Young People Abandoning Christianity

Young People Abandoning Christianity April 25, 2012

A major new survey of attitudes about religion shows that the “millenials” — those 18-29 years old — are leaving Christianity and calling themselves non-religious or religious unaffiliated in greater numbers than ever seen before. The Washington Post reports:

A growing tide of young Americans is drifting away from the religions of their childhood — and most of them are ending up in no religion at all.

One in four young adults choose “unaffiliated” when asked about their religion, according to a new report from the Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.

But most within this unaffiliated group — 55 percent — identified with a religious group when they were younger.

“These younger unaffiliated adults are very nonreligious,” said Daniel Cox, PRRI’s research director. “They demonstrate much lower levels of religiosity than we see in the general population,” including participation in religious rituals or worship services.

Some of them will return to their faiths as they age, “but there’s not a lot of evidence that most will come back,” added Cox, who said the trend away from organized religion dates back to the early 1990s.

This doesn’t mean they’re all atheists, of course. But it means they are leaving traditional Christianity behind. And that’s a good thing.

"He's not trolling you. It's his radio show and you're choosing to listen."

Gorka Blames Teletubbies for ‘That Whole ..."
"Ah, you didn't think of that."

Gorka Blames Teletubbies for ‘That Whole ..."
"If he isn't dumb, he at the very least lacks critical thinking skills. Or at ..."

Trump Tells Another Shameless Lie, Says ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • TCC

    I’m not sure how I feel about being called a “millennial,” but I’m definitely one of the people in question. I expect that the trend will increase as younger people see less of a need for the traditions of religion.

  • The Lorax

    And the lovely bit about this is that it’s a trend. That means it’s going to get better/worse, depending on who’s side you’re on.

  • Jordan Genso

    Like TCC, I had never self-identified as a “millennial”, as I always thought the term applied to those younger than me. But I am pleased (and not all that surprised) by the trend.

    Easier access to information, coupled to social media and individuals being more willing to express who they actually are, are strong factors that will help move the trend along.

  • imrryr

    I suggest more bad Christian rap. That should bring them back into the fold. Kids today love that hippity-hop music.

  • Brother Yam

    It doesn’t help that the hatred that xtians stand for isn’t really endearing themselves to a more open-minded and pluralistic cohort.

  • scienceavenger

    Obviously the New Atheists need to sit down and shut up before they make the situation even worse. /sarcasm

  • abb3w

    More data at Georgetown’s Berkeley Center and the PRRI.

    Among Millennials, self-identification as Atheist is at about 6%, Agnostic another 7%, Nothing-In-Particular another 12%. This is sharply higher than the 2008 Pew breakdown for 18-29 year olds (3:4:18). The difference may in part be a sampling artifact. Contrariwise, it looks more likely to result from the higher Freethinker tendencies amount younger cohorts (PRRI used the 1988-1994 cohort, Pew used the 1979-1990 cohort) and/or a higher tendency among cohorts with passing time.

    The godless should be cautious in any optimism. The tendency within cohorts over time may be a swing of a relatively short-term socio-policical pendulum, akin to the rise of the Religious Right. The shift across cohorts, however, looks to involve a more fundamental shift; or at least, a pendulum of timescale and amplitude order-of-magnitude higher.

    Additionally, the trends involved are only rapid in historical timescales.

  • abb3w

    @6, scienceavenger:

    Obviously the New Atheists need to sit down and shut up before they make the situation even worse. /sarcasm

    Actually, this is the first evidence I consider solid-looking for the New Atheists having an impact beyond merely continuing the ongoing trends that seem to trace back to Sagan, O’Hair, Darrow, Ingersol, etc.

    It may be a short-term political swing, to some degree. However, there’s a distinct difference from the rise of the religious right. The religious right were in part a reaction to their diminishing numbers and influence; the New Atheism, in part a reaction to realization of growing numbers. I worry about some subtle hazards to that, but they’re pretty peripheral to the discussion at hand.

  • Ben P

    I’m right at the old end of the millenial generation (or Gen Y or whatever they’re calling it now). I’m 28.

    I definitely see this to some extent. Of peers in my generation there are quite a few that are essentially “areligious” as I am. Some might self-identify as christian or even go to services occasionally, but only a slim few are actively religious.

    But having grown up in an evangelical family and gone to an evangelical high school, I know a few people my age that make up the difference.

  • @TCC: ‘I’m not sure how I feel about being called a “millennial,” ‘

    Compared with: “baby boomer”, “generation X”, “generation Y”, …

    “millennial” is the best name for a generation I’ve heard in a long while. It just means coming of age circa the year 2000, I would much rather a simple descriptive generational name like that than one based on my parents fertility.

