As Young Shun Religion, Believers Aging Fast

As Young Shun Religion, Believers Aging Fast July 6, 2018

In the hippy-dippy Age of Aquarius of the 1960’s and ’70’s, the youth motto was “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” because their elders clearly were clueless about what really mattered: sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.

nonreligious youth
            “Calvin and Hobbes” math atheist. (Jessica Allan Schmidt, Flikr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Today, as 40 is arguably the new 30, it’s the oldsters turn. The crotchety crowd now might well say, “Don’t trust anyone under 40,” because young folks are clearly uninspired by what really matters in their elders’ more conservative, traditional lives: godly religion.

‘Generation gap’

But elders, at least in the West, are on the losing end of this “generation gap.” Secular people, not just in America but in many countries worldwide, are relatively young and enjoy the benefit of far-faster-growing numbers, while more demographically static seniors are relentlessly dying out.

A Pew Research Institute study released June 13, titled “The Age Gap in Religion Around the World,” found that while young adults tend to be less religious than their elders, “the opposite is rarely true,” according to a report in Baptist News Global (BNG) online. BNG notes that the world’s younger adults have generally begun “to give up their faith in the efficacy and veracity of religion.”

In other words, nonreligious people today don’t believe religious dogma is true or effective in improving their lives.

So, as religiously apathetic or dismissive young adults are increasingly joining the expanding global demographic of what are known as “nones” (i.e., people without religious affiliations), the good news is:

“… if nothing else, church and denominational leaders in the states can take comfort knowing that they’re not alone in the struggle against declining memberships and affiliation.”

American churches ‘graying’

The new Pew study, involving research in more than 100 countries and territories over the last decade, reports that:

“In the United States, religious congregations have been graying for decades, and young adults are now much less religious than their elders. Recent surveys have found that younger adults are far less likely than older generations to identify with a religion, believe in God or engage in a variety of religious practices.”

Religious alienation is, however, much broader than just in North America or other Western societies, Pew data shows. The survey report states:

“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.”

Alarming for theocrats

Theocratic governments, as in Iran and Saudi Arabia, will reasonably view this trend with alarm for the future stability of their societies, in which the traditional edicts of religious doctrines are commonly indistinguishable from temporal laws.

But Islamic mullahs, for example, should also note with some relief that this nonreligious trend is not universal. In most countries, Pew reports, the young and old still share comparable levels of religiosity.

“In places where there is a difference, however,” according to the study, “it is almost always in the direction of younger adults being less religious than their elders.”

In 46 of 106 countries surveyed, the Pew study showed that adults aged 18 to 39 reported that religion was less important to them than older people. In 58 countries “there was no significant difference” in religiosity between the two groups. Only two countries — the former Soviet republic of Georgia and Ghana is West Africa — had younger adults more religious than their elders, Pew reported.

Nonreligious youth

But where there is a divide, it can be large, Pew noted:

“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.”

But in the United States, the data sharply trends toward religious skepticism in the young. Pew data shows the proportion of American adults under age 40 who identify with a religious group is 17 percentage points lower than for religiously affiliated older adults. Baptist News Global reported:

“American religious leaders have come to know all too well: that congregations are getting older, and young people are increasingly unlikely to identify with a religion, believe in God or participate in religious practices.”

Curiously, irreligiosity skewed to the young is most pronounced in Christian countries. More than half of Christian nations surveyed countries showed this tendency, but Pew data showed it affects only a quarter of Muslim countries and only Buddhists in one country: the U.S. No such gap showed for Jews in the U.S. or Israel, or for Hindus in America or India.

Not over till it’s over

But, counter-intuitively, all this apparent growth in global skepticism may eventually trend in the opposite direction. The reason is that the currently most religious areas of the world, which enjoy only nominal if any gaps of fervency between young and old, have the highest fertility rates. Notes Pew:

Previously published projections show that if current trends continue, countries with high levels of religious affiliation will grow fastest. The same is true for levels of religious commitment: The fastest population growth appears to be occurring in countries where many people say religion is very important in their lives.”

Although, clearly, the opposite drift is moving America.


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