Reasons Why Americans, Especially Younger Americans, are Abandoning Religion & Why it Will Continue
Americans are abandoning religion in unprecedented numbers. Less than half of us now belong to a church, and only about a quarter of Americans regularly attend services. That's especially true of younger Americans.
Illuminate: "And, in recent surveys of older members of Generation Z [those 18 YO and up], 45% self identify as atheists, agnostics, or nothing in particular. Only 35% identify as Catholic or Protestant. So, as members of the highly religious silent generation pass away and are replaced by members of Generation Z, expect the overall secularization of America to continue unabated."
America's religious decline is not unusual among advanced post-industrial societies, but it happened later than in many European nations. In fact the United States was a bit of an outlier, holding on to its religious traditions much longer than other advanced societies. So, the question really is why America's religious decline is occurring now; what has changed?
There are a number of theories for why Americans are leaving the church, with no real consensus. So far, research provides two overarching explanations.
1. Don't Believe: The Pew Research organization surveyed individuals who didn't identify with any religious group to find out their reasons. The most common answer they received was some version of "I don't believe in God." That makes sense, of course, but also begs the question of why so many people have stopped believing. Science and education are probably part of the answer.
Religion has always been about explaining the unknown, so a well-educated population armed with scientific answers for many of the mysteries of life is generally more skeptical of religious explanations. Since the 1960s, there has been a massive increase in the number of individuals pursuing a college education. In 1960 about 7.7 % of Americans had a college degree, but that number has risen to 37.5% today. Additionally, after the United States Supreme Court barred the teaching of religion in the public schools, evolution and the big bang theory no longer compete with biblical explanations for the creation of human beings and the universe.
2. Values, Teachings: In addition to being skeptical of creationism and other Biblical stories, many people today question the values espoused by many Christian churches. The Public Religion Research Institute [PRRI] surveyed individuals who had no religious affiliation and found that the majority of respondents said they "stopped believing in the religion's teachings."
Other surveys have worded the question a bit differently and found that young people, especially, don't believe that churches in the US are focused on pressing contemporary issues.
Religion Dispatches.org: "Though a majority of young people say they engage in acts of protest as a religious or spiritual practice, many do not believe faith groups share their interest in supporting LGBTQ+ rights, gender equity, racial justice, and more. This is according to The State of Religion & Young People 2021 from Springtide Research Institute, ... which surveyed over 10,000 young people between the ages of 13-25 about their spirituality."
Moreover, some of the loudest voices in religion today espouse positions that are antithetical to the beliefs of young people who have grown up in a more inclusive environment. The religious right is largely responsible for that by transforming a faith dedicated to loving your neighbor into "something that is ugly and retributive," to quote the religious scholar Randall Balmer.
NPR: "I don't find much that I recognize as Christian" in the religious right, says Balmer, a professor of religion at Barnard College, Columbia University and contributing editor to Christianity Today."
And Balmer's quote is from 2006, long before Evangelical churches became so closely aligned with Donald Trump, anti-vaxers, and white Christian nationalists.
Millennials and Gen Z want nothing to do with that toxic version of Christianity. As a group, they are much more progressive than earlier generations, more accepting of gay marriage, more supportive of racial justice initiatives, and more concerned about the environment than their parents.
The Guardian: "David Campbell, professor and chair of the University of Notre Dame’s political science department and co-author of Secular Surge: A New Fault Line in American Politics, said a reason for the [religious] decline among those groups [younger Americans] is political – an “allergic reaction to the religious right”. “Many Americans – especially young people – see religion as bound up with political conservatism, and the Republican party specifically,” Campbell said."
A recent article in the very conservative, National Review makes the same point.
National Review: ... "But the growing perception among young people that Christianity is primarily about promoting a conservative worldview makes the entire enterprise less appealing to people who do not share that goal. When churches lead with politics, it not only alienates people whose political views differ, but also those who are not looking to engage in politics at all. If you exclude all young people who are liberal, moderate, or apolitical, there are not a whole lot of people left to fill the pews."
The Future of Religion in America: There is good reason to believe that religious affiliation in the United States will continue to decline as it has in Europe, Japan, and most other industrialized nations. We know that after one generation turns away from religion, the impact snowballs in later generations. The children of the non-religious seldom return to the church.
Pacific Standard: "Past studies suggested childhood religious socialization was the single biggest factor predicting adult affiliation. But the decline in religious affiliation that began with the Baby Boomers means that a smaller proportion of each subsequent generation is raising kids in religious homes. And those who do retain religion will often use a kind of "religion-lite" approach, attending services sporadically and celebrating holidays as cultural events devoid of much of their original meaning."
One has to wonder if the fall in religious affiliation we are experiencing now would be quite so precipitous if Christianity hadn't been kidnapped by Pat Robertson, the Falwells, and America's new generation of Christian nationalists so eager to endorse an obvious grifter like Donald Trump to represent their brand.
By: Don Lam & Curated Content