Study: Millennials Leaving Faith

Study: Millennials Leaving Faith April 20, 2012

You’ve heard it, and now it’s been confirmed by a major survey from Georgetown University and the Public Religion Research Institute: the Millennial Generation is leaving church, faith, and orthodox belief. Everyone who reads this blog should read this study:

Younger Millennials report significant levels of movement from the religious affiliation of their childhood, mostly toward identifying as religiously unaffiliated. While only 11% of Millennials were religiously unaffiliated in childhood, one-quarter (25%) currently identify as unaffiliated, a 14-point increase. Catholics and white mainline Protestants saw the largest net losses due to Millennials’ movement away from their childhood religious affiliation.

Today, college-age Millennials are more likely than the general population to be religiously unaffiliated. They are less likely than the general population to identify as white evangelical Protestant or white mainline Protestant.

Millennials also hold less traditional or orthodox religious beliefs. Fewer than one-quarter (23%) believe that the Bible is the word of God and should be taken literally, word for word. About 1-in-4 (26%) believe Bible is the word of God, but that not everything in the Bible should be taken literally. Roughly 4-in-10 (37%) say that the Bible is a book written by men and is not the word of God.

Read it here: Survey | A Generation in Transition: Religion, Values, and Politics among College-Age Millennials | Public Religion Research Institute.

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  • Tony,

    Was a joy to chat last night and take in a most interesting conversation. Thanks for the alert on this material — will need to spend some time with it, but it’s something churches must heed.

  • Looking forward to reading the study and its methodology. My response when I read these reports centers on what it compels us to do. What is our response? So often I feel some just shrug, “well, that’s it” and we return to our cup of coffee as if we’ve finally got it ‘right’ now.

    I would think that for those of us who live in the ministry world, this should compel us in some way. And that’s an element of the conversation that we need to develop and care for… and that conversation needs to translate into every-day action. I think of the work of Sparkhouse and Re:Form as part of the admirable action steps taken to help young people develop a Christian theology. But, I think there are others, and some that we seem to have thrown away lately (i.e. apologetics, which has various renditions so please don’t paint me into one corner) and serve us better than passivity.

    Thanks for passing this along, Tony. It is worth a careful examination.


  • ME

    Pagans and nihilists have been winning more and more in western culture for the last couple hundred (if not more) years. Wish I knew what the answer was, all I know to do is pray.

    • Yes, since that awful event called the Italian Renaissance.

    • JoshthePagan

      That’s odd. Pagans have only really been on the rise for the past few generations. I don’t know about “winning” though. You may believe that Satan has taken a hold on our lives, but Pagans are here to experience life and to leave this a better world for the next generation than when we inherited it. I really don’t see a good moral base as being the work of the devil.

      I think the reason more and more people are leaving churches is due to the fact that people are thinking more and see the vast amounts of contradictions that are in the Bible. They are finding their own truths.

      Anyway, I’ll let you live your life believing I’ll go to hell if you let me try to make heaven here on Earth (as well as the afterlife). Have a wonderful day!

      • ME

        Hey Josh, where did I write I believe you are going to hell? Where did I say Satan has taken a hold on your life?

        Paganism is a different way of life than Christianity, I think we can agree on that, and we might also agree that it is gaining traction.

        I wish everyone in the world believed in Jesus, we certainly differ on that. But please don’t mistake that as meaning I think you are going to hell or taken over by Satan. It’s not fair to put words into people’s mouths like that and I don’t think you would appreciate it if I did the same to you.

        • kenneth

          Equating pagans and nihilists (and thus implicating pagans as a cause/symptom of societal rot), doesn’t really strike the ear of pagans as a presumption of good will.

          • ME

            Where did I say anything about societal rot? I don’t think nihilist and pagans lead to that. Gotta say, I feel for Tony, I’d hate to make posts and have people read all sorts of stuff into them that isn’t there.

        • JoshthePagan

          ME, you don’t always have to type something in order to mean that which is already prevalent in the culture. Yes, you did not type that, but you are strengthening on official stance of the Christian religion with this quote:

          “Pagans and nihilists have been winning more and more in western culture for the last couple hundred (if not more) years.”

          Here you are talking about one side versus the other by using the word “winning”. As most of us in Western culture are very familiar with, any one who does not follow the Bible is doomed to hell. Christianity also teaches that if you do not follow Jesus’ teachings, then you must be following the Devil’s ways. It isn’t spoken about freely anymore (most likely assumed at this point), but it is still the sermon you will get from any Christian preacher. If you don’t follow the Bible, you will end up in hell (or purgatory, etc).

