Secularism and New Pew Report on Millenials

February 24, 2010

redeyeAs I usually do, I grabbed a copy of Chicago’s free Red Eye publication this morning before boarding my train. I enjoy reading the Red Eye here and there; though it’s mostly celebrity gossip and information on where to drink in Chicago, it sometimes has some intriguingly left-field stories (a few months back they ran a profile on Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel). After a quick brush of the seat with my free hand to be sure it wasn’t soaked in urine — a lesson learned the hard way en route to work one morning (ah, public transit) — I sat down and looked at my paper. The front page stared back at me with big bold letters declaring: “Millenials Exposed.”

Ah, the so-called Millenials. There’s been a lot of talk about Millennials this week — the Pew Research Center just released a new study looking at all aspects of this generation, from behaviors to values. As a 22 year old, they’re talking about me and my friends. Apparently we’re open-minded, optimistic, like the word “hope” and really like our cell phones. Reading the story, I was curious: what did this study find about our attitudes on religion? Are we just as open-minded?

What I found is that the answer isn’t exactly “yes” or “no.” Some of the data reflects previous findings about the changing face of religiosity in America, echoing a study that came out last year declaring that “young Americans [are] losing their religion.” That study reported that young Americans are significantly less likely to claim membership in a religious tradition or attend a religious service regularly than older folks. One commentator in that article raised a very interesting point: that, rather than signifying the beginning of the end for religion, this “‘stunning’ trend of young people becoming less religious could lead to America’s next great burst of religious innovation.” This resonates with my experience and what I’ve seen of the world around me.

Maybe this is because, though it is changing, the numbers in the Pew report demonstrate that religion isn’t going away anytime soon. While the report found that people aged 18-29 are “considerably less religious than older Americans” (one in four Millenials “are unaffiliated with any particular faith”) and that more religious Millenials believe that there is more than one way to interpret their own religion, there are also indications that young religious people are moving in some key ways toward greater religiosity. Pew found that not only is “the intensity of [religious Millenials’] religious affiliation… as strong today as among previous generations when they were young,”  but that “levels of certainty of belief in God have increased.” And while there are more religious people who believe that any religion can lead to eternal life than those who don’t overall, religious Millenials are “more inclined than their elders to believe their own religion is the one true path to eternal life.”

What are the ramifications of this study for us Millenial secularists? First, I believe this suggests that we have to work that much harder to stake our claim in the American religious milieu and make a concerted effort to come together as a community so that our perspective is not ignored in an increasingly fundamentalist society (something we here at NonProphet Status hope to contribute to with our recently announced “Share Your Secular Story” contest). If America is moving toward its next great “burst of religious innovation,” shouldn’t we at least be involved, if not leading the way? Second, I think this affirms the importance of dialoguing respectfully with people of faith. Let’s capitalize on the open-mindedness of others and give them an opportunity to get to know us and and the stories of our experiences as secular folks — and, more importantly, not forget to tap into our own open-mindedness in listening to theirs.

Below is the abstract from the Pew report:

By some key measures, Americans ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older Americans. Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today. They also are less likely to be affiliated than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations were when they were young. Fully one-in-four members of the Millennial generation — so called because they were born after 1980 and began to come of age around the year 2000 — are unaffiliated with any particular faith. Indeed, Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20% in the late 1990s) and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13% in the late 1970s). Young adults also attend religious services less often than older Americans today. And compared with their elders today, fewer young people say that religion is very important in their lives.

Among Millennials who are affiliated with a religion, however, the intensity of their religious affiliation is as strong today as among previous generations when they were young. More than one-third of religiously affiliated Millennials (37%) say they are a “strong” member of their faith, the same as the 37% of Gen Xers who said this at a similar age and not significantly different than among Baby Boomers when they were young (31%).

Gallup surveys conducted over the past 30 years that use a similar measure of religion’s importance confirm that religion is somewhat less important for Millennials today than it was for members of Generation X when they were of a similar age. In Gallup surveys in the late 2000s, 40% of Millennials said religion is very important, as did 48% of Gen Xers in the late 1990s. However, young people today look very much like Baby Boomers did at a similar point in their life cycle; in a 1978 Gallup poll, 39% of Boomers said religion was very important to them.

GSS data show that Millennials’ level of belief in God resembles that seen among Gen Xers when they were roughly the same age. Just over half of Millennials in the 2008 GSS survey (53%) say they have no doubt that God exists, a figure that is very similar to that among Gen Xers in the late 1990s (55%). Levels of certainty of belief in God have increased somewhat among Gen Xers and Baby Boomers in recent decades. (Data on this item stretch back only to the late 1980s, making it impossible to compare Millennials with Boomers when Boomers were at a similar point in their life cycle.)

Young people who are affiliated with a religion are more inclined than their elders to believe their own religion is the one true path to eternal life (though in all age groups, more people say any religions can lead to eternal life than say theirs is the one true faith). Nearly three-in-ten religiously affiliated adults under age 30 (29%) say their own religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life, higher than the 23% of religiously affiliated people ages 30 and older who say the same. This pattern is evident among all three Protestant groups but not among Catholics. Interestingly, while more young Americans than older Americans view their faith as the single path to salvation, young adults are also more open to multiple ways of interpreting their religion. Nearly three-quarters of affiliated young adults (74%) say there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their faith, compared with 67% of affiliated adults ages 30 and older.


4 Responses to “Secularism and New Pew Report on Millenials”

  1. PghAtheist23 said

    Chris, not sure if you saw this Newsweek article about a year ago, “The End of Christian America” ( but I found it very interesting. It talks about the numbers in the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey, and the decline of religion over the past two decades. The number of people claiming no religious affiliation at all is growing. My experience has been that many in our age bracket either fall off the religious wagon or become fundamentalist extremists. Hey, are you the same Chris from the Camp Out movie? Great blog! –Bill

  2. Amber H. said

    Great blog Chris.

    I think this is key: …this suggests that we have to work that much harder to stake our claim in the American religious milieu and make a concerted effort to come together as a community so that our perspective is not ignored

  3. […] on Religion and Millenials: Earlier this week I posted on the new Pew report on Millenials and its implications for Millenial secularists living in a religiously pluralistic world. I wasn’t the only one ruminating on this data — Politics Daily ran a piece called […]

  4. […] I see this approach as a literal impossibility — per the majority of recent cultural studies, religion is not going away any time soon, and is in fact becoming an increasingly relevant force in the world marketplace. If this is true […]

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