The United States has long been seen, on a domestic as well as an international level, as a deeply religious place.
However, Millennials are ditching religion. The number of young adults unaffiliated with any religious group is rising at an astonishingly rapid rate. In fact, 35 percent of Millennials (individuals born between 1981 and 1996) belong in the increasingly immense classification labeled “religious nones,” a group comprising people who are not affiliated with any particular religion.
Only one in four Millennials attends weekly religious meetings. Millennials are also far less likely to likely to say religion is important in their lives and relinquish much less approval of religious institutions than their parents or grandparents did are their age.
More broadly, a survey conducted earlier this year by Pew Research found that a record 46 million Americans are classified as “nones.” That means that 23 percent of Americans are nonreligious, a momentous nine percent leap from the 14 percent of nonreligious Americans just eight years ago in 2007. To give perspective, that number is equal to the black, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native American populations combined.
This isn’t the only important metric, though. In 2007, Pew conducted a nationwide survey concluding that roughly 60 percent of Americans who attend religiously-oriented services “seldom or never” still described themselves as belonging to some particular religious group. Just five years later (in 2012), only half of those surveyed claimed that they belonged to a religious group of some kind, which equates to a 10 point net drop in just five years. The study also concluded that only half of Americans regularly attend religious services of any kind. The share of Americans who say they are “absolutely certain” God exists has dropped sharply from 71 percent in 2007 to 63 percent in 2014.
Religious disaffiliation is even more pronounced among the youngest Americans. Nonreligious Americans are younger, on average, than the general population to start with, and the youngest adults in the group — that is, those who have entered adulthood just in the last several years — are even less religious. Seven in ten Millennials born between 1990 and 1996 with no religious affiliation say spirituality is not at all important in their lives.
Demographically, the cohort of nonreligious people in the United States is 20 percent more likely to be educated at the collegiate level and about 15 percent more likely to be white.
This nationwide phenomenon is at least partially attributed to the death of older cohorts of people, primarily the so-called baby boomer generation. As they die, they are being replaced by a new, equally monolithic, generation that displays far lower levels of attachment to organized religion than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations did when they were the same age.
The conventional wisdom has always been that people will grow to fear death more as they get older and thus become more religious than their younger counterparts. But new reviews and exhaustive longitudinal surveys taken over the course of the last 50 years and totaling 11 million adolescents and adults are providing us with a clear and much different answer: the religious rift that exists between Millennials and their parents and grandparents is definitely a broad generational and social shift.
Diagnosing the sharp decline in religious Americans is complicated, and there isn’t a single factor that experts can definitively point out as the culprit. While the answer is convoluted, it’s probable that the nation’s disinterest is at least partially a product of a cultural shift and a growing emphasis on individualism in the United States.
Another likely driver, especially among Millennials, is the American political landscape in the status quo. As fringe Republican candidates and politicians increasingly tout Christianity as a primary motivation for their toxic and divisive policy prescriptions, their hateful rhetoric only serves to exacerbate the acute shift in religious thought in the United States. Young people — who support equal marriage and other more liberal social agendas nearly unanimously — are feeling increasingly disenfranchised with the conservative brand. Millennials are ditching religion, but they are also far more likely to not only share housing with significant others but also have children outside of wedlock and a variety of other cultural and social imbalances. In sum, young Americans see deeply ingrained religious faith as a conservative behavior with which they do not identify.
This may seem like a purely political element of the decline, but the ramifications clearly have much further, and perhaps much more powerful, impacts that bleed over into other areas of the American dialogue than previously thought. Succinctly put, Millennials are ditching religion and challenging religious norms in a way that no generation has ever done.
It’s deceiving when you live here in Utah, but Mormons only make up 1.4 percent of the U.S. population. That means nonreligious Americans outnumber Mormons 15 to 1. This gulf will continue to grow, as the proportion of American adults who claim to be Mormons is small and declining. In 2007, 1.7 percent of Americans identified as Mormon; in 2014, that number shrank to 1.4 percent. That statistic runs counter to the popular notion (here in Utah, and in the beltway press) that the Mormon Church, with it’s expansive and ever-growing crew of proselytic missionaries, is the fastest-growing religious sect in the United States. This is all atop the devastating news about comprehensive retention rates in the Mormon church: In the 1970s–2000s, the retention rate among children who were raised Mormon was 92.6 percent. Now, the retention rate is closer to 60 percent.
“While many Mormons are coming in the front door, many others are leaving out the back door,” said Ryan Cragun, professor of sociology at the University of Tampa. “Despite a large missionary force and a persistent emphasis on growth, Mormons are actually treading water with respect to their per capita presence in the U.S.”
As religious beliefs, and consequently the religious organizations that once fostered them, continue to lose their influence on American culture and Americans’ social lives, many are asking what implications the shift will have on American politics.
As religious institutions hemorrhage their political power, it’s beginning to look like their disaffiliated (and highly civically engaged) former members will be much more likely to align against them on the political spectrum. In both 2008 and 2012, 75 percent of nonreligious folks voted for Barack Obama over McCain and Romney, respectively. This staggering majority means that the cohort of nonreligious voters is now the single most numerous religious constituency that the Democrats have. This is a stark contrast from the group that represents the largest portion of the Republican electorate: evangelical Christians.
Millennials are facilitating a profound shift in the nation’s ideology and will continue to assert a momentous impact on society, culture, and politics for decades to come. The nonreligious presence has already made a significant mark on the political discourse in this country — and it and will continue to.