Millennials are at the heart of a religious statistics war. Some recent studies have suggested that people born after 1982 are less religious than previous generations, while other sources suggest caution in drawing these conclusions.
I want to give some perspective on those numbers, some perspective on our religious watershed moment, and a look to the future.
A few studies have wrapped in the last year. Some show that millennials are about 5 percentage points less religious than their Generation X counterparts: We pray and attend church less often, we consider religion less in moral decisions, and we have less overall belief in God or the afterlife.
Religious organizations have also been reporting their stats, and they are down as well. Overall, enrollment and participation are down among Catholics up to 5% and among evangelical denominations up to 10%.
The numbers may be deceiving. Some millennials are just graduating from high school, and traditional wisdom (and statistics) show that people grow more religious as they age. However, that’s not necessarily true anymore: The religious views of Gen X have flatlined for the last 10 years, and millennials are less religious than any other group has ever been at any point in their lives.
Further compounding the difficulty of drawing conclusions is the act that religious participation is reported badly. Each religious community – church, parish, region, or denomination – is responsible for its own stats. Often these don’t take into account larger demographic trends, like swapping between denominations or the effect of international immigration.
Importantly, many millennials call themselves "Nones," or "No Affilliation," 83% of whom believe in a higher power and participate in rituals of various kinds. So, while traditional religious structures could be taking a statistical drop, that doesn’t necessarily reflect the overall belief and behavior patterns of millennials.
So the statistics can seriously lie. Safely said, we millennials are in a unique religious statistical position, but our story is far from over.
Did you know U.S. Christians are halfway through a classic religious upheaval? A few historical sociologists have suggested that the level of disillusionment with Christianity is equal or greater to that experienced in the late 1960s, which led to the rise of the Evangelical religious right in the 1980s. For example, Catholics are visibly chafing under political disillusionment and the nun rebukes, and are facing a clergy crisis. The Episcopal Church is also splitting at the seams over homosexuality and modernity. Megachurches are for sale across the country.
It’s not just millennials who are struggling to find a place in religion. My own family, proud Christians all my life, are at the end of their ropes and struggling to find some sort of good relationship within their religious community as it fumbles the ball again and again. It is safe to say that the next 10 years will see major religious changes that will affect everyone, not just millennials.
At no point in the last century has the future of organized religion in the U.S. been more uncertain. The role of religious organizations is changing dramatically, and they are no longer serving as the mortar of our communities. Adherents are more interested in inspirational messages, engaging activities, and existential exploration – TED Talks instead of Tent Revivals. Will religions change gears quickly enough? Can they bear the drop in membership that is likely looming?
I think that the development of new systems of belief and belonging is tied to the development of new technologies. Six hundred years ago the printing press spurred an uneasy religions landscape into total upheaval. Since most of us millennials grew up with Hubble images, maybe CERN and the Higgs Boson will be our paradigm changer. Stay tuned at millennialfaith.blogspot.com