations and why younger people are less likely to believe in God

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