Double Helix

Losing their religion: Younger adults are less religious, and not only in the US

Congregation members talk during a service at Grace Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, Minn. Photo courtesy of Grace Lutheran Church/Creative Commons

(RNS) — There are few spots around the world where parents don’t have to drag their young adult children to worship: Ghana, a predominantly Christian county is one; Chad, a predominantly Muslim country, is another.

In both African nations, younger adults are 3 percentage points more likely to identify with their faith than their elders, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center of religious feelings among older and younger adults.

The study, which finds that younger people the world over are generally less religious than their elders, determined that the pattern is generally reversed where prosperity and life expectancy lag. Life expectancy in Chad and Ghana is among the lowest in the world.

The survey of 106 nations, drawn from 13 studies undertaken over the past decade, shows that nearly everywhere else, young adults are drifting away from the faith commitments of their elders. The gap appeared to be widest in most economically developed countries.

“We’re not able to say, ‘This is the law of religious change that we can deduce from this evidence,” Conrad Hackett, the lead researcher for the Pew study, said. “It’s rather, ‘These are the general patterns we see.’ There are exceptions for sure.”

In the overwhelming number of countries, said Hackett, the difference is quite small. “The average gap is modest in size, but the size of the gap in many countries is quite dramatic.”

Canada leads all countries with a 28 percentage-point difference between younger and older people on the question of whether they affiliate with a particular religion. Denmark, South Korea, Australia and Norway follow. In the United States, younger adults aged 18 to 39 years are 17 percent less likely to claim a religion than adults aged 40 and over.

Age gap in affiliation most common in predominantly Christian countries. Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

The study, which examined three additional measures of religiosity in addition to religious affiliation — the importance of religion to people’s lives, daily prayer and weekly worship attendance — found some surprises.

While it is generally true that in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America the gap in religiosity between young and old is narrower, it’s not true for every measure. In Lebanon, when younger and older adults were asked if religion was “very important” in their lives, there was a 20 percentage-point difference; in Iran it was 9 points and in Nigeria 6 points.

The survey offered a number of intriguing theories, besides economic well-being, for why young people so often lag in religion.

Education also plays a role. Rising educational opportunities usually — but not always — are associated with lower levels of religious adherence.

To some extent, life changes may be a reason for the change. As people age, begin rearing children and start facing their mortality, they become more religious. But that isn’t a complete explanation.

The survey suggests that even if today’s younger adults become more religious over time, they will likely be less religious than previous generations.

One particularly noteworthy theory was the impact of war, natural disasters and large-scale catastrophes. The survey cites a study that showed that after the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, researchers found a net gain in religious affiliation of 3.4 percent in the region where the quake hit, compared with a 1.6 percent  net drop in religious affiliation across the rest of New Zealand during that same period.

And then there’s the example of the United States.

In the post-World War II years, younger Americans reported attending at least as often as their elders, as battle-weary veterans married and started their own families. That trend peaked in the late 1950s, when people ages 30 to 39 attended church as frequently as people age 60 and over.

But church attendance among young people has fallen ever since; the military draft ended in 1973 and the experience of war faded for most.

Another intriguing finding is the difference between Christians and Muslims when asked about the importance of religion in their lives. The survey found that the gap between younger and older Christians is far wider than among younger and older Muslims.

One reason may be that when Christians disaffiliate they typically become secular or, to use the sociological moniker, “nones” — people who answer “none of the above” when asked about their religion.

By contrast, in Muslim-majority countries, it’s harder to reject the Muslim faith; those who do typically designate another faith.

Philip Schwadel, a professor of sociology at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an adviser on the study, suggested an additional reason. The smaller faith gap in Muslim-majority countries may be due to the fact that Islam — despite its Sunni and Shiite divisions — is more homogeneous than Christianity.

“One thing we see in the United States is that we’re a predominantly Christian nation but there are many different Christian denominations,” he said. “We don’t have an overriding idea of what people should be doing and when they should do it. There’s a lot of variation.

“When you have less diversity, there’s more uniformity of expectations and that might lead to less changes across the life course or generations.”

Does this mean the world is becoming more secular? Not necessarily, according to the survey, since the most religious areas of the world are experiencing the fastest population growth because they have high fertility rates and relatively young populations.

But the persistence of an age gap does deserve further study. One area the survey doesn’t touch on is the effect of technology, the internet and social media on religion, or more generally, the effect of secularization.

