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Are Young Millennials Less Religious or Simply Young?

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Joe Carter recently posted a summary of a new study conducted jointly by Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs that shows that college-aged Millennials (18-24 year olds) “report significant levels of movement from the religious affiliation of their childhood, mostly toward identifying as religiously unaffiliated.” He also noted the tendency of college-aged Millennials to be more politically liberal.

Just yesterday, the same study was highlighted by Robert Jones of the Washington Post, who wrote,

According to a newly released survey, even before they move out of their childhood homes, many younger Millennials have already moved away from the religion in which they were raised, mostly joining the growing ranks of the religiously unaffiliated.

Jones goes on to say, “These findings have profound implications for the future of religious denominations that have, in the past, dominated American religious life.”

But is this true? I am not entirely convinced.

Aren’t college-aged people in all generations less orthodox, less religious, and more politically liberal and idealistic than any other age group? Take, for example, the following comments from a 1973 article by Robert Wuthnow and Charles Glock in the Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion:

An accumulating mass of data suggests that organized religion is currently a significant object of commitment for only a minority of young people. Gallup polls conducted in 1970 and 1971, for example, reveal that only 28 percent of those age 21 to 29 have attended church during the previous week and that a striking 80 percent in this age category perceive religion as losing its influence in American life (Gallup Opinion Index, January 1970; February 1971). Among college students one national survey of seniors done in 1969 reported only 8 percent describing themselves as “very religious,” another survey in the same year found only one-third of students in “forerunner” colleges and one-half in “practical” colleges valuing “Living the good Christian life” or identifying with people of their religion, and a Harris poll of college students in 1965 showed only 34 percent expressing a “great deal” of confidence in “organized religion” in comparison with 75 percent who placed such confidence in the “scientific community” (Hadden, 1969; Fortune, 1969; Newsweek, 1965). And results from an unpublished study of Berkeley students conducted in 1971 found only 18 percent accepting a traditional image of God, 14 percent a traditional image of Christ, and only 9 percent a traditional view of life after death (Berkeley Beliefs Study, conducted by David Nasatir).

If not for the dates, one might easily mistake this description of college-aged religious defection for the assessment that is all too common of Millennials today. So far as I’m concerned, the data simply represents Winston Churchill’s famous dictum: “If you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain.”

Certainly, this is not to say that the study itself is inaccurate or that Joe Carter or Robert Jones have misrepresented the facts. The point is simply that the facts may not be as significant as they appear. Indeed, Jones even notes,

In some ways, this is not a new problem; it’s not uncommon for younger American adults to be less religiously affiliated than older Americans. However, the Millennial generation’s rate of disaffiliation is higher than previous generations at comparable points in their life cycle.

The study examines 18-24 year olds’ Facebook usage rates by gender, their feelings regarding President Obama by race, their approval of the “Buffett Rule” by political party, their views on abortion, same-sex marriage, pornography, contraceptives, etc., but the one thing that it does not do is the one thing that would have been the most insightful: it does not actually take the time to compare these statistics with similar statistics of older generations when they were the same age.

This does not, of course, render the study entirely useless. The data could still be compared to other generations in this way. But until it is I can only remain skeptical of the significance of stories claiming that my generation is any less religious or more politically liberal than any other, and I recommend that others do the same.

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Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.

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