The "nones" are on the rise. Photo courtesy Colt Maverick via Flickr Creative Commons.

Why Millennials are leaving religion and where they're going


The "nones" are on the rise. Photo courtesy Colt Maverick via Flickr Creative Commons.

Last week, Public Religion Research Institute released an important new report on shifting attitudes about LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) issues in the U.S.

It contains a lot of fascinating data, but much of the news I've read about the report has seemed to largely focus on a single finding: That around one third of American Millennials who have left their childhood religion did so at least in part because of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric or teachings.

There are a few particularly significant aspects of this that I think have been somewhat overlooked. Below are three; please read the report and share your thoughts in the comments.

1. Those leaving because of LGBTQ issues may be getting the wrong message.

PRRI reports that seven-in-ten Millennials believe that religious groups are alienating young people by being judgmental about LGBTQ issues. But the popular perception that many religious communities are broadly anti-LGBTQ doesn’t seem to reflect reality.

For example, PRRI’s new report found that 75 percent of Catholics think that other Catholics disagree with same-sex marriage—but PRRI also reports that Catholics are actually more supportive of legal recognitions of same-sex relationships than Americans overall, that Catholic support of all rights for gays and lesbians is higher than support among the general public, and that over 75 percent of Catholics think that same-sex relationships should be accepted by society.

The disconnect between religious people’s actual views on LGBTQ issues and how religious groups are perceived is widespread. Take this, from the PRRI study:

Regular churchgoers (those who attend at least once or twice a month), particularly those who belong to religious groups that are supportive of same-sex marriage, are likely to over-estimate opposition for same-sex marriage in their churches by 20 percentage points or more.

When it comes to opposing LGBTQ rights, religious institutions are of course far from blameless; but their members are also far more supportive of LGBTQ rights than many of us think.

This suggests that we need to do a better job of talking about religion in a way that reflects the diverse views of religious people, not just the most extreme points of view. Ours is a conflict-driven culture that privileges the most extreme perspectives, and we tend to associate groups with their most outrageous or hateful members.

So let’s make an effort to lift up diverse religious voices that can paint a more accurate picture. As an atheist I would prefer to see religious communities that are safe and welcoming for LGBTQ people and allies than to see those people leave their communities just because they think they have to.

2. This isn’t just about religious views on LGBTQ issues; in fact, it mostly isn’t.

We should also be very careful not to make the story about Millennials leaving religion entirely about LGBTQ issues—especially because that erases the experiences of those of us who left because we don’t believe in or agree with the core teachings of a religious tradition.

While just under one third of Millennials who have left their religion of origin say that LGBTQ issues played some role in their decision to leave, two thirds of those who have left religion say their decision had little or nothing at all to do LGBTQ issues.

For many who leave religion, concerns about LGBTQ issues may be a catalyst that leads to further questioning, but ultimately not the primary or exclusive reason. Thus many departures seem to, overall, have less to do with views on LGBTQ issues and more to do with an overall disagreement with the tradition’s teachings.

Sure enough, PRRI’s October 2012 American Values Survey asked religiously unaffiliated Americans the main reason they left their religion of origin. The most popular response by a significant margin was “Don’t believe in God/teachings.” Those who left for “Social/Sexuality reasons” made up just 4 percent of respondents.

This resonates with my own experience as someone who had very negative experiences in an anti-gay church—but who also had extremely positive experiences in welcoming Christian churches when I came out as queer. I eventually left Christianity because I studied it and decided that I didn’t believe its central claims were true, not because I thought Christianity was necessarily anti-LGBTQ—because, in my experience, it wasn’t always. So while my sexuality played a role, it certainly wasn’t the primary reason.

We’re living in a time of religious fluidity, where people are perhaps freer than ever to change or abandon their religious identity of origin—and we should acknowledge the many reasons people do so. We should also celebrate their ability to choose or reject an identity, particularly for those who do so because that identity does not reflect their beliefs.

3. Many Millennials are leaving religion. But where are they going?

It’s certainly important to explore the varied reasons so many Millennials are disaffiliating from organized religion. But I’m especially interested in a different but related question: What now? What are they stepping into, not just stepping out of?

This is a question without a clear answer. While a sizable majority of religiously unaffiliated Millennials claim to believe in a God or universal spirit, communities for atheists, agnostics, and Humanists are also on the rise. Surely these nontheistic communities will play a significant role in providing support for and resources to nonreligious Americans. But what about those who are unaffiliated but theistic? As far as I can tell, that remains a question.