          So no, I wasn’t quoting you with the phrases, but I was pointing out how your viewpoints of right and wrong (winning) are seen by those who aren’t Christian. We hear all the time from those who preach that we will go to hell. After a time, it needs to be pointed out how just because someone is different, it doesn’t make them wrong.

          What really needs to be discussed is how similar different religions are in their morality. Morality is not a religious construct, it is a cultural one. As the world shrinks, the small differences in cultural morality will become more uniform, but cultural traditions will remain intact (for the most part).

          I guess what I am trying to say is, your original statement seems to show that we are at opposition (winning), when in fact our goal is the same. Peace, love, kindness, fairness, helping others, and many other moral positions are shared between us. Please be careful and try not to divide us with language that I know you didn’t intend to create an issue with.

          • ME

            I think we in fact are in friendly and respectful opposition. You believe a lot of what I think is hooey and I think what you believe is inferior to believing in Jesus. I’m ok with that, it is what it is.

            Just one for instance- I believe there is an objective, culturally independent morality. We may not be able to perfectly ascertain it, but I believe it’s there. I expect you don’t and I don’t think this is something either one of us can really compromise over.

      • Jireh

        Your Joshing Me Pagan
        No , heaven is not here on earth and contrary to what some believe ‘ hell ‘ is not here either.Josh , there is a better ‘ world ‘ which is called ‘eternal life ‘ by the author of life > JESUS >. I would hope and pray that someday you will understand the truth, the real truth , found in JESUS CHRIST.Be reminded what is said in the Scriptures that : someday , every knee will bow , every mouth will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord .
        I plead with you to bow that knee and surrender your life to him ASAP ! Today is the day of salvation , don’t harden your heart any more to Him. Rejection of Him will only lead to an eternal life without him , and that my friend, is what Hell is really all about.
        I leave you with John 3 : 16 , 17, 18. Selah

        • Sagrav

          Jireh’s comment here is the answer to the question, “Why are so many younger people leaving [orthodox/patriarchal/stifling] faith?”. Here we have a belief presented as an absolute Truth without a grain of supporting evidence (and a bible quote tacked on at the end like a good luck charm).

          I don’t think that Joshthepagan actually thinks that he or anyone can create a literal heaven on earth complete with singing angels and eternal life. He was referring to his desire to make the world a better, less barbaric place to live. As far as heaven or hell existing in some other dimension or something, please show some hard physical evidence of such places. I’m sure a lot of physicists would be very interested in studying a physical reality where bodies can burn without being consumed (goodbye laws of thermodynamics!), and biologists would love to study beings that fail to age with the passage of time.

          • JoshthePagan

            Sagrav, that is correct. Just as angels and faeries don’t really exist (in ways that we can prove), so too I am not trying to create this place into actual heaven. My hopes for heaven are much greater then this place could offer.

            The problems that I see for young people are that they are told that X is the truth because of a book that was written by several people, translated, re-translated, and edited over thousands of years. People are leaving their churches because they see the contradiction in what is said and what is happening.

            It is no longer enough to be told that X is the truth. People need to reason WHY X is the truth. Quoting the book where this truth comes from would not help because the book is the source of the contradictions. This is a point in history where the fear of persecution for religious reasons in the Western world is very low. Due to this, people are questioning things that they would not have otherwise.

            In order to help you to understand why people are leaving, I can say a little bit about why I am pagan. Dogs. Well, dogs as a start, you can branch out from there. If you have ever had a pet, you understand that they have a spirit or soul of some kind that is not addressed in Christianity. Do they get saved as well? Just because they are less intelligent, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have a soul.

            From here, I created my personal belief system and determined that I am pagan (or neo-pagan if you will). I don’t need to belong to a group that believes in the same thing, just a group that respects that we are all individuals finding our own way and we can come together to discuss what we have learned about life.

            I wish you well in trying to save our souls and hope that you don’t forget the true teachings that Jesus was trying to convey.

          • Frank

            Josh you are in good company. Many Christians do the very same thing: “I created my personal belief system and determined that I am __________.”

            You actually have more integrity and credibility because at least you admit what you have done.

  • Jason


    I don’t shrug, but I don’t see this generation as any different from any generation ever, literally from the time of Christ. I believe God is at work in all of creation. I believe the Bible is inspired (and in some places literal, others not, but always a spiritual/moral guide into the creative vision of God) and those who read it with a heart open to God stop thinking about SELF and start thinking and wanting to be part of God’s movement.

    A lot of this is simply narcissism in my opinion. A lot of churches (again since the time of Christ) try to please people instead of God and offer low social maturity (more the problem, in my opinion, because they don’t handle questions/searching well OR they cater to it and are ‘edgy’ and buy into distortion of orthodox Christianity).

