It’s fairly common knowledge that Millennials (those born between 1981‒1996) are the least “religious” generation in recent history, being more likely to claim no religion or no religious affiliation than older generations. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, only 41% of Millennials say religion is very important to their lives, 27% attend religious services weekly, 42% pray daily, and only 52% are certain in their belief in God. Every generation before them had much higher percentages in each of these categories. However, what is not well known are the reasons why Millennials are likely never to embrace or return to institutional religion in their lifetimes. This blog post will explore some of the reasons why institutional religion has lost an entire generation of believers.
Significantly, it is important to note that this areligious trend among Millennials holds true for both blacks and Hispanics, two groups who have consistently displayed higher religious sensibilities than other ethnicities. Indeed, Hispanic millennials are less likely to have a religious affiliation and less likely to think religion is important than other Millennials. Black Millennials, on the other hand, are far more religious, being more likely than non-black Millennials to pray daily, attend weekly services, believe God exists, and say religion is important. This trend among differing ethnic groups reflects a larger pattern among the majority of Millennials, who express greater antipathy toward institutional religion but still have some sense of spirituality. For example, Millennials are just as likely as Baby Boomers and Generation X to feel a sense of wonder about the universe and think about the meaning of life. Likewise, Millennials still hold to some traditional dogmas, such as a belief in the afterlife.
While the increase in religious “nones” has been tracked for over a decade now, what still remained to be seen was whether Millennials would return to institutional religion as they got older just like the generations before them. In fact, it has become a recognizable phenomenon that as people get married, buy a house, and start a family, they tend to incorporate religion back into their lives. It was expected that this same trend would continue to occur among Millennials, as well. But now that Millennials are nearing the age of 40, sociologists have had a chance to study demographic trends and have come up with an answer:
Millennials are likely never to embrace institutional religion or even traditional religions like Christianity … ever.
Below are some of the factors for why American Christianity has lost an entire generation:
In 2014, fifty percent of American Christians (70% of the US population) identified as “evangelical” or “born again.” Significantly, though, the percentage of Millennials who self-identified as evangelical remained the same (21%) from 2007‒2014. This stagnation reveals just how conservative evangelicalism does not appeal to the majority of Millennials or Millennial Christians. In the US as a whole, over one-third of those who self-identified as evangelical in 2007 no longer identified themselves as such by 2014 (with 15% of them becoming religiously unaffiliated). Shockingly, while evangelicalism remained steady across the US, the South was the only region that saw a decline in evangelicals.
The point here is that conservative evangelicalism has lost credibility among younger generations, particularly with its incessant culture wars, political tribalism, and (more currently) the overt display of discrimination, white nationalism, hypocrisy, warmongering, and environmental carelessness. In America, Christianity has become synonymous with conservative evangelicalism, which has now become synonymous with a pro-Trump Republican Party. When the loudest and most visible representatives of institutional religion are also the ugliest examples of human decency and compassion, then it’s no wonder that Millennials will forever look elsewhere to express their spirituality (see chapters 3‒4 of my dissertation for more details).
One of the biggest reasons why older generations returned to institutional religion as they got older is because they had some familiarity with religion growing up. It was not uncommon for Baby Boomers and Generation X to attend church services, pray at mealtimes, or fulfill other religious obligations. Millennials, on the other hand, were never really indoctrinated into religion as previous generations were, making it less likely that they would fall on religion as a social support system in the future.
3. Millennials are reaching milestones at a later age.
The urge for middle-aged adults to reclaim religious affiliation is often spurned by major milestones like getting married and having kids. The problem is that Millennials are either reaching these milestones later in life or, in some cases, never reaching them at all (deliberately). The result is that Millennials spend more of their adult years being religiously unaffiliated, making it harder and impractical for them to change as they get older.
4. Millennials are not optimistic about the future.
In a word, Millennials are jaded. Millennials today have more higher education and greater access to information than any group of people in the history of our species. Yet, Millennials make significantly less money than older generations at this age and have far fewer opportunities for social and economic mobility. For Millennials, the old clichés of pursuing the American Dream, entering the rat race of typical 9‒5 hustle and bustle, and seeing a future full of corporate opportunity are simply not part of their life … and they want it that way. Millennials have witnessed first-hand how the American Dream devolves into a perpetual nightmare. They’ve seen how economic greed, America first policies, and living only for “me and mine” ruins families, countries, and the planet. Besides, as Millennials often note, there really isn’t much of the American economic pie left for them to seize, anyway.
To top it off, Millennials know the planet is doomed. Modern world systems, founded on unrestrained capitalism and nationalistic fervor, have succeeded in creating a suicide machine that leads to violence and planetary destruction. They now have an increasing distrustof all institutions and current world systems. Behind it all has been the tribalistic endorsement of religious institutions, particularly from American evangelicals. Millennials see religion as part of the problem, not part of the solution, and are see themselves as faced with having to solve the world’s troubles on their own. In fact, psychological studies have shown a positive correlation between religion (particularly Judeo-Christian beliefs) and increased levels of sexism, racism, anti-intellectualism, and intolerance.
5. Increases in education lead to secularization.
Not only are Millennials better educated than previous generations, but they are also more interested and knowledgeable about religion than older adults. What’s interesting to note is the fact that those who self-identify as atheist or agnostic are often more knowledgeable about religion than believers. In fact, as one study reveals, highly religious Americans are some of the most ill-informed and religiously illiterate persons in society.
6. There’s nothing wrong with being areligious now.
Finally, one of the biggest factors is that it is becoming less and less of a stigma to identify as nonreligious. Before, Americans believed they had to at least pretend to be religious in order to fit in and look good. Now, many of the world’s greatest scientists, philosophers, celebrities, and even former clergy publicly identify as either agnostic or atheist. And increasingly, this segment of the population expresses the same desire for truth and social justice as many Millennials, leaving them to believe that nonbelievers are just as moral and tuned in to the world’s problems than religious institutions. Indeed, Millennials are partnering with other areligious spouses, solidifying the belief that a person can be good and moral without church. Consequently, Millennials will want to associate with those making real-world progress than those they perceive as perpetuating violence and hatred.