  • cptdoom

    Compared with: “baby boomer”, “generation X”, “generation Y”, …

    “millennial” is the best name for a generation I’ve heard in a long while. It just means coming of age circa the year 2000, I would much rather a simple descriptive generational name like that than one based on my parents fertility.

    Exactly. As a Gen X’er (just barely, I was born the day after Kurt Cobain in 1967), I want to point out my generation’s “name” was based on us not having anything particularly important or interesting in our generation.

    As for this survey, I am sure the movement goes even deeper than the numbers. What percentage of those who picked a religion actually regularly attend services or follow the teachings of that religion? The Post article does not get into that, and I am sure there are many, as there are in my generation, who continue to align themselves with a religion for basically cultural reasons.

  • tfkreference

    I find it interesting–and encouraging–that 45% of the nones (to borrow the phrase) never identified with a religion. That’s a reflection of their parents.

  • For many people, religion is more about community (membership in a group) than it is about dogma. And the Internet is radically changing our ways of participating in communities.

    At least that’s my guess as to what is going on.

  • Pingback: Young People Breaking Away From Harmful Addiction « Foster Disbelief()

  • The godless should be cautious in any optimism. The tendency within cohorts over time may be a swing of a relatively short-term socio-policical pendulum, akin to the rise of the Religious Right. The shift across cohorts, however, looks to involve a more fundamental shift; or at least, a pendulum of timescale and amplitude order-of-magnitude higher.

    The shift has been going on for generations now and appears to be accelerating. Look at the first chart on this page about Religion among the Millennials.”

    The most striking feature of this chart is just how steady the level is for each generation — once a generation comes of age, their level of religiosity is pretty much baked in for life. Thus as the older generations die off, America will necessarily become less religious unless there is a major reversal in the trend, which I very much doubt will happen.

    Why? Because we’ve seen this trend already in other countries, like the UK where I grew up. As the church loses its grip on successive generations, it becomes harder and harder to transmit religious faith to the next generation.

    30 years ago, my parents’ peers in the UK would drag their kids to church even though they didn’t go themselves until their started having families. Today, most of my own friends don’t bother doing that with their kids, and Sunday School roles have plummeted to almost nothing as a result.

    I see the same thing happening here in the US, just 30 years behind. Almost all of my friends who have kids today take them to church even though almost none of them went before they started having families. That lack of true dedication rubs off on the kids, and I suspect the majority of them will not bother with church at all for their kids when the time comes. Already, I see some of the older teens leaving the faith, and for the most part, the parents are okay with it. They believe their did their job in getting them a religious education, and now it’s up to their kids to decide what’s best for them.

    The trend is slow because of its generational nature, but I find it hard to believe that it can be reversed, absent a major shock to American society, and it would have to be huge given that 9/11 didn’t help at all. What may happen is a tailing off at levels of religiosity higher than those in Europe, meaning that the US will always remain somewhat more religious than most other democratic nations, probably because of its more conservative nature overall.

  • For many people, religion is more about community (membership in a group) than it is about dogma. And the Internet is radically changing our ways of participating in communities.

    At least that’s my guess as to what is going on.

    It’s probably helping, but I think that just part of the larger trend away from churches being the main (often dominant) sociopolitical center of many communities. This falling away from religious belief happened in many other countries before the Internet was as ubiquitous as it is today.

  • Michael Heath

    Neil Rickert writes:

    For many people, religion is more about community (membership in a group) than it is about dogma. And the Internet is radically changing our ways of participating in communities.

    My initial reaction was related. That was my wanting to understand how much this increased loss of religiosity is coming from young people moving away from their hometown. It’s my personal observation the societal pressure to remain “in the fold” is enormous given the costs of becoming an apostate by those raised in cloistered faith communities (which includes whole states in some cases). Neil points out a new alternative while I wonder how much is driven by the migration, if any, of young people to college and/or work different than where they grew up. It’d be interesting to see how societal changes other than better education is causing an increased rate.

    While I’ve long over-estimated society’s rate of abandoning woo, I remain optimistic about the future. However coupled to that optimism is the threat of future human suffering given climate change. Conservative Christians are causing harm to humanity now and in the future, which might reverse this trend of a brighter future given the confidently predicted increase in strife caused by global warming coupled to increased personal and financial insecurity which we already understand causes people to be more attracted to religion and authoritarians.

  • John Hinkle

    If you listen to things like Moody Bible radio, you get the impression that everything is hunky-dory. They claim their numbers are growing, a such-n-such youth ministry event had more youngin’s than ever, etc.

    How long until they have no listeners and their events are filled with empty chairs? It’s a pleasant little daydream of mine.

