Who are the largely nonreligious adults whose ranks are growing, thus reducing the percentage of Americans who exhibit strong religious commitment? They are mainly young people just entering adulthood. Older Americans -- those in the Silent generation, Baby Boomers and even Generation Xers -- are, by and large, about as religious today as when the Religious Landscape Study was first conducted in 2007. But these three generational cohorts constitute a shrinking share of the total U.S. population, and, as their numbers begin to dwindle, they are being replaced by a new cohort of young adults (Millennials) who are, in many ways, far less religious than their parents' and grandparents' generations.
Six months ago, we talked about the Pew Research Center's report on the U.S. religious landscape, noting, among other things, the sudden increase over the last decade in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans -- including atheists, agnostics, and people who simply identify spiritually as "nothing at all." This week, the researchers published the second half of their findings, and what jumped out at me were the generational differences.
Pew Research found, for example, that two-thirds of Americans in the "Silent" generation (Americans born between 1928 and 1945) say religion is very important in their lives. For older Millennials (those born in the 1980s), the total is less than half. For younger Millennials (those born between 1990 and 1996), it's not even 4 out of 10.
According to the study, every younger generation is progressively less religious -- Baby Boomers are less religious than the "Silent" Generation; members of Generation X are less religious than Boomers, Millennials are less religious than Generation X, and so on.
A U.S. News report on the findings noted that only 11% in the oldest generation of American adults are religiously unaffiliated. For the youngest generation of American adults, that total increases to 38%.
There's room for a conversation about whether younger, unaffiliated Americans may grow more religious as they get older, but as things currently stand, these are the kind of results that may very well have a dramatic impact on the national religious landscape -- and perhaps even the broader culture -- in the coming years. At least since the advent of modern polling, the percentage of the U.S. population moving away from religious beliefs and institutions has never been higher.
What will the impact be on the country? Stay tuned.
Also from the God Machine this week:
* An unfortunate announcement for Mormons: "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has instructed local church leaders that same-sex couples are apostates and that children living with them can’t take part in church activities until they’re adults and leave home, the church told NBC News on Thursday night."
* Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) recently delivered a sermon at a Virginia church, telling a congregation "that the government has grown increasingly hostile to religion in America in an effort to systematically expunge it from the 'marketplace of ideas' and that this development has not come about by accident or naturally; rather, it has all been orchestrated by a vast, well-funded conspiracy."
* Curious arrests at the Vatican: "The arrest of two Vatican insiders on suspicion of leaking damaging internal documents signaled the return Monday of an unwelcome guest at the Holy See’s ancient gates: scandal."
* It's disappointing to hear this perspective from any senator, but to hear it from a member of a religious minority made it all the more jarring: "U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) seems to believe that church-state separation is harming American society. In remarks delivered [Thursday] on the U.S. Senate floor, the longtime lawmaker criticized the concept of a church-state wall."
* Diversity matters: "Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, installed Sunday as the first black leader of the U.S. Episcopal Church, urged Episcopalians to evangelize by crossing divides of race, education and wealth. Curry used the example of his own mother being given Communion at a white Episcopal parish before desegregation, and how that act persuaded his father to join the denomination, and eventually become a priest."