January 8, 2016

Q&A: Why Millennials are less religious than older Americans

While the U.S. public in general is becoming less religious, the nation’s youngest adults are by many measures much less religious than everyone else. Indeed, one of the most striking findings in the recently released Religious Landscape Study is that Millennials (young adults born between 1981 and 1996) are much less likely than older Americans to pray or attend church regularly or to consider religion an important part of their lives.

Michael Hout, Professor of Sociology, New York University. (Credits: New York University; Eva Seto)
Michael Hout, Professor of Sociology, New York University. (Credits: New York University; Eva Seto)

Recently, we sat down with Michael Hout, a professor of sociology at New York University, to examine possible reasons Millennials are generally not as religious as older Americans. Hout, who has spent years studying generational and religious changes in the United States, is the author or co-author of a number of books, including “Century of Difference: How America Changed in the Last One Hundred Years.”

By many measures of religious commitment, Millennials are less religious than older Americans. Why do you think this is?

Most age differences at any given time are the legacy of the times people grew up in. Many Millennials have parents who are Baby Boomers and Boomers expressed to their children that it’s important to think for themselves – that they find their own moral compass. Also, they rejected the idea that a good kid is an obedient kid. That’s at odds with organizations, like churches, that have a long tradition of official teaching and obedience. And more than any other group, Millennials have been and are still being formed in this cultural context. As a result, they are more likely to have a “do-it-yourself” attitude toward religion.

Is what we’re seeing with Millennials part of a broader rejection of traditional institutions or is organized religion the only institution being affected?

Oh, it is widespread. It’s just easier to quantify religious change because we have such good data on it. But Millennials’ faith in nonreligious institutions also is weaker than they used to be. You see evidence of their lack of trust in the labor market, with government, in marriage and in other aspects of life. General Social Survey data on confidence in the leadership of major institutions show that younger people particularly are not as confident as older adults when it comes to institutions like the press, government and churches. But I think trust is not the whole story.

For one thing, there has been a long list of scandals in recent decades, such as Watergate, that have undone the reputations of major institutions the Greatest Generation trusted. Millennials didn’t grow up trusting these institutions and then had that trust betrayed like older Americans might have. They didn’t trust them to begin with. And these institutions have let people, particularly young people, down.

Are these trends likely to be long term?

I’m reluctant to make predictions, but we can see how things have worked out lately. There used to be this view that there was a religious life cycle, that when you got older and married and had kids you got more active in organized religion. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. In the past 20 years, we really haven’t seen a lot of evidence of that cycle continuing.

With respect to the Catholic Church – lack of trust is fueled by the sexual abuse scandals in the church. What we see across all denominations is a gap emerging between politically liberal and moderate young people and leadership among conservative churches who are taking political positions on abortion, gay marriage and other social issues.

When that happens, people who are politically liberal and not active in a particular church often put distance between themselves and organized religion by answering “none of the above” to questions about religious preference. Moderates show the same tendency, just not as clearly. As a consequence, in the most recent General Social Survey (2014), 31% of political liberals who were raised in a religion had no religious preference compared to just 6% of political conservatives.

On a couple of measures of religiosity – namely belief in heaven and hell and willingness to share their faith with others – Millennials do seem more similar to older Americans. Why is this the case?

I think you see higher levels of these things among Millennials because they require very little in the way of institutional involvement. They also are harbingers of the “make your own way” or “do-it-yourself” religion that characterizes this group.

I think people assume that people who do not belong to an organized religious group reject religion altogether. But many “nones” believe in God and heaven. And spiritual experiences are still attractive for people who don’t go to church. Some people find God in the woods rather than in a church.

I have to admit that the data on “sharing faith” is a bit confounding. But I’m sure many Millennials who said they share their faith don’t mean that they engage in missionary work. The choice of the word “share” is vague, so maybe some of them who answered the question thought of it in a more casual way, as in they discuss religion with others.

Topics: Generations and Age, Millennials, Religion and Society, Religious Affiliation, Religious Beliefs and Practices, Religiously Unaffiliated

  1. Photo of David Masci

    is a senior writer/editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.

14 Comments

  1. Carrie Allen2 months ago

    I am curious if their is any research about gen y’s loyalty and closeness to their friends. I have noticed with my 20 year old he has had so many friends. Some since elementary school. Most of them have either stolen from him, or me. Things like a 500$ guitar, a chainsaw, and an iPhone. They don’t seem to have any loyalty. They also do things like borrow stuff then get mad at him for asking for it back months later. If they help someone out cleaning off the roof or helping cut the grass, they want good money. We did stuff like that without thinking about payment. We just knew if we needed something our friends would help us.

