Why Have Millennials Turned Away From Religion?

By Taylor H. ’21

Picture this: it’s 1987, right around when your parents would have been 18 years old if you’re part of “Generation Z” like I am. While today you might spend your weekends sleeping over at your friend’s house or playing FIFA, what would have your parents been doing in their free time? Probably going to church. Compared to 22% of American adults claiming to have no religious preference in 2012, only 7% of American adults in the late 1980s and early 1990s identified as having no religious preference. So why has the group of American “religious nones” grown between your parent’s generation and your own? Social science shows that the recent trend of turning away from religion boils down to three main reasons: political backlash against the religious right, non-religious posterity, and a more generic meaning of being “religious.” 

Political backlash against the Christian Right

Political liberals were driven away from organized religion when the tie between organized religion and the agenda of the conservative right became apparent in the 1990s. Connections between the conservative Republican political agenda and evangelical Christianity in particular were emphasized by Republican politicians, abortion activists, and religious leaders, which drove non-conservatives to abandon evangelical Christian service in hordes, as they didn’t agree with their stances on political or moral issues. Today, this trend of the right being more religious continues. In a recent study, only 8% of conservatives identified as having no religious preference while a whopping 36% of liberals and 18% of moderates identified as having no religious preference. When it comes to cultural issues that involve moral choice, such as abortion, religion has been affiliated with more right-wing ideology, which has driven the left-wing and a good portion of moderates to abandon religion entirely in order to distance themselves from more conservative policies and idealogies. 

Non-religious Lineages

Since the 1960s, there’s been a pattern in remaining non-religious that’s been passed down through generations. For example, out of people interviewed in the 1930s that were raised without a religion, only 30% continued to identify as having no religion in their adulthood. In stark contrast, 60% of people born in the 1960s that were raised without religion continued to have no religious preference in their adulthood. This trend of sticking to non-religious roots continued into the 1980s, when 80% of people raised in non-religious families continued to have no religious preference in their adulthood. While these lineages of unchurched Americans don’t contribute any new numbers to the total population with no religious preference, the spike in their continued agnosticism continues to contribute to the “less religious” American population today. 

Furthermore, people who have been raised with religion are now actively turning away from their household beliefs more than they ever did in the past. This most likely started with the sexual revolution of the 1960s-1980s. In the 1930s, only 4% of adults raised with religion turned away from their beliefs in their adulthood whereas 22% of people raised with religion in the 1980s, the prime of the sexual revolution, turned away from their childhood religion. Due to the changing cultural climate starting in the 1960s, people’s values on sexual freedom influenced Americans to challenge the taboos religion set on intimacy in relationships and therefore question and abandon organized religion altogether.

Looser Religious Identity

Finally, the term “religious” is applied more generically and has conjured up more negative connotations in recent years. In the 1970s, many people began being religious “in name only,” meaning they believed in the basics of God but didn’t regularly attend service or participate in the church; according to censuses taken today, these “loose believers” still don’t have a strong religious preference and don’t believe it’s necessary to attend a formal religious institution to be spiritual. Most young liberals and individuals with no religious preference believe that they can have a relationship with God without church and don’t want to be affiliated with the often extreme views of their church leaders. Unlike before, when religious identities held more weight than political identities, it appears that now political identities are valued more than religious ones. 

In conclusion, negative political connotations, the influence of former generations being non-religious, and the development of a more generic idea of what it means to be religious has worked its way into America in the last century. Moving from Livermore to San Mateo, I’ve seen both factors play out in the way religion is expressed at strikingly different schools. Due to the extensive lineages of white people that were Christian, more Republican, and made up a large population at school, it’s no surprise that this religious pride found its way into youth culture. In Livermore, it was common for Bible quotes to be the sole line in every girl’s Instagram bio, making “last night’s youth Bible study group” as normal a topic to talk about as the last math class you had, and to be familiar with each others’ parents as “your youth group leader” or “the person who baptized you.” Many of the friends I had there were Christian like me. In stark contrast, the majority of my friends at Crystal are atheists, and religion is something that’s rarely discussed outside of class because there isn’t as much spiritual homogeneity. Looking at the demographics, there aren’t nearly as many overtly devout parents or extreme rightists as in Livermore, where everyone’s spirituality is a little more uniform. Therefore, the presence of religion, which depends on the demographic’s political alignment and posterity, also varies greatly depending on location. While some regions might cling onto religion much longer than others, future America can nonetheless expect this trend to continue; while religion may never disappear completely, we can expect a much larger decline in spiritualism in years to come.

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