    Low social maturity is afflicting our culture in spades. Our comfort levels, our self-centeredness, our greed, our desire for answers – all are timeless struggles the Bible confronts and demands we put aside. Church is quite simply a group of people who want to love others, serve others, and seek God (in questions, truth and prayer etc.) so they can obey God – people who put aside self and read the Scriptures and obey them are always moved in similar directions because the big brushstrokes aren’t exactly hidden: love of others over self, love of moral and ethical community over money, standing against selflishness and personal comfort etc.

    I don’t see why people go off message so many places on all sides of the debate. Christianity in its real form seems pretty simple to me – it just depends on whether people want to struggle together to follow Christ or not.

    • Sagrav

      “our desire for answers”

      Here is a sticking point. I am NOT going to shut off my mind for the sake of… well, anything really. Why would a god want you to give up your inquisitiveness?

      You can love and serve others without religion. As far as seeking god(s) goes, why should I seek that which I have never seen evidence for?

      The overall theme that I personally see in the Abrahamic religions is this notion total surrender to an outside and unknowable force designated ‘God’. I have somehow angered this being because I was born and I have some ancestors that ate some cursed fruit (unless that passage is just taken metaphorically). If I choose not to surrender to this being that I have never personally met, then it will retaliate by burning me in some place that defies all known laws of physics. This being also sacrificed itself to itself as a means of convincing itself to extend the possibility of grace (at least in the Christian tradition). I am supposed to surrender to it to gain this grace and avoid being tortured forever, and I am supposed to be happy with this chance to surrender.

      Oy. See, this confusing and nonsensical mess is a part of the problem. No wonder some young people are looking to neo-pagan and reconstructionist paths for their religion fix. A god like Zeus is way more straightforward. Zeus says, “I’m the king of the gods! I won my throne by defeating my father! Respect the gods of Olympus, work hard, and be decent to your fellow mortals or there will be a thunder bolt with your name on it!” Very to the point. No legalistic wrangling to make a sin disappear through blood sacrifices.

  • Greg D

    I couldn’t disagree more. On a global scale, Christianity is actually growing amongst Millennials in both Asia, Africa, and parts of the Middle East. Whereas, in Europe and North America, Christianity is on a steady decline. Remember, surveys conducted in the US don’t account for the BILLIONS of other people who live on the other side of the world.

    • Frank

      Yes the failure lies in thinking that the West is on the cutting edge of faith when in reality, as shown by these surveys, we are on the opposite end it seems.

      • ME

        The west is richer and more educated. Those things often lead people astray which is at least part of the reason for decline.

        • ?!?!? So prosperity and education “lead people astray” and should be avoided? We should strive for a poverty-stricken, ignorant society?


          Tell you what, though — that viewpoint explains a lot about the Republican platform this year….

          • ME

            Hmmm, I said it leads astray. But where did I say we should strive for poverty and ignorance? I didn’t say that and I don’t believe it. Regarding poverty, I’m a John Wesley kind of guy, earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can. That’s different than poverty. Ignorance? Education is good, we just shouldn’t think of it as our salvation.

          • kenneth

            There’s a couple of ways to read the decline of religion in the West corresponding with the growth in prosperity and education. One, we can presume, as religious traditionalists do, that prosperity blinds people to faith and makes them arrogant. The alternative says something unflattering about the power of religion to convince an educated and reasoning person of its validity. Institutional religion, in the most traditional sense, has been on the decline since the printing press, literacy, and the beginnings of industrialization which gave the average person the means to do anything after dark in their homes. The single biggest blow to traditional religion in the West started with the Reformation. That could happen only because people outside of the clergy and university world could read the Bible in their own language for the first time and form some ideas of their own about what it really meant.
            The Rennaisance and Enlightenment gave them a lot more to read and think about, and more sophisticated economies meant that not everyone had to toil in a field and croak by their late 20s and 30s. What does it say about us, or about religion, that it is only really growing in precisely those areas of the world where people live and die much like Medieval Europeans? Have we in the West become “too smart for our own good”, or does organized religion naturally do its best business with people who are impoverished and uneducated and more inclined to hope for the next life rather than this one?

          • ME


            Thinking about what you said… I was probably off base to think of any correlation with education. The problem, of course, isn’t education, but more the culture that says we are self-sufficient, we don’t need a God. And that kind of culture will highly value education. I got the symptom and the cause reversed. The cause is a culture of self-reliance, the symptom putting our faith in education instead of God.

            Regarding prosperity, it could be the same thing. It’s ok to strive for more productivity if it serves God (ie the John Wesley way) but it’s not ok to strive for more productivity so I can get a bigger boat (which is the American way.)

