Millennials have earned a reputation for reshaping industries and institutions — shaking up the workplace, transforming dating culture, and rethinking parenthood. They’ve also had a dramatic impact on American religious life. Four in ten millennials now say they are religiously unaffiliated, according to the Pew Research Center. In fact, millennials (those between the ages of 23 and 38) are now almost as likely to say they have no religion as they are to identify as Christian.
For a long time, though, it wasn’t clear whether this youthful defection from religion would be temporary or permanent. It seemed possible that as millennials grew older, at least some would return to a more traditional religious life. But there’s mounting evidence that today’s younger generations may be leaving religion for good.
Social science research has long suggested that Americans’ relationship with religion has a tidal quality — people who were raised religious find themselves drifting away as young adults, only to be drawn back in when they find spouses and begin to raise their own families. Some argued that young adults just hadn’t yet been pulled back into the fold of organized religion, especially since they were hitting major milestones like marriage and parenthood later on.
But now many millennials have spouses, children and mortgages — and there’s little evidence of a corresponding surge in religious interest. A new national survey from the American Enterprise Institute of more than 2,500 Americans found a few reasons why millennials may not return to the religious fold. (One of the authors of this article helped conduct the survey.)
- For one thing, many millennials never had strong ties to religion to begin with, which means they were less likely to develop habits or associations that make it easier to return to a religious community.
- Young adults are also increasingly likely to have a spouse who is nonreligious, which may help reinforce their secular worldview.
- Changing views about the relationship between morality and religion also appear to have convinced many young parents that religious institutions are simply irrelevant or unnecessary for their children.
Millennials may be the symbols of a broader societal shift away from religion, but they didn’t start it on their own. Their parents are at least partly responsible for a widening generational gap in religious identity and beliefs; they were more likely than previous generations to raise their children without any connection to organized religion. According to the AEI survey, 17 percent of millennials said that they were not raised in any particular religion compared with only five percent of Baby Boomers. And fewer than one in three (32 percent) millennials say they attended weekly religious services with their family when they were young, compared with about half (49 percent) of Baby Boomers.
A parent’s religious identity (or lack thereof) can do a lot to shape a child’s religious habits and beliefs later in life. A 2016 Pew Research Center study found that regardless of the religion, those raised in households in which both parents shared the same religion still identified with that faith in adulthood. For instance, 84 percent of people raised by Protestant parents are still Protestant as adults. Similarly, people raised without religion are less apt to look for it as they grow older — that same Pew study found that 63 percent of people who grew up with two religiously unaffiliated parents were still nonreligious as adults.
But one finding in the survey signals that even millennials who grew up religious may be increasingly unlikely to return to religion. In the 1970s, most nonreligious Americans had a religious spouse and often, that partner would draw them back into regular religious practice. But now, a growing number of unaffiliated Americans are settling down with someone who isn’t religious — a process that may have been accelerated by the sheer number of secular romantic partners available, and the rise of online dating. Today, 74 percent of unaffiliated millennials have a nonreligious partner or spouse, while only 26 percent have a partner who is religious.