Millennials quit religion and don’t come back
Millennials have earned a reputation for reshaping industries and institutions – shake up the workplace, transform the dating culture, and rethink parenting. They also had a dramatic impact on American religious life. Four in ten millennials now say they have no religious affiliation, according to the Pew Research Center. In fact, Millennials (those aged 23 to 38) are now almost as likely to say they have no religion as they are to identify as Christians.
For a long time, however, it was not clear whether this young defection from religion would be temporary or permanent. It seemed possible that as millennials got older, at least some would return to a more traditional religious life. But there is growing evidence that today’s younger generations may be leaving religion for good.
Social science research has long suggested that Americans’ relationship with religion has a tidal quality – people who were raised in religion find themselves adrift as young adults, only to be brought back when they find spouses and begin to raise their own families. Some have argued that young adults simply had not yet been entered the fold of organized religion, especially since they were cross important milestones like marriage and parenthood later.
But now many millennials have spouses, children and mortgages – and there is little evidence of a corresponding increase in religious interest. A new national survey from the American Enterprise Institute over 2,500 Americans has found a few reasons why millennials might not return to the religious fold. (One of the authors of this article helped lead the investigation.)
- For one thing, many millennials never had a strong connection to religion initially, meaning they were less likely to develop habits or associations that make it easier to return to a religious community.
- Young adults are also increasingly likely to have a non-religious spouse, which can help strengthen their secular worldview.
- Changing views on the relationship between morality and religion also seem to have convinced many young parents that religious institutions are simply irrelevant or unnecessary for their children.
Millennials may be symbols of a larger societal change in religion, but they did not start it on their own. Their parents are at least in part responsible for a growing generational gap in religious identity and beliefs; they were more likely than previous generations to raise their children without any connection to organized religion. According to the AEI survey, 17% of millennials said they were not raised in any particular religion, compared to just 5% of baby boomers. And less than one in three millennials (32%) say they attended weekly church services with their family when they were young, compared to about half (49%) of baby boomers.
A parent’s religious identity (or lack thereof) can do a lot for shaping a child’s religious habits and beliefs later in life. A 2016 Pew Research Center study found that regardless of religion, people raised in households in which both parents shared the same religion still identified with that faith as adults. For example, 84 percent of people raised by Protestant parents are still Protestants in adulthood. Likewise, people raised with no religion are less likely to seek it out as they get older – this same Pew study found that 63% of people who grew up with two unaffiliated parents were still not religious at all. adulthood.
But a finding from the survey indicates that even millennials who grew up in religion are less and less likely to return to religion. In the 1970s, most non-religious Americans had a religious spouse and often this partner brought them back to regular religious practice. But now a growing number of unaffiliated Americans are settling down with someone who is not religious – a process that may have been accelerated by the large number of lay romantic partners available, and the rise of online dating. Today, 74% of unaffiliated millennials have a non-religious partner or spouse, while only 26% have a religious partner.
Luke Olliff, a 30-year-old man living in Atlanta, says he and his wife have gradually abandoned their religious affiliations. “My family thinks she convinced me to stop going to church and her family thinks I was the one who convinced her,” he said. “But it was really mutual. We moved to a city and talked a lot about how we came to see all this negativity from people who were very religious and who increasingly didn’t want to participate. This view is common among young people. A majority (57%) of millennials agree that religious people are generally less tolerant of others, compared to just 37% of baby boomers.
Young adults like Olliff are also less likely to be brought back to religion by another important event in their life: having children. For much of the country’s history, religion has been viewed as an obvious resource for the moral and ethical development of children. But many young adults no longer see religion as a necessary or even desirable component of parenthood. Less than half (46%) of millennials believe it is necessary to believe in God to be moral. They are also much less likely than baby boomers to say that it is important for children to be raised in a religion so that they can learn the right values (57 percent vs. 75 percent).
These attitudes are reflected in decisions about how young adults raise their children. 45% of millennial parents say they take them to church services and 39% say they send them to Sunday school or a religious education program. Baby boomers, on the other hand, were much more likely to send their children to Sunday school (61%) and to take them regularly to church (58%).
Mandie, a 32-year-old woman living in Southern California who requested that her last name not be used, grew up attending church regularly but is no longer a nun. She told us that she was not convinced that a religious education was what she would choose for her one-year-old child. “My own upbringing was religious, but I came to believe that you can get important moral teachings outside of religion,” she said. “And in some ways, I think a lot of religious organizations are not good role models for these teachings. “
Why does it matter if millennials’ break with religion is permanent? On the one hand, religious engagement is associated with a wide variety of positive social outcomes such as increased interpersonal confidence and civic engagement which are difficult to reproduce by other means. And this trend has obvious political implications. As we wrote a few months ago, if people are religious is increasingly linked to – and even motivated by – their political identity. For years the conservative Christian movement has warned against a rising wave of secularism, but research has suggested that the strong association between religion and the Republican Party can actually fuel this divide. And if even more Democrats lose their faith, it will only exacerbate the acrimonious gulf between secular liberals and religious conservatives.
“At this critical time when people get married and have children and their religious identity becomes more stable, most Republicans are still going back to religion – it’s the Democrats who are not coming back,” said Michele Margolis, author of “From Politics to Benches: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity.” in an interview for our September story.
Of course, the religious trajectory of millennials is not set in stone – they can still become more religious as they age. But it’s easier to come back to something familiar later in life than to try something completely new. And if millennials don’t go back to religion and instead start raising a new generation without a religious background, the divide between religious and secular America could widen even more.