I hope to see more research on this soon—research that explores where unaffiliated Americans are going and what kinds of communities they’re creating, not just what they’re leaving behind. If you know of any interesting research on this question, please share it in the comments.


  1. It seems that a growing number of individuals in our society, especially younger people, have a more egalitarian understanding of religious freedom than do many others who have grown so used to religious privilege that they do not even recognize it as such. Perhaps they recognize that stifling dogma is counter to true religious freedom. Regardless, it is a long overdue realization and I welcome it.

  2. When I was in college a number of decades ago most of us fancied ourselves atheists, agnostics, Marxists, etc. But then we grew older, learned more, experienced more, and came to need stronger spiritual lives. Now most of our widespread group is much more religious –mostly in the religions we were raised in. It seems like religion follows a pattern much like politics does in the wisecrack: “Liberal before the age of 30=soft heart/ liberal after the age of 30= soft head. Ageing and parenting can have a lot to do with one’s religious outlook.
    So I would take polls and surveys of young people with a grain of salt. People do change as they get older—sometimes returning radically to their religious roots.

  3. Every young generation rebels and they all come back when they mature. Nothing to see here. Christianity based on biblical teachings isn’t going anywhere and actually is growing very quickly worldwide. Its only the spoiled Americans that think they know better.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this article, Chris. I left the church because, through my studies in college (I’m a religion minor and sociology major), I realized that I didn’t believe in what the church was teaching at all. Some of the moral things I agree with (mostly that we should treat others with love and kindness and help out with our time and money), but all of the God + Jesus stuff just doesn’t ring true for me. I was lucky enough to grow up in an ELCA church that had always been welcoming and affirming of LGBTQ individuals, but I do know that a lot of my frustration with religion in general is how it can be very intolerant of and close-minded towards LGBTQ individuals.

  5. My conjecture: because people are increasingly mobile and connected, and exposed to zillions of competing ideologies, self-help programs and “philosophies” they want to explore and put together their own custom packages, changing them as they see fit. This is the new syncretism, the Hellenistic world reborn.

    They perceive being ‘religious’ as distinct from being ‘spiritual’ as commitment to a doctrinal package, being locked in, prevented for tasting and exploring and putting together a syncretic package. The usual critique of the SBNR is that they’re taking the easy route, avoiding commitment, and that’s bad. I think it’s good–I like Hellenistic syncretism.

    To respond I think the ideal of religion, and Christianity in particular, as to be reconceived. Instead of viewing church as a community supporting a doctrinal package and committed to a way of life we should understand church as a public facility that provides religious goods and services–rites of passage and other ceremonies, art, music and entertainment, community events, etc. no questions asked and no commitment required.

  6. I raised a similar concern on the comments section of your other recent piece. Are young people making a conscientious choice or are they tuning out and dropping out? A recent survey (I think it was Pew research) showed a rise in “nones”, those checking the “none” box eventhough they were offered a choice that included atheist, agnostic and many religious affiliations. Are they doing this from commitment, out of rebellion, just to be “cool” to part of the “in crowd”? I think that IF we want to understand what is happening we need to look at the bigger picture, what else is happening in their lives. Are they spending more time with video games or online chats or social media and less time in face to face talk with peers and others? I pointed out that there has been a decline in youth group membership (boy and girl scouts, 4-H, church youth groups). Sports participation serves a relatively small proportion of youth in a school while other activities (arts, drama, music) get dropped for shortness of funding. Groups that depend on volunteers to do their work have a hard time finding enough (youth and adults) willing to commit time to their cause. Is this all part of a larger trend?

  7. “When it comes to opposing LGBTQ rights, religious institutions are of course far from blameless; but their members are also far more supportive of LGBTQ rights than many of us think.”

    Perhaps those Catholics who claim to support LGBTQ rights should think about what their tithes support, and what the institution to which they lend strength via numbers does with that strength. Saying things to pollsters doesn’t count for much.

  8. Which is worse: soft heart/soft head or hard heart/hard head?

  9. “People do change as they get older—sometimes returning radically to their religious roots.”

    Sometimes, yes. Most of the time, no. Secularization is at an all-time high and picking up speed. Despite the people who “need” stronger spiritual lives after a period of agnosticism, the longterm net loss to religion is real; and in another generation or two, the U.S. will be as irreversibly secular as Western Europe is now.

    I can’t wait!