  • While I’ve long over-estimated society’s rate of abandoning woo, I remain optimistic about the future.

    Hmm. Depends what type of “woo” you are talking about. Abandoning religious woo is a major step in the right direction, because it religion is a major unifying source of political power, but I don’t see a great deal of rationalism taking its place in those countries where religion is no longer a major factor.

    For example, even though creationists are almost a complete non-factor in the UK, as many as half the British population don’t believe that evolution is the best explanation for human origins. Alternative medicine is also thriving in the UK.

    The good news is that without the unifying imperative provided by a large politically active Religious Right, the various factions of “woo” followers tend to be less influential when it comes to public policy, which gives government more leeway for making reason-based decisions (at least in terms of social policy).

  • machintelligence

    If you listen to things like Moody Bible radio, you get the impression that everything is hunky-dory. They claim their numbers are growing, a such-n-such youth ministry event had more youngin’s than ever, etc.

    This may be a confusion of absolute numbers with relative numbers. (Math was never their long suit.)

    Also I am hopeful that 2010 was the high water mark of their influence. Although the Tea Party had some spectacular successes, they also had some catastrophic failures: here in Colorado the Republican party nearly lost major party status (at least 10% polling in the most recent governor’s race) because of their lame choice of candidate. The Democrat won, and a third party candidate finished second. Demographics are also against them as the average age of fundamentalist voters is pretty high.

    On a more personal note, the relatively few conservative friends to whom I have spoken about politics seem to have the following thoughts. They are concerned (frightened) about Obama because of what he might do, but are unenthusiastic about Romney (Obama light). They were all anti Santorum, to the extent that they would never vote for him. Generalizing from a small sample here.

  • frog

    I’m glad they’re calling them “Millenials.” I always felt like “Generation Y” was equivalent to “Gen X’s kid brother” instead of a real name of their own.

    (I say this as both a Gen-Xer and a younger sibling.)

  • bananacat

    I’m not surprised to hear this. I’m part of that group and I expect my experience was pretty typical. Most non-believers of my age don’t have big de-conversion stories. Generally our belief just tapers off and it’s not some big life-changing event. I called myself non-religious for years before I called myself an atheist because I felt apathetic more than anything and I perceived the label atheist to be something really more meaningful than my own experience. I also know quite a few Catholics my age who are only practicing because of pressure from their family. It’s pretty well-known among young Catholics in my group (age and economic) that most others young people are just faking it. It’s possible though that young Catholics of other groups are more devout, but I really wouldn’t know either way.

  • TCC

    For the record, my ambivalence wasn’t about the name “millennial” but about its application to me: like Jordan Genso, I associated the term with a younger cohort (because, like Ben P, I’m at the upper end of the group). I don’t really mind the label; it just took me off-guard that I’m considered part of the demographic.

  • abb3w

    @15, tacitus:

    The shift has been going on for generations now and appears to be accelerating.

    Yes. However, most of that is because of the successive differences from one generation to the next, rather than individual generations changing over time. (See also the GSS.) The rise in irreligiosity fits well to a logistic curve against birth cohort, on that part.

    Also note, most of that is simply a growth in the broader “Nones”, rather than the narrower category of Atheist-Nones and Agnostic-Nones. (Check the details of the chart.) Within the nones, the atheist:agnositic:deist:doubter:theist ratios don’t seem to have shifted much — at least, not at the resolution the GSS sample size allows.

    This, however, looks like a distinct shift. Or a sample fluke akin to a winning lottery ticket.

    At worst, it’s the result of the sample (though normalized via address-based sampling) all having internet access made available to them. It seems unlikely; and anyway, that would just mean getting atheists to systematically start investing in ISPs to push rural access.

    @15, tacitus:

    The most striking feature of this chart is just how steady the level is for each generation — once a generation comes of age, their level of religiosity is pretty much baked in for life.

    My instinct is that the transition chance is governed by an Erlang distribution on age; however, I’ve not done the data crunching on it.

    @15, tacitus:

    The trend is slow because of its generational nature, but I find it hard to believe that it can be reversed, absent a major shock to American society

    The generational trend, yes; though I cynically don’t rule out such shock. That was what I was referring to with Sagan et alia.

    However, this also involves a shift within the Nones, and that still too short term to be considered “generational”. So far, it only exists in one year’s survey data. If it shows up in two and four more years, that might be… interesting.

    I’m looking forward to the GSS-2012 release about this time next year. =)

    @19, tacitus:

    Depends what type of “woo” you are talking about.

    Yeah. The GSS data for TOMATOES is kinda depressing.

  • I prefer the term net-generation, myself…