Why Millennials (and Others) Are Not Religious

Read Time: 5 minute(s)

Last night I began reading Lisa Miller’s Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife. In the introduction, Miller summarizes the United States’s current views on religion and heaven.

  • First, nearly 80% of Americans tell polsters they’re Christian – even though that word may be defined in completely different ways (Roman Catholic, liberal Protestant, Mormon, etc.).
  • Second, 44% of Americans practice a religion different from the one they grew up with.
  • Third, 65% of us believe that eternal salvation is attainable from many different spiritual paths.
  • Fourth, right now, the most successful religions in the U.S. are those which teach that the Bible is the infallible word of God and require their members to adhere to a strict lifestyle.
  • Fifth, 81% of Americans say they believe in heaven (2007 poll).

Unsurprisingly, Miller also points out that the U.S.’s outlook on religion has changed drastically “by the rise of virtual spiritual worlds, where people have easy access to religions other than their own.” In fact, many Americans, she concludes, “now feel perfectly comfortable embracing more than one religious tradition at once” (xii).

This last point is especially true, it seems, among the Millennial generation. For example, earlier this year, the Pew Research Center reported that millennials, those currently between the ages of 18 and 29, are less religiously active than any other living generation. Specifically, the study found that

  • Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today.
  • They are less likely to be affiliated than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations were when they were young.
  • One-in-four members of the Millennial generation are unaffiliated with any particular faith.
  • They are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X (those born between 1965-1980) were at a comparable point in their life cycle and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults.
  • Millennials also attend religious services less often than older Americans today.
  • And compared with their elders today, fewer young people say that religion is very important in their lives.

A LifeWay survey reported similar results when it surveyed a group of Millennials:

  • 65% rarely or never pray with others, and 38% almost never pray by themselves either.
  • 65% rarely or never attend worship services.
  • 67% don’t read the Bible or sacred texts.
  • 68% did not mention faith, religion or spirituality when asked what was “really important in life.”
  • 50% do not attend church at least weekly.
  • 36% rarely or never read the Bible.

As someone who is interested in generational studies, I wonder why this shift has taken place. Why don’t Millennials (and many others, of course) want or feel the need to attend church as have their parents and grandparents? A quick scouring of news sites, blogs, and social networks locates several theories.

Technology

As Miller points out in her introduction, unlike their predecessors who attended church for reasons of cultural norms or social conformity, millennials are exposed to a variety of faith perspectives online. They can “tailor-make their own religion,” one religious expert notes. Case in point: “I go to the Internet and when I’m stuck and I’m not sure, and the research is right there, the answers are right there,” one millennial student explains.

The Millennial Way of Thinking/Being

Other religious experts suggest that the “millennial way of thinking” gets in the way of their belief system: “They are absolutely appalled at the conflict and war that competing exclusivist religions can engender. According to millennial logic, they can’t all be right, so they must be all wrong. Political parties are viewed the same way.”

Additionally, some suggest that the millennial way of life (tattoos, tolerance, free[er]thinking) does not gel with most religions. For example, a leader for a Buddhist lay organization reports, “Many youth I speak with feel they are estranged from their church groups because of the way that they live, whether it’s the clothes that they wear, the way they present themselves, the fact that they have tattoos, or even if they are homosexual. Many churches and synagogues do not engage the interest of the youth.”

Another example, this time from a millennial herself: “I had a friend who was considered atheist but she was a very good person and I remember bringing it up to the [church members] and they were just talking about how she’s going to go to hell. It just made me feel it wasn’t right.”

Semantics

Still, one pastor claims that the word religion is the primary problem: “I think their generation is really turned off by the term religion. They see it as a set of rules or something that represents the past.”

Consumer Culture

Then again, others believe our consumer culture and the church’s embracing of said culture (e.g., mega-churches) has turned off millennials who, in general, seek to distance themselves from large institutions. For example, one religious leader explains, “Christianity has become a commodity in our society; one product in a wide range of possibilities for consumers seeking fulfillment in life.” Another points out that “churches are businesses like any other, fraught with hierarchy and prone to the same cliques, power struggles and petty despots” and that most Millennials, it seems, don’t want any part of that.

The Merging of Church and Politics

Finally, some are apparently turned off by the current merging of church and politics. A professor of theology writes that millennials are “sick of the association we commonly make, in our culture, between ‘being religious’ and having a conservative political agenda.”

There are certainly other reasons that millennials — and many people in general — have left, renounced, or redefined religion, Christianity in particular, e.g., the teachings/beliefs of the progressive Christian movement and the Jesus Seminar, the founding of Universal Unitarianism, sex scandals within the Catholic Church, the inexplicableness of September 11, 2001. And there are certainly more traditional reasons: it’s boring, hypocritical, out of touch, too big, judgmental, etc. Whatever the case, it will be interesting to see where the Millennial class will take us. Will they return to the fold like the Prodigal Son/Daughter, or will they maintain their millennial ways of thinking?

** The quotes and information above may be found in/on the following sites” Dallas Morning News: Religion Blog, In Their Shoes: Millennials Talk Religion, Youth Leaving Religion in Droves: ‘Millennials’ Play by Own Rules, and Millennials Increasingly Finding Their Religion Online.

  • http://soulhangout.net Luz Aguirrebena

    Great article. Good information. Perhaps is time to get religions and its intransigent Gods out of the political equation and have a more human interaction. Millennials are figuring out this world with crystal clear vision for the future. Love it. Thanks Kelli!

    • http://www.kellimarshall.net/ Kelli

      Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the post. =)

  • Roberto Abitua

    Good piece. Obviously there is not just one reason for this but hey I'll take a crack at it. I can only really go off of my own experiences and why I'm so skeptical/not religious.

    I think I'm too rational a person. I hear or read the stories in the bible and all I can think is 'Really? You think that happened?' As we've grown as people and technology and knowledge has expanded, explanations for many things have been found. I'm all about proof and evidence.

    Some will say that don't I just take it on faith that these finding are factual and yeah, I guess so because I am not smart enough to prove these things myself! but I'm more willing to believe a scientific explanation than a 'Because God said so'.

    And honestly? I believe there are many more that are in my shoes. So the more knowledge we get as a society, the more information available to us, the more rational we get? I think it'll continue on this path.

    That said, I hope there's something. Of course its a pleasant idea and a wonderful thought. I'm skeptical but I never go so far as saying 'NO I DONT BELIEVE!' … I want to believe, I think but its hard for me to do so.

    • http://www.kellimarshall.net/ Kelli

      Thanks for commenting, Roberto. You write that there "are many more in your shoes." So why do you think those people don't speak up? (Maher asks the same question in Religulous, doesn't he?)