  10. I agree that “those leaving because of LGBTQ issues may be getting the wrong message” and I also know how judgey churches can seem. Personally, I’ve been to around 20 different churches over the years, searching for the perfect one, and I know that each church, even in the same religion, can have extremely different views. Still, I don’t think people should be alienated because of the sexual preferences or anything.

    How hypocritical would that be if we wanted everyone to enter the Gates of Heaven; yet we can’t even open the doors of our church to everyone? Oh and Hallelujah to “we tend to associate groups with their most outrageous or hateful members.” I’m Christian, I’m not perfect, and I certainly agree with that statement.

    In Church we are taught to pay attention to what the pastor has to say about what God has to say, but I believe we need to stress how significant it is to interpret the Bible on our own. Sometimes I find that my church-peers will have different interpretations of certain passages, but this isn’t condemned. The Bible can be very vague at points and I believe that was to help us figure out our own interpretations ourselves.

    In short, please don’t test out one church and then be done with it if you don’t like it, give it a chance. It took me and my family around 20 CHURCHES, but we finally found one that was welcoming enough. It was the first time I’d seen so many homeless people go to church, plus there was free coffee and cookies.

  11. Interesting that it correlates so closely where the population is uneducated, isn’t it?

  12. Reminiscent of violent Muslim fundamentalists. It seems the vast majority disagree with their actions, but where are their voices?

  13. christianity based on biblical teachings is declining everywhere but south america and ethiopia. the muslim faith is growing faster than any other, but all faiths are in decline, even among old folks like me. we’re finally outgrowing the fairy tale. at last!

  14. exactly. most people in developed countries now get a large part of their social interaction online, and have less and less face-time. that’s part of the trend among teenagers not to want to learn to drive. why should they, when everything they want can be found on their phone? and the diversity of information and viewpoints online just makes religion seem silly, in retrospect. it affects so many things. look at the difference in number of people who think same-sex marriage is fine – it changed by more than 20% in less than 10 years. the flow of information and ideas is profoundly changing our culture.

  15. I’ve come to learn and see that there’s no difference in relevance between the secular and the religious. We are better off if we recognize the need and value of both.

    Christianity is best when we allow it to become a “do-it-yourself-religion”, with the help of the Spirit of course. The Book tells us to “work out our own salvation” and “I will walk in my truthfulness”. That’s basically all we need to do.

    And here’s some good inspiration about how we should think about and treat all LGBT’s —

    1. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way……….Romans 14:13

    2. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God…..Romans 15:7

    3. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love…..Ephesians 4:2

    4. Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble…..1 Peter 3:8

    5. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves…………Philippians 2:3

    6. Be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone…….Titus 3:2

    7. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven………..Luke 6:37

    8. Above all, LOVE EACH OTHER DEEPLY, because love covers over a multitude of sins………..1 Peter 4:8

    9. Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near……….Philippians 4:5

    And so on……


  16. If you are an example of an educated person then they are much smarter and wiser than you.

  17. Won’t you be surprised. Christianity isn’t going anywhere. Wise up!

  18. Most of my relatives in their fifties an sixties and seventies have left the Catholic church and no longer have any interest in religion. You’re wrong. Some will come back when its time to raise kids, but they may seek out humanist groups or the UU instead. But most will not return.

    You underestimate the growing, committed dislike for religion and the growing, committed disbelief in the core doctrines of Christianity. Many families raise good kids without any religious influences. My neighborhood – mixed low income and artsy types – is full of people in both groups who will never return to religion.

  19. You comment about “being cool” is patronizing and out of touch. Aks my totally uncool relatives in their fifties and sixties and seventies, as well as in their twenties and thirties, why they have finally left religion behind them.

  20. In the Old testament Joshua made a comment to the people.
    “Choose today whom you will serve, for me and my household we will serve God.
    For those who are still alive its the same question…
    When you stand in front of God after your last breath, and He ask you, “Why should I let you into me heaven, ?..
    what answer do you think is required?
    You were pretty good?
    Your never thought or hurt another?
    Sorry you lose…
    God does not grade on a scale….
    Your either His, or your not, He is your Lord or He is not ,
    Either with Him or separated for all eternity, cast out by your own decision to not accept the free gift of eternal live and salvation,
    its your choice….