            These are simple things that everyone already knows, thus proving my original comments were pretty stupid.

  • Basil

    I believe I read that the fastest growing religion in the U.S. is Islam, although it is still a small minority in the U.S. Islam is outpacing Christianity in terms of “who is growing fastest” on a global scale, although both religions are growing rapidly in areas of the developing world with rapid population growth. Of course, all of these numbers are purely specious — it is not like anyone runs arounds asking the 7 billion plus people on this planet “hey, what do you believe?”.

    In what universe is being richer, and more educated, a symptom of decline? Seriously, have you ever spent time living in a Third World country? Well, I have, and you know what — life sucks if you are poor and uneducated (it doesn’t really matter what country you live in). Poor and uneducated people are often quite religious, and almost always good and decent people, but I guarantee you, any of the poor people I met would trade religion and tradition in order to get an education and escape poverty.

    • ME

      In what universe is being richer a symptom of decline?

      The kingdom of God is a correct answer, no?

    • Frank

      In truth the poor and those not educated in the American system have far more joy than most “educated and rich” Americans.

      Indeed ME is correct, riches and education are in no way a requirement for entering Gods Kingdom and more often than not they are a barrier.

  • The “fastest growing religion in the United States” is the Cult of Pablo Mago, a friend of mine. To my knowledge, he was the only adherent in 2011, but he met a girl at a New Year’s party, and she liked the Cult, so she converted. That means the Cult of Pablo Mago has seen a 100% growth this year (unless his girlfriend breaks up with him.) I’d like to see the Evangelicals match THAT!

    This is, of course, tongue-in-cheek, and the point is that small groups will always grow “faster” than large groups when you measure them this way. Islam is a minority religion in the US, as are neo-Pagan groups and the Cult of Pablo Mago. Even a small increase in numbers will account for a large percentage change, and they will be seen as the “fastest growing.” I wouldn’t be concerned about Pablo’s Cult overtaking the Catholic Church any time soon, nor about Paganism or Islam. Not in the US.

    A decline is a different matter.

  • Colleen

    The west is richer and more educated? Where are those statistics..actually, the first thing we were told in our university statististics class is that statistics is the biggest lie in society. I don’t know where my prof got those statistics, but it is sad how society blindly believes a bunch of numbers that can easily be illustated by Themon up there:) Funny commment:)

  • pagansister

    To each his/her own. Many in this age of fast communication, and more knowledge in science etc. cause those who have chosen to opt out of organized religion find the teachings of a 2000 year old faith, and a book that has been copied so many times hard to swallow. I know I found them hard to swallow in the early 1960’s—–at the ripe old age of 17. At that time I had been raised in the Methodist church my whole life, but at 17 saw a different “light”.

    • ME

      I agree w/ you sister, to each his/her own. I have a lot of respect for people like yourself who have left the church because it means the really evaluated what they believe and took that “leap of faith.” Even if I took a leap of faith in a different direction, I still respect my fellow leapers!

      Also, is there some sort of bat-signal that goes up when one mentions the word pagan in a comment? I’m wondering what would happen if I mention the term Heathen 🙂

      • pagansister

        ME: Bat- signal going up when one mentions the word “pagan” in a comment? Hmmm—never noticed. :o) As to the word Heathen? No problem when I see/hear it!

      • JoshthePagan

        Did I see the word pagan? Who flipped the bat signal?

        • pagansister

          You did! :o)

          • JoshthePagan

            hehehe Like Tracy Chapman was trying to say, it’s time to spread a little peace, love, and understanding because heaven’s here on Earth. That is, the world is what you make of it, so let’s get busy! 🙂

          • pagansister

            Amen, Josh! I’m with you!

    • Jabo

      pagan sister , i don’t think you see a different ‘ light ‘. There is no light at the end of the tunnel you are headed for but only ‘ eternal darkness ‘.

      • pagansister

        Jabo, I totally disagree that there is eternal darkness at the end of the tunnel, on this road I have traveled for the last 50 years. Thanks for your concern, however. BTW, how would you know just what light I see? Actually, you can’t. As I mentioned above, I was raised a Methodist and it wasn’t for me. Life is good—-

        • Frank

          Of course you disagree. I mean who interior right mind would knowingly head that way. The tragedy is that you do not see your inevitable destination but there is still time for you to be enlightened.

          • pagansister

            IN your opinion, Frank. In your opinion.

          • Frank

            No, not an opinion, but a truth from scripture.

