With each new generation comes a wave of change, and millennials are no different. The Pew Research Center has published data that confirms millennials are substantially less religious than any other generation in terms of religious affiliation and attending religious services. However, millennials (adults ages 18 to 29) are not dismissing religion altogether. Their beliefs are as strong as ever, which may suggest that there’s more to millennials and religion than meets the eye.
The numbers don’t lie. Millennials score low on many religious scales. For instance, 25% of the millennials surveyed by Pew about their religious affiliation reported that they considered themselves either “atheist,” “agnostic,” or believed in “nothing in particular,” compared to only 19% of adults in their 30s, 15% in their 40s, 14% in their 50s, and less than 10% of adults 60 and over. Millennials also have the lowest percentage of attendance to weekly church services at 33%; the next closest are adults ages 30-49 at 36% and adults ages 50-64 at 40%. More telling is that 45% of millennials said religion was very important to them; the next closest was 30-49-year-olds at 54%. And these numbers are only the beginning. Millennials also bring up the rear in participation in religious activities, including: reading scripture weekly, praying daily, and meditating weekly. And though it may appear that millennials are just shying away from organized religion, Pew found they have become less spiritual as well. The change is not uniform: broken down demographically, this religious drop-off is more prevalent in women than men, whites than blacks, and northeasterners than southerners.
The question remains whether these low religious numbers are something millennials will grow out of as they get older, but scholars attributing the shift to cultural change suggest this is not just a young adult “phase.” Dr. Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, says millennials grew up with a much greater sense of individualism, presenting challenges to traditional religious rules and practices and the church family model. Leslie Long, a religious professor at Oklahoma City University, has another theory concerning how millennials think, saying that young adults today have been raised so much on science and logic that anything they believe must have physical evidence. Millennials lead the generations in their belief that evolution is the best explanation for human life at 55%. Unless archaeologists uncovering staggering evidence to the contrary, their beliefs are likely to stick around. Long also claims that media isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and its coverage of negative media regarding religion, such as hate crimes toward homosexuals, has a direct influence on how people perceive religion. In contrast, millennials believe that Hollywood affects our values the least, at 33%, which is likely another avenue of influence. The shift, likely the result of a combination of cultural factors, suggests a less religious population may be here to stay.
Although millennials as a whole may be less religious, not all millennials have dismissed religion altogether. A 2014 survey from Pew found that young adults are as devoted as any, with the same percentage saying they are “strong” in their faith as Generation Xers at 37%. Further studies found that millennials’ views about heaven and hell, life after death, and miracles are almost identical to older generations. And though millennials pray and believe in God less as a whole, the portion that prays everyday and believes in God with absolute certainty rivals other generations.
Many people fear that a decline in religion as an important part of people’s lives means a worse off society, but this is not necessarily the case. According to the Counsel of Economic Affairs, more high school seniors than the past two generations have said they think it’s important to contribute to society and want to be a leader in their community. Millennials are also much more tolerant and accepting of people with unconventional and varying beliefs. For instance, 63% of millennials believe society should accept homosexuality; this is 12% more accepting than the closest generation. And while millennials are very individualistic, they have closer relationships with their families, especially their parents, than the last two generations. However, according to Pew, this may be due to the significant increase in hours both mothers and fathers spent with their millennial children in their earlier years. Nonetheless, millennials are still doing their part for the community, as well as the economy. The average age of marriage in 2013 was 27 years for women and 29 for men, compared to 20 and 23 in 1950; this is likely due to an overall greater focus on work aspirations.
Though survey numbers and data seem to paint a clear picture of millennials, there is still much to consider before coming to any conclusions. According to a Pew study, millennials were more likely than any other generation to attribute negative traits to themselves. For instance, 59% of millennials describe their generation as self-absorbed, 49% as wasteful, and 49% as greedy. The next closest generation is at least 19% away from these figures, the largest gap a 29% difference. This information is important when considering the figures, specifically for religious affiliation and spirituality, as millennials appear to be more modest than the other generations. These traits are no doubt still present, but they also may allude to the self-deprecating nature of millennials. Additionally, millennials are also less likely to embrace their generational label than Generation X and Baby Boomers. Only 40% of millennials identify as such, whereas 58% of Generation X and 79% of Baby Boomers take ownership of their label.