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Losing our religion?

The Pew Research Center Amer­ican Values Survey, which polled more than 3,000 adults nation­wide, found that approx­i­mately one in five Amer­i­cans don’t have a reli­gious affil­i­a­tion — the most ever doc­u­mented. was con­ducted in April and then released in June, also found that some 32 per­cent of Mil­len­nials have doubted the exis­tence of God — double the number of those who felt the same way just five years ago. We asked Susan Setta, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of reli­gious studies in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, to explain the pre­cip­i­tous rise of unbe­lief among the young.

What has caused belief in God to wane, particularly among the young?

Although reli­gious affil­i­a­tion has waned in the U.S. since the Pew sur­veys began, the drop is small among most of the cohorts sur­veyed. The Mil­len­nial gen­er­a­tion, how­ever, shows a note­worthy decline from ear­lier sur­veys. Many fac­tors, including actual decrease in belief in God, may be at work here. There may be other influ­ences as well. Soci­etal tol­er­ance for dif­fer­ences in belief, for example, may be a key factor. Or, this group may simply be more willing to admit what they believe.

The Pew survey also found increased tol­er­ance for dif­fer­ence in every age, reli­gious pref­er­ence and polit­ical group. One pop­ular YouTube video of a young boy’s Bar Mitzvah shows him ques­tioning the exis­tence of God in his lec­ture to the con­gre­ga­tion. His instruc­tors and the con­gre­ga­tion laugh with delight when he says he is not sure whether he believes in God. In addi­tion, the Mil­len­nial gen­er­a­tion is known for wanting to dis­tin­guish itself from its peers — to stand out so to speak — by sporting unusual ideas. This could be a factor as well.

Reli­gious­ness or its lack among America’s youth is dif­fi­cult to assess. A geo­graphic study would pro­vide inter­esting data by deter­mining regional dif­fer­ences in reli­gious activity among teens and young adults. Com­pe­ti­tion from sporting activ­i­ties, with matches often held on Sunday morn­ings, a for­merly sacro­sanct time period, is one clear reason for decreased church attendance.

Religious identification has increased over the past decade among other generations, especially among aging Baby Boomers. In fact, the Pew survey found an increase in the percentage of Boomers who say they never doubt God’s existence. Is it common for people to become more religious or spiritual as they age?

People tend to join churches in their child rearing years, but Baby Boomers who have been church affil­i­ated do become more active as their child rearing respon­si­bil­i­ties end and as their free time increases after retire­ment. Increased belief in God, how­ever, is a dif­ferent matter. As Baby Boomers age, their reluc­tance to admit to not believing in God may increase. It is per­haps an example of Pascal’s wager. Blaise Pascal was a 17th-​​century phi­los­ophy who noted that there was no down­side to believing in God. But, if God did indeed exist, he argued, there could be neg­a­tive con­se­quences from unbe­lief. If God did not exist, in con­trast, there would be no neg­a­tive con­se­quences to a person who did believe.

A separate Pew study released late last month found that many Americans aren’t aware of the religious faiths of President Obama or presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. According to the survey, roughly one-third of Americans don’t know that Romney is Mormon and 17 percent believe Obama is Muslim. What are the dangers of misunderstanding an individual’s religious affiliation, especially if that person is a political figure?

The change in Amer­ican under­standing of Pres­i­dent Obama’s reli­gious affil­i­a­tion con­tinues to be sur­prising. In 2008, Amer­i­cans were more likely to cor­rectly iden­tify his reli­gious affil­i­a­tion as Chris­tian. At that time, polit­ical oppo­si­tion to then pres­i­den­tial hopeful Obama called up the images of his pastor, Jere­miah Wright. Iron­i­cally, the polit­ical dis­cus­sion about Pastor Wright’s sup­pos­edly racist remarks had the effect of making it clear that can­di­date Obama was Christian.

The cur­rent Pew study shows that Amer­i­cans are not opposed — and indeed some favor — strong reli­gious ties in their polit­ical can­di­dates. Yet misiden­ti­fying or mis­un­der­standing that back­ground can be impor­tant. A candidate’s reli­gious per­spec­tive can have a sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence on his or her social beliefs, which is to be expected. Protes­tant Chris­tians join churches or remain mem­bers of the group into which they were born because they agree with the teach­ings of their chosen reli­gious affiliation.

A candidate’s reli­gious pref­er­ence, then, can be an indi­cator of their stance on social issues. The Latter Day Saints (Mor­mons), for example, have con­ser­v­a­tive views on gender issues and homo­sex­u­ality and on LDS mem­bers’ ability to dis­agree with offi­cial teach­ings. The United Church of Christ, Pres­i­dent Obama’s chosen affil­i­a­tion, is more lib­eral on these issues. Unlike the LDS, the UCC will not show uni­for­mity across all its con­gre­ga­tions because doc­trinal issues in the UCC are decided at the con­gre­ga­tional level, not at a cen­tral insti­tu­tional level, as is the case in the LDS.

Although Amer­i­cans are tol­erant of, and may favor, strong reli­gious ties in their politi­cians, they do not approve of insti­tu­tional inter­fer­ence in the polit­ical process as a 2006 Pew study showed. The dif­fer­ence between increasing tol­er­ance for homo­sexual rights among the reli­giously affil­i­ated and the stated views of their chosen tra­di­tion con­sis­tently exem­pli­fies this.

– by Kara Shemin

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