Researchers find millennials are by far the least religious generation

Percentage of American adolescents endorsing “none” for religious affiliation, 1966–2014. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0121454.g002

San Diego University has issued a press release about the largest study ever conducted on changes in Americans’ religious involvement and what it tells us will truly frighten those that believe …

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (May 27, 2015)– In what may be the largest study ever conducted on changes in Americans’ religious involvement, researchers led by San Diego State University psychology professor Jean M. Twenge found that millennials are the least religious generation of the last six decades, and possibly in the nation’s history. 

The researchers — including Ramya Sastry from SDSU, Julie J. Exline and Joshua B. Grubbs from Case Western Reserve University and W. Keith Campbell from the University of Georgia — analyzed data from 11.2 million respondents from four nationally representative surveys of U.S. adolescents ages 13 to 18 taken between 1966 and 2014. 

Recent adolescents are less likely to say that religion is important in their lives, report less approval of religious organizations, and report being less spiritual and spending less time praying or meditating. 

“but of course”, is the reply, “the young are simply unsettled so it is natural for them to be like that”. Nope, that is not it and the study demonstrates this …

“Unlike previous studies, ours is able to show that millennials’ lower religious involvement is due to cultural change, not to millennials being young and unsettled,” said Twenge, who is also the author of “Generation Me.” 

“Millennial adolescents are less religious than Boomers and GenX’ers were at the same age,” Twenge continued. “We also looked at younger ages than the previous studies. More of today’s adolescents are abandoning religion before they reach adulthood, with an increasing number not raised with religion at all.”

The Study Itself

You can find the full study itself here on PLOS ONE. The abstract reads …

In four large, nationally representative surveys (N = 11.2 million), American adolescents and emerging adults in the 2010s (Millennials) were significantly less religious than previous generations (Boomers, Generation X) at the same age. The data are from the Monitoring the Future studies of 12th graders (1976–2013), 8th and 10th graders (1991–2013), and the American Freshman survey of entering college students (1966–2014). Although the majority of adolescents and emerging adults are still religiously involved, twice as many 12th graders and college students, and 20%–40% more 8th and 10th graders, never attend religious services. Twice as many 12th graders and entering college students in the 2010s (vs. the 1960s–70s) give their religious affiliation as “none,” as do 40%–50% more 8th and 10th graders. Recent birth cohorts report less approval of religious organizations, are less likely to say that religion is important in their lives, report being less spiritual, and spend less time praying or meditating. Thus, declines in religious orientation reach beyond affiliation to religious participation and religiosity, suggesting a movement toward secularism among a growing minority. The declines are larger among girls, Whites, lower-SES individuals, and in the Northeastern U.S., very small among Blacks, and non-existent among political conservatives. Religious affiliation is lower in years with more income inequality, higher median family income, higher materialism, more positive self-views, and lower social support. Overall, these results suggest that the lower religious orientation of Millennials is due to time period or generation, and not to age.

The Conclusion reads …

In conclusion, survey results from 11.2 million American adolescents demonstrate a decline in religious orientation, especially after 2000. The trend appears among adolescents as young as 13 and suggests that Millennials are markedly less religious than Boomers and GenX’ers were at the same age. The majority are still religious, but a growing minority seem to embrace secularism, with the changes extending to spirituality and the importance of religion as well. Correlational analyses show that this decline occurred at the same time as increases in individualism and declines in social support. Clearly, this is a time of dramatic change in the religious landscape of the United States.


Now I’m speculating, and so I make the observation that there is a clear correlation between the rise of the Internet and the decline of belief, especially amongst the generation that pioneered the way as the most voracious consumer of it.

This study does itself not confirm such a causal relationship, but I do suggest that it is indeed a causal relationship. No longer do people remain isolated inside a bubble of belief, but now instead they are exposed to a vast torrent of new information that was previously not available. Anybody curious about anything can simply google and so become far more familiar with more of the conversation on any topic and will no longer be restricted to one viewpoint. If that happens at a young age when there is no heavy emotional or cultural investment, then ideas that do not withstand any critical analysis tend to fall away.

The generation that is the most voracious consumer of the Internet is also composed of a rising tide of individuals who do not generally embrace religious beliefs. As this generation grows we shall observe a dramatic cultural translation to a far less religious culture.

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