Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

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.

Women in religious leadership

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.