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Young and less religious: Pew study points to a generational divide

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 17, 2010 - It can be a struggle for congregations and religious groups to attract the attention of 18- to 29-year-olds. They are often no longer attending services with their parents and are not yet at the point of settling down and deciding on a permanent place of worship.

So it’s not surprising to learn that Americans in that age group attend religious services less often than people in older generations, according to a report from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. More noteworthy, perhaps, are findings that fewer young people belong to any particular faith than do older Americans, and that they are less likely to be religiously affiliated than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations were when they were young. The 18- to 29-year-olds also were less likely to say that religion is very important in their lives.

With all this in mind, the Pew report says that young people consider themselves far less religious than their elders. Let’s take a look at some of the details, which reveal nuanced results:

  • Roughly one in four of the so-called Millennial generation (born after 1980) says he/she is unaffiliated with any particular faith. That’s compared with less than one-fifth of people now in their 30s, about 15 percent of those in their 40s, 14 percent in their 50s and less than a tenth of people above 60.
  • Another way to view those numbers: The 25 percent of young people who say they are unaffiliated is compared with 20 percent of Gen-Xers and 13 percent of Baby Boomers who said the same thing when they were at a comparable point in their lives.
  • Among those young people who are affiliated, however, the reported intensity of their affiliation is as strong today as among previous generations when they were young, the report notes.
  • Less than half of adults under age 30 say that religion is very important in their lives, compared with roughly 6 in 10 people who are 30 and older. 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 percent of Boomers said religion was very important to them.
  • A 2007 Pew report showed that one-third of people under age 30 said they attend religious services at least once a week, compared with 41 of people over 30. But the data reveal that while young people are less likely than their elders to be affiliated with a religion, among those who are affiliated, generational differences in worship attendance are fairly small.
  • The data reveal that young adults pray less often than their elders do today, though the number of young people who say they pray every day rivals the portion of young people said the same in prior decades.
  • Finally, belief in God is lower among young adults, but Millennials say they believe in God with absolute certainty at rates similar to those seen among Gen X a decade ago.

As the report notes: “This suggests that some of the religious differences between younger and older Americans today are not entirely generational but result in part from people's tendency to place greater emphasis on religion as they age.”
And the survey indicates that many young adults remain traditional in their religious beliefs and practices. For instance, Pew says its surveys show that their beliefs about life after death and the existence of heaven, hell and miracles closely resemble the beliefs of older generations.

The report goes into great detail about how generational views differ on homosexuality, evolution and morality. There are also plenty of statistics about worship attendance by age group. More on that can be found here. The study, "Religion in the Millennial Generation," is largely based on data from the 2008 Pew Religious Landscape Survey.

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