  2. Carrie Allen2 months ago

    Why is gen Xers never mentioned as parents of gen y. I’m a gen Xer and have two sons born in 91 and 95. I was in my mind twenties when they were born. I purpose a good percentage of gen Y kids were born to gen Xers. I also propose that we were the first generation to reject the status quote. The baby boomers started out well in certain places. But pretty much sold out to the yuppie life style.

  3. K. Nola Mokeyane4 months ago

    The beautiful thing about spirituality is that it is (and rightfully should be) largely an individual experience. While it’s clear that there are certain characteristics and trends that are generally recognized among groups, ultimately, each millennial will make their own spiritual (I’m reluctant to use the word “religion” because that’s just a different conversation altogether) choices, and these choices may undergo a myriad transformations throughout their lives. I really do appreciate this well-presented and well-researched article though; this is such an interesting and critical (in my opinion) topic & I’d like to read even more about it. Thanks again!

  4. Papa Foote6 months ago

    Q&A: Why Millennials are less religious than older Americans
    BY DAVID MASCI

    While the U.S. public in general is becoming less religious, the nation’s youngest adults are by many measures much less religious than everyone else. Indeed, one of the most striking findings in the recently released Religious Landscape Study is that Millennials (young adults born between 1981 and 1996) are much less likely than older Americans to pray or attend church regularly or to consider religion an important part of their lives.

    The Old Mountain Goat “feels” that the “Power”, that “we” can “see”, in the “Stars”, “Other Planets”, and our “Earth Plant”, begins to “understand” that “thinking” is what what “we” can “see” – not “thinking” that “others” what to “believe”!

  5. Ron Lee6 months ago

    The fact that we, in secular societies, can openly criticize religious beliefs without fear of repercussions (for the most part) is significant- it is not the same in theocracies (eg Middle East).
    One of the several reasons I do not like the Republican platform is its overt preference for monotheism (specifically, Christianity) over polytheism and nontheism- I hope the younger generation can help vote Republicans out of office or get religion out of their platform- their legislation and rhetoric is not infrequently theocratic, and I think it is a danger to non-Christians.
    So young people, get out there, read the platforms, and vote!

    1. Sean Goerling3 months ago

      “The fact that we, in secular societies, can openly criticize religious beliefs without fear of repercussions (for the most part) is significant- it is not the same in theocracies (eg Middle East).”-Ron Lee
      I agree, though many people in the US (and throughout much of the world) are trying to create repercussions for publicly expressing religious beliefs and/or criticizing people who criticize religious beliefs.

      “One of the several reasons I do not like the Republican platform is its overt preference for monotheism (specifically, Christianity) over polytheism and nontheism- I hope the younger generation can help vote Republicans out of office or get religion out of their platform- their legislation and rhetoric is not infrequently theocratic, and I think it is a danger to non-Christians.”-Ron Lee
      One of the several reasons I do not like the Democrat platform is its overt preference for nontheism and certain kinds of monotheism (specifically, Islam) over other kinds of monotheism (specifically, Christianity and Jews). I also strongly did not like their theocratic-resembling rhetoric. Examples include how when now-Pr. Obama was a candidate he was repeatedly presented as “The One”, who in his victory speech in 2008 was making claims about how people would be able to tell their children that “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”. Before he’d even taken office or done anything, the ocean was just going to slow the rate of raising it’s had since just under 8,000 years ago (goo.gl/XUuL1s). I also hope the younger generation can help vote Liberals (Democrats AND Republicans) out of office or get “progressivism”(ie. liberal ideas cast as the obvious best ideas for the future and casting anything BUT them as “regressing”) out of their platform- their legislation and rhetoric is not infrequently anti-religious, and I think it is a danger to all Americans, religious and non-religious.

  6. Eka Yustina6 months ago

    I think most of young people like me, sometimes get bored with the tradition. And the when technology took away our time and make everything seems easy, so there is nothing can’t be solved. We think that just by not making trouble for the others is good enough. Or maybe we are afraid that God might affect our life and change us to be different person or any skeptical thought. For me honestly, I think I found God not in the Church. Eventhough I was born in conservative Catholic church. For some moment I was thinking to leave my faith. I was so hopeless and just perfectly fine without it. But then, many things have happened in my life brought me in faith again. I thought, regarding to any kind of faith we just want to be open-minded. Somehow, people won’t believe unless they experience it by themselves. When some proof or miracle don’t work, unless it goes through their heart. But honestly I think that the strong faith whether there is a miracle or not we still believe in God, but the Church practicioner must apply when they say with their action ùnless, people will leave the church. Not because they don’t believe anymore but because of those people. In the end, people will find their own spiritual way.

