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Millennials Are Less Religious—and Less Spiritual Too

New research suggests the emerging generation of American adults is far more secular than its predecessors.
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(Photo: joiseyshowaa/Flickr)

(Photo: joiseyshowaa/Flickr)

It’s common knowledge that many members of the Millennial generation in the United States are rejecting religion. But some analysts argue that, while these emerging adults are less likely to participate in organized religion, they retain an interest in spirituality.

Not so, concludes a newly published study.

“American adolescents in the 2010s are significantly less religiously oriented, on average, than their Boomer and Generation X predecessors were at the same age,” writes a research team led by San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge. Confirming earlier evidence, the study finds they are less likely than members of previous generations to attend religious services, and less supportive of religious organizations.

Importantly, however, “the declines also extend to the importance of religion, spirituality, and prayer,” the researchers write in the online journal PLoS One. While they caution that “these effects are both smaller and more limited,” they note that they “are not consistent with the idea that (young) Americans are less religious but not less spiritual.”

"American adolescents are now less likely to attend religious services. Compared to the early 1970s, more than twice as many college students in the 2010s never attended services (12 percent vs. 27 percent)."

“The large majority still have at least some religious involvement,” the researchers conclude. “(But) overall, the results suggest a movement toward secularism among a rapidly growing minority.”

Twenge and her colleagues looked at four large, nationally representative studies: The annual Monitoring the Future studies of eighth, 10th, and 12th graders, and the American Freshmen survey of entering college students (focusing on the years 1966 through 2014). They compared answers given by each of those groups to those given by members of previous generations at the same age.

“American adolescents are now less likely to attend religious services,” they write. “Compared to the early 1970s, more than twice as many college students in the 2010s never attended services (12 percent vs. 27 percent).”

Among all the age groups studied, “this shift is most pronounced after 2000, as Millennials enter the samples, with the number not attending services increasing 50 percent for 12th graders, 33 percent for 10th graders, and 31 percent for eighth graders,” the researchers report. “The percentage attending services weekly has also declined steadily; while 40 percent of 12th graders did so in 1976-79, only 30 percent did so in 2010-13.”

While the majority of young Americans continue to report a religious affiliation, the percentage answering “none” to that question continues to rise. “In just the 13 years between 2000 and 2013, 87 percent more college students chose no religious affiliation,” they write. “More students grew up without religion, and more are abandoning their parents’ religion by college entry.”

In terms of non-denominational spirituality, today’s college students have attitudes similar to those of their secular-leaning counterparts of the 1960s, Twenge and her colleagues report. Compared to college students of the late 1980s and '90s, “entering college students are now less likely to consider themselves above average in spirituality, and less likely to pray or meditate. “This suggests that recent generations of young Americans are less spiritual than their predecessors.”

Twenge and her colleagues offer several possible explanations for this shift in thinking, including “the rise of individualism” and the tension between this insistence on independent thinking and the “rule-following and submission to authority” most religions require.

“The increasing acknowledgement that religion is not consistent with scientific understanding understanding of the universe may lead to a decrease in religion,” they note, “but the conflict between scientific knowledge and many religious teachings goes back hundreds of years, and therefore cannot explain the recent timing of the decline. It is possible, however, that the re-emergence of the science-religion conflict with debates about teaching creationism or intelligence design in U.S. schools pushed some young people away from religion. Another possibility is (the influence of) increasing high school graduation rates and college attendance, as more education is linked to lower religiosity.”

Whatever the reason, the emerging generation is clearly more secular than its predecessors, although it is deeply divided in this regard.

The study finds the decline in religiosity is larger among young women, whites, those of lower socioeconomic status, and residents of the Northeast. In contrast, this trend is “very small among blacks,” the researchers write, “and nonexistent among political conservatives.”

It looks like the culture wars will be continuing for the foreseeable future.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.