  21. * Yes, the Bible regards ALL people the same. The Bible teaches that ALL have sinned and that God’s grace is available to ALL – only through the One Who never sinned but took my sins and yours upon Himself, Jesus Christ the LORD. (Acts 4:12; Rom.3:9-26; Rom.6:1-14)
    * As many do, you also have selectively quoted a number of great passages on treating one another with love and respect. There are other passages that show God’s just condemnation of sin including, but certainly not limited to, homosexual sexual behavior:
    * God’s Old Testament people were commanded to execute their own if they engaged in illicit sex including what we call gay and lesbian sex. (Levi.18 esp. v.22; and chapter 20::13)
    * In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul associates all illicit sex and homosexual behavior with pagan, not Christian, practice. He writes that such people who practice and approve of others who do so are among those who do not worship the True God (“they worship created things rather the Creator.”)
    (Rom.1:18-32; 1 Cor.6:9-11)
    * And, because some try to make Jesus Christ to be accepting of our sexual proclivities, one can see Jesus in the Gospels strongly endorsing only that marriage between one man and one woman for life. In His statements, Jesus refers back to the Creation in Genesis for His definition of marriage. (Mt.19:1-9; Mark 10:1-12)
    * Frankly, there is absolutely NO acceptance or endorsement of homosexual behavior, let alone “same-sex” marriage, anywhere in the Bible.
    * Based upon Holy Scripture, it is shameful for the Church, any Christian Church, to act as if sin doesn’t matter. If our sin didn’t matter, then Jesus’ sacrifice was unnecessary and useless. (e.g. 1 Cor.15:17
    * It must be said that everyone who turns to God in repentance and faith receives the gift of forgiveness, life and salvation through Jesus Christ! Then, empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, we are new creations – transformed from glory to glory. ( 2 Cor.3:17, 18)

  22. As usual, a Christian tries to look for loopholes and excuses from having to love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek and avoiding judging others.

    If you want to know why people are rejecting religious belief en masse, one just has to look at the statements people use in service of their faith. Statements like your own.

    Seriously, who would willingly want to be part of a group which feels its their right to treat fellow people like crap. To deny others basic human dignity and look for excuses to be hateful towards others? Maybe people who aspire to be bullies, but that’s about it.

    Don’t be so surprised that people turn away from beliefs which extol hate, intellectual dishonesty, cheap fear tactics and appeals to prejudice.

  23. Being “cool” part of the group is VERY important for teens and that is what I said in my post. Teens will often do things for no other reason than it is what their friends are doing and this goes for trying drugs and alcohol and sex as well as checking boxes on survey forms. Get over yourself.

  24. Frank, it is a fact that religion is in decline world wide. It is a fact that the more educated an individual or society is, the less likely they are to be religious. Belief in magic (that cannot be shown to work, and isn’t required to until after death) has no place in a world where science demonstrably saves and improves lives, everyday.

  25. I somehow don’t think that the solution is to cherry pick parts of the bible that agree with our current social reasoning; we’ve tried that before (slavery, suffrage, etc.). It is time to admit the bible is a series of stories written by ancient, primitive, ignorant people who didn’t understand how the world works, or how societies should work.

  26. Jesus also said to use right judgment. (John 7:24) In Luke 6:37, Jesus is telling us not to judge others for doing the same sin that we ourselves are doing. Ultimate judgment is by God of course, but we should be willing to call a spade a spade! And warn the sinner that when the Holy Spirit indwells the person He will guide them to repentance and victory over life controlling sins.

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  28. Oh, Christianity will be around for a very long time – religions die very slow deaths. Also, the smaller the group is, the easier it is to “keep the faith”.

    That said, Christianity as a majority view is on its way out. I sincerely hope that Islam follows it (along with all other relgiions) until we might _finally_ have a majority of people who actually care about _this_ life and making the most of it for themselves and those around them, without needless feelings of shame and guilt to screw them up.

    Unlikely to happen in my lifetime but at least I get to see it starting

  29. And to be fair, the same applies to many who continue their affiliation with religious groups to avoid the shunning/blame/accusations of being in league with Satan that they believe are likely to happen if they spoke their minds.

    I’ve had three different friends in two countries (Spain/Canada) face the same dilemma. Two have stayed quiet, the third is no longer in touch with any of his former friends / family (and not by his choice).

    Amazing how those following a religion of love and inclusiveness can be so judgemental and hateful…

  30. So you don’t eat shellfish then? Or wear clothes made from multiple materials?

    Shall I come along and preach at you next time you do? Remember, It’s for your own good!

  31. Nope. Not interesting in your fearmongering and collective ignorance.

    Of course, there’s a vanishingly small chance you’re right, in which case I’ll accept the consequences

    Just be aware there’s an equal chance the muslims are right (and all the other religions out there) so one way or another, the vast majority of the human race would be in trouble.

    Better hope you’re right 😉

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