“We’re not suggesting religious change is unidirectional,” Hackett said. “But it seems that in many countries there is a pattern of lower religiosity among younger generations that may be the unfolding of secularization.”

This story was written as part of a grant supported by the Templeton Foundation.

A DNA strand next to the title of the series.

About the author

Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is an RNS National Reporter and Senior Editor.

45 Comments

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  • Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Proverbs 22:6

  • HYPOTHESIS & CONCLUSION: All religions are religious nominal, just as all secularism is non-religiously nominal.

    Here are the corroborating facts:

    (1) “People [only] affiliate with a particular religion.” (What does that even mean, anyway: “affiliate”?)

    (2) They respond only when “asked if religion was ‘very important’ in their lives”. (What does that even mean, anyway: “very important”?)

    (3) Only when “facing their mortality, they become more religious.” (Why not beforehand and for a lifetime?)

    (4) There was “a net gain in religious affiliation … in the region where the quake hit”. (But why not elsewhere, quake-free? And there’s that word, “affiliation”, again.)

    (5) “In the late 1950s … people … attended church … frequently”. (But not as “frequently” as God & Jesus necessarily “attended” to them, right?)

    (6) “When [they] disaffiliate they typically become secular or … ‘nones'”. (See that? Secularism is just a fancy way of saying “disaffiliat[ion]”, which is neither here nor there.)

  • It was just another Pew Research Center hit.

    Their results and their questionnaires are very carefully tailored (i.e., weasel-worded) to get a particular result.

    According to Pew, the religious world is coming to an end, and if you don’t believe them, they’ll crank out a poll or study to prove it.

    The only reason I pay any attention them is to be able to respond to folks who fall for their “conclusions”.

  • That’s nice, coming from Solomon the womanizer and p*rn writer, in Proverbs 22:6 – “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

    But failing that, let this be the next nice step to take, so says Solomon the womanizer and p*rn writer, in Proverbs 22:15 – “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him.”

  • And let’s not forget the vocabulary phrase of the day. Can you say, Vested Interest? As in: “This story was written as part of a grant supported by the Templeton Foundation.”

  • That’s totally correct. And a lot of Christian parents are praying hard, and holding on to that great promise for dear life (especially their young adult kids’ lives), quite understandably. Churches must help those parents to continue hanging in there, “till their change comes.”

  • Yes, beat it out of them. That is embraced by fundamentalists, but not by Jesus. He used children often in his teaching style. He said that the fate of anyone who harmed a child would be better off to face capital punishment (by drowning.)

  • Affiliation is a word which I believe covers all the bases as there are different methods to becoming a follower/member of a specific faith. Judaism and Christianity involve baptism/emersion in water and circumcision for males. Islam involves the repetition of a statement. Etc.

    Religion being important in one’s life will likely be different for each person asked.

    Facing mortality is akin to the trope that there are no atheists in foxholes.

    Nature’s “acts of God” often scare the heck out of folks.

  • I have a friend right now who’s child has walked away from Christ into the world. It is heartbreaking to watch both of them – just heartbreaking!

  • Christ also taught:
    Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” Proverbs 13:24

  • If you could actually show that either fervent Christians or fervent Muslims (or both) are in the business of telling evidence-based truth on all tangible subjects in the here and now, you would have young people FLOCKING to them in droves. Religion should be accommodated to what is discovered year by year in actual education. As long as the old adherents insist on trying to do the opposite, the more the new (young) people want to run away from them.

  • I’ve never seen the two instances compared like that. Very powerful & compelling end-result there. Why, thank you so much, David Allen.

  • That’s supposedly Solomon. Unless you think he had no free will and was just a Jesus sock puppet.

  • Where’s your evidence that the Pew Research Centre skews its questions to get a particular result?

  • So explain how, other organizations such as the evangelical Barna Group, show the same or even lower religious affiliation than Pew? PRRI which does larger studies than Pew, shows the same trends.

    Or just look at the abysmal fall off in baptisms reported by the SBC, 10% down in one year, less baptisms than in the 1940’s and membership declining for over 10 years straight….or Catholic church and school closings and consolidation, etc, etc…

    In my area, churches are being converted into Condos…so there is some benefit to all of this.

  • Yes, tough work holding off the gays, secularists, atheists and other undesirables…how is praying working out as a cure?

  • Explain how Trump won the election with every poll but one showing his opponent would win?