  7. Kenny Van Eimeren6 months ago

    Millennials also grew up in an environment where religious ideas get to compete on a level playing field, namely, the Internet. Before the internet, when kids had doubts about religion, they didn’t have anybody to discuss it with, or any readily accessible resources for skeptical viewpoints. Nowadays not only are there countless articles and videos on the internet for every religious view imaginable, but the internet also provides a forum for people to discuss religious and irreligious ideas, and that exposure to different viewpoints makes it more likely that people will keep questioning.

  8. Human Being6 months ago

    Millennials tend to be very skeptical of (and often cynical regarding) any absolute intellectual assertion such as “god definitely exists,” or especially “god definitely exists and these are all the specific things he’s telling you to do.” Most of us are often not willing to accept any assertion unless it’s backed by a substantial body of rational evidence, coupled with a plausible interpretation of the evidence. Both absolute theism and absolute atheism are based on opposite “gut feelings” as opposed to rational evidence. No rational person acting logically could make any absolute theistic (or nontheistic) assertion.

    1. James Cherry6 months ago

      Not quite – it isn’t rational to believe unfalsifiable concepts exist in reality nor is it rational to strongly believe in things which do not meet their burdens of proof – religion meets neither criteria. The concept of God itself is poorly defined and is often defined incoherently, which likewise isn’t rational; for instance, omniscience and omnipotence are mutually exclusive concepts. Religion also relies heavily on retreats to unfalsifiability – for example genetics and biology show there was no Adam and Eve and therefore no original sin either, to which apologetics either turn Adam and Eve into metaphors (i.e. indistinguishable from fiction) or they offer up ad hoc arguments such as genetics somehow worked differently in the distant past and just happened to leave behind a whole lot of misleading evidence; the more a belief system retreats to unfalsifiability, the more it reads like myth. Given the extreme unlikelihood of new evidence or even a truly original new argument emerging, agnostic atheism seems to me the most logical position. As an aside, I think you’ll find there are very, very few gnostic atheists, i.e. “absolute atheists.”

  9. Black Bean6 months ago

    Humans are superstitious creatures by nature and thus religion will always be with us. It always has been. It’s just the WHAT that changes. The God of most religions today has been so fine-tuned that it cannot be reasoned against. It’s invisible, ever-present, invincible and everlasting. It’s not like the Greek gods of old that science has disproved (yeah, lighting is not made by Zeus so he’s fake). Over thousands of years people or the religions of the world have fine-tuned the characteristics of their Creators that you can’t prove doesn’t exists. Not that it matters. People are superstitious by nature and will always be.

    Outside of Atheist who outright reject the existence of a creator, everybody believes in something. It’s just they way our believing brains have evolved. Millennials might not say it, but if you press them they will tell you they believe there is ‘something’.

  10. J. Gravelle6 months ago

    The trend is self-reinforcing.

    As the religious lose their “moral majority”, their collective boot weighs ever less heavily on the throats of we, the infidèle. And our voices grow louder.

    The Internet has certainly helped diminish the stigma of daring to disbelieve aloud, perhaps because it allows atheists to dip a toe into the waters of irreligious discourse anonymously, gauging society’s reaction to [and their own confidence ABOUT] their unapologetic apostasy.

    Certainly there is much further to go. Over the holidays a woman was shot dead through the eye for admitting her atheism to a neighbor. Just this week an elderly apostate was beaten with his own cane by a woman outraged at HIS disbelief. And there’s Lucas Leonard, bludgeoned to death by his parents [per Mosaic mandate, mind you] for wanting to leave their church.

    One still risks alienating their friends and family, losing their job, and forfeiting any sort of political career for coming out of the counter-apologetic closet, but despite all that [and with thanks to technology, and the youth who capitalize upon it] things really ARE getting better.

    The superstitious shackles of our ancestors are quickly rusting and falling away. And it can’t happen soon enough…

    1. Preston Haas6 months ago

      -Amen.

    2. Luredby Grace3 months ago

      Very interesting observations.

      I’m wondering though, is it really wrong to shoot someone in the eye who disagrees with you? How did you come to that conclusion? Could it be that the religion(s) you so want to “rid the Republican party of” are actually influencing you to value life?

      Or, are you more in line with Peter Singer, a moral philosopher that advises the current democratic administration, who says that it is okay to kill a baby after 3 months if you decide you do not want him/her? One problem though … if you side with Singer you must also side with the one who shoots someone in the eye for not believing their philosophy. I guess what I’m saying is, life is either valuable or invaluable … or the babies life and the adults life have two different values. Or … is it, the life of the “normal person” is valuable but not the life of the disabled. My question: How do you know?

      You may say (and forgive me for putting words in your mouth), “I just know,” “It’s common sense,” or even, “Everybody knows that!” Peter Singer would say differently. Without this God you seem convinced does not exist, how do you know?

      So, don’t be upset that people claim there is a God AND that evil exists. Without God, where does the concept of evil (or good) come from?