          • pagansister

            Frank, the scripture I suspect you are relying on has had 2000 years of translations and interpretations, some done by little old monks, and if I have read correctly, there is yet a new version using our modern day language (which in my reading is not as beautiful as the King James version). Anyhow, after all that, how the heck can anyone take literally what it says? I have to think that those monks and everyone else who took it upon themselves to “update it” put their own interpretation on it too. After all, it was supposed to be THE word—just changed the way some dude wanted it to be. The book itself? Fine reading—includes sex,(including some incest, infidelity etc) war, blood, revenge, beautiful poetry in the Psalms, some advice, (good and not so good), creationism—one of my favorites is Adam & Eve—starting the whole human thing on the earth—with 2 boys—and one killing the other—so how did the world get populated? (incest)? All that to say—the book isn’t the truth for many, many people. But is can be fascinating reading. Would make a good movie—Oh Wait! —someone has done that! :o) Most of that can be summed up with: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. OR—Do as you will, so long as it harms none.

          • pagansister

            One more thing, Frank. I suspect the 12 fellows who were following HIM around weren’t taking notes nor was anything else. NT of course. It was written so many years after HIS death, I suspect much got blown out of reality, since there was a move on to make HIM special. Can’t push a new religion without some imagination. As for the OT? History.

          • Frank

            pagansister there are many apologetic site, books and blogs where we could debate the reliability and authority of Christianity and scripture. I get it, you don’t believe and that’s your choice. People have the freedom and right to believe in nonsense or truth. I am more than comfortable in my belief that the bible is the Word of God and that Christianity is humanities only hope. I am sure you would say the same thing about whatever you believe. We both cannot be right and there will come a day where we will live in the consequences of our choices.

          • pagansister

            Agreed Frank, we are both comfortable in our beliefs (or we wouldn’t stay with them). And IMO, there is no one RIGHT and TRUE faith. To have a faith, or not, is a choice. For many who follow a faith, they find it the one and only I suspect. But there are those that believe theirs is the only true one, but also are not condemning of those who follow a different one—such as yourself. :o) You’re right, someday we will find out what happens after we leave this world.

          • Frank

            pagansister I am sorry if you found my post condemning. My intention is to see you saved not condemned.

          • pagansister

            Frank, I didn’t find your post condemning—-and having re-read what I posted, I can see that you thought I did. Let me try the sentence again. “But there are those that believe theirs is the only true one, but also are not condemning of those who follow a different one—” and then I should have said, you’re not one who condemns . Did that make sense? I hope so. You (and 1 of my 2 sisters) wants me saved. She is a very devout Christian. The other sister, also devout, knows my spirituality and isn’t worried about me. I’m the oldest and the only one who “left the faith” if you will.

          • Frank

            Thanks pagansister!

        • kenneth

          He’s just cheesed that you’re heading down a tunnel that won’t enhance his own church’s revenue stream. It also doesn’t site well with many Christians because they have staked the validity of their own beliefs on universal acceptance of those beliefs. Anyone who doesn’t walk with them toward the light in their own tunnels therefore must be lost, or evil.

          • pagansister

            Oh so true, Kenneth. :o)

  • kenneth

    Millenials are leaving traditional faith because they’re smart, determined to think for themselves and because technology has freed them from the constraints of geography and parochial thinking that kept older generations tethered to institutions, religious and otherwise. They have absolutely no interest in doing something because “that’s how it’s always been done”. I’ve seen this trajectory play out in Catholicism in the Midwest. I’m a Gen Xer. My grandparents generation was devout because it was unthinkable to be otherwise. They either grew up in the “old country” or were raised by people who did. My parents generation often kept the faith out of a kind of inertia. It was part and parcel to middle class respectability in the circles of their ethnic communities which were just really climbing onto suburban white collar prosperity for the first time. People of my generation either dropped out by college or perhaps go on Christmas and Easter and baptize their kids to keep the older folks happy, but have no real belief or stake in the thing. The millenials simply won’t play that game. Something either convinces them on its own merits or they discard it and move on. Many of them are deeply motivated in a quest for spirituality, and they see very little of it in institutional religion. What they see is a lot of partisan politics and culture war posturing, a relentless drive for money, and staggering hypocrisy.
    I think it’s all to the good because a lot of these younger folks I see are skeptical, not cynical. They’re very deliberate in their choices, and when they decide an idea or movement is worth getting on board, they’re on board all the way. Those who do decide Catholicism or Evangelical religion is the truth go into it with a zeal rarely seen in the recent older generations who were often “going through the motions.” It’s no accident that the youngest and most enthusastic Catholics are also some of the most hardcore traditionalists. Those who think religion should be an active spiritual quest by its participants will the Millenial trend as a promising development. Those who see religion in terms of obedience and market share are in for a very rocky road with these folks.