    Where the losses are occurring are in the ultra-liberal sects like the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church, both of which have lost have their membership over the last four plus decades.

    As any investor can tell you predicting the future on the past is a fool’s errand.

    If you told me that the trees, grass, and flowers are dying in the area surrounding where you live, I would believe you.

  • “Bob Arnzen” has no such evidence. Facts and evidence aren’t allowed to impinge in BobWorld, else his bubble would be broken.

  • Bob-José Arnzen is fibbing as usual. The real reason that he “pays attention” is that he lives to attack anyone who might burst his BobWorld bubble by presenting facts and evidence.

  • LOL. Sandi Luckins generally leaves bible droppings wherever she goes. They’re really quite odiferous and disgusting.

  • LOL. No, Sandi Luckins. Anyone leaving the idiotic Christian fairy tales behind is GREAT NEWS!

  • Actually in that passage He was comparing His disciples to children in their humility and their trust:

    –Truly I tell you,” He said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.And whoever welcomes one such child in My name welcomes Me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble [skandalise — would set a snare, would hinder right conduct/thought], it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.Woe to the world for the causes of sin. These stumbling blocks must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!… (Matt.18:6).

    And again in Mark 9:41-42
    –Indeed, if anyone gives you even a cup of water because you bear the name of Christ, truly I tell you, he will never lose his reward. Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be thrown into the sea.

    And again in Luke 17:1-3:
    –Jesus said to His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks/temptations (skandala) will come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him to have a millstone hung around his neck and to be thrown into the sea than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.

    The whole point of His analogy was that the world will be held accountable for how they receive and treat those that Christ sends out with the gospel. Anyone who tries to set a trap for them or draw them away into sin will be dealt with by Christ Himself.

    The idea that Jesus could compare His closest friends and disciples with children was revolutionary in the pagan world where children had no importance and abortion/infanticide were perfectly acceptable, and went a long way toward changing the status of children in the west.

  • Fantastic and welcome news. The facts are out there, and any young person with a smartphone can find them.

  • There is something to the idea that heterogeneity vs. homogeneity of the faith group has something to do with the willingness or ability of young people to no longer follow it. Although not discussed in this article, the Pew study found no age difference in adherence among Jews in the US or Israel, or Hindus in the US or India.

  • You don’t know that Christ is responsible for what is written in the Bible, after all the courses you state you have taken? hmmmmm

  • I’m aware that you teach that concept. I think that it is a result of your misconception of the doctrine of the Trinity held by most other Christians. I also think that you misunderstand the concept of the inspiration of the scriptures. You appear to view the human authors of the various literary forms compiled into the library of scripture as some sort of court reporters, writing verbatim what is said in a courtroom or deposition, but whispered by God into their ears.

  • The Millennial’s are walking away from most all flavors of Christianity. Unfortunately for those of us who don’t subscribe to your fundamentalist claims, we also lose the kids who have come to think that your harsh Christianity is the only Christianity. They cite your hate and homophobia as the reason for their rejection.

  • in this day, any excuse will do. Glad to see you would rather support them in Biblical illiteracy than Scriptural truth – it makes it easier to pinpoint the heretics

  • Your original post from “a day ago” states:

    Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Proverbs 22:6

    Why didn’t you add verse 15 to that? Which states:

    “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him.”

    Go ahead and edit your lead post, this time to include Proverbs 22:15.

  • Such a vainglorious woman, who is supposed to stay home and be quiet.

    I have known that Jesus was the 2nd person of the Trinity/Godhead since I was a little tyke in Sunday School. I have recited the Nicene Creed most of my life. Jesus is the Christ, God incarnate.

    Had someone as hateful as you been one of my Sunday School teachers I would remember. You’ve taught me nothing.

  • You again, started with a misunderstanding of scripture David…..how can we trust anything you say?

  • I didn’t misunderstand anything. You have a different take on scripture, and that one in particular, than other folks do. The trustworthiness of your take on things is limited to your minimal understanding of scripture because you only know things from English translations.

    Moving on, you’re getting boring at this point.

  • Actually, in Christian circles, we believe Christ. He taught that things are wrong and it is kind of funny, with the liberals, Christ couldn’t get anything right, without their interpretation. Have a nice day.

  • Only the preaching of the message of Jesus Christ and the cross has the power to change lives. Unfortunately that message is silenced by prosperity preaching, heretics, or not preached at all.

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