The Future Will Be Less Religious

By Andrew Rugg, The Enterprise - May 16, 2012


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By Andrew Rugg

Last week, The American published a piece by Eric Kaufmann on why the future will be more religious and conservative than we think. Kaufmann argues that there is a growing fertility advantage among more religious Americans, who tend to be more conservative. Kaufmann zeroes in on Hispanic and Asian population growth, which he argues will stabilize the share of nonreligious Americans at today's levels.

Kaufmann's analysis focuses largely on racial differences in religious identification. But when it comes to the shape of the future, looking to trends among the young may provide clearer insights. Many of them have left the faith of their childhood and now describe themselves as unaffiliated. While an unaffiliated preference is not synonymous with secularism, it does suggest that religion will play less of a role in someone's life. In a March Public Religion Research Institution (PRRI) poll, about 35 percent of college-aged Millennials (18 to 24) identified themselves as unaffiliated, which was almost a 14 point gain from the number of people who stated they were raised unaffiliated in childhood. Latino Catholics were less likely to move away from their childhood religion (-2.4) than white Catholics (-4.8) or mainline Protestants (-5), but there were still net losses among those groups. Unfortunately, the sample wasn't large enough to examine Asian Americans. But at under 5 percent of the U.S. population and with higher rates of religious unaffiliation than the general population, it's unlikely that Asian American population growth can reverse these trends.

While the PRRI survey shows a high degree of change among today's Millennials, a Pew analysis of General Social Survey data shows they have a higher rate of unaffiliation than previous generations. Compared to their Baby Boom parents, Millennials (which Pew defines as ages 18 to 29) are twice as likely to list themselves as unaffiliated (26 to 13 percent). If the experience of early generations is a guide, levels of unaffiliation persist over time. The percentages of religiously unaffiliated members of the Greatest, Silent, Boomer, and Gen X generations have held remarkably constant over time. The level of unaffiliation among Millennials is therefore likely to remain high in the long run.

The proportion of young people who frequently attend worship services is also declining. Looking at the General Social Survey, the percentage of 18 to 29 year olds who never attend a religious service or attend less than once a year has grown rapidly since the early 1990s. Those who occasionally attend a religious service have steadily declined over the same time period and those who attend church regularly (at least once a week) have gradually declined. In other words, movement away from frequent religious observance is accelerating. Whatever association holds between church attendance and certain demographic patterns such as high fertility is likely to be reduced as a result.

The likelihood that the levels of religious identification and worship will reverse any time soon is slim. Year after year, religious denominations continue to lose young people, many of whom become unaffiliated. As young Hispanic Americans become more affluent and educated, we may see further dips in religious identification and worship. The future may not be as religious as some may think.

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