Nate Silver’s site FiveThirtyEight is famous for accurate election forecasts, though it ruined its record in 2016 by giving Hillary Clinton a 71% chance of winning. Well, to be fair, that was a close one, and at any rate today’s report is not about politics but religion. And it’s not even the site’s own poll, but a report on two new polls by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Pew Research Center. Both show that Millennials are abandoning established religions in droves. Given that AEI is a somewhat conservative site while Pew seems to be soft on faith, the data showing that Millennials are less religious than expected, and, unlike previous generations, are not coming back to the faith after leaving it, can be seen as credible. Click on the screenshot to read 538’s report:
I’ll be brief here because this is part of a continuing trend of secularization in America, a trend that has been shown in many earlier surveys, and that I’ve written about several times. The site defines “Millennial” as someone between age 23 and age 38, i.e., those born between 1981 and 1996. Here are the salient results:
- Four in ten Millennials identify as “nones,” in other words they are not affiliated with a church. As for the trend, the recent Pew survey shows this:
. . . the data shows a wide gap between older Americans (Baby Boomers and members of the Silent Generation) and Millennials in their levels of religious affiliation and attendance. More than eight-in-ten members of the Silent Generation (those born between 1928 and 1945) describe themselves as Christians (84%), as do three-quarters of Baby Boomers (76%). In stark contrast, only half of Millennials (49%) describe themselves as Christians; four-in-ten are religious “nones,” and one-in-ten Millennials identify with non-Christian faiths.
You can see the generational trend in the bar graph below, as well as the fact that loss of religion in the last decade—or at least formal religion, as not all “nones” are unbelievers—cuts across all demographic groups. Note that unaffiliateds have increased significantly in every group save the silent generation, with a paltry 1% increase. And, of course, the nones have grown faster among Democrats than among Republicans, but even in the latter group there’s been a decrease of 7% in self-described Christians and a 6% increase in “nones”:
Across all Americans, those who self-describe as Protestant or Catholic have decreased since 2007, the “nones” have increased, while self-described atheists and agnostics have risen moderately (about 2-3%, which is still more than a doubling from 12 years ago). I suspect that there are actually more atheists and agnostics than depicted in the graph below, as it’s easier for people to say they’re “nothing in particular” than to say that they’re nonbelievers.
- The AEI survey compiled Millennials’ reasons for their increased “none-ness.” First, more of them have been raised as “not religious” (17% compared to 5% of Baby Boomers), and raising has a big influence on your beliefs later in life. Of course this fact doesn’t explain why increasingly fewer kids are raised religious, but punts the data to the question: Why are fewer children raised as religious? There are many possible reasons for this, but I’m just documenting the facts.Second, Millennials are married to nonreligious people more often, and religious spouses tend to draw people back to the church. But this, too, is simply a reflection of the increasing number of “nones”: the more nones there are, the more likely you are to marry one.Finally—and here at last we have a reason—538 says “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.”
In other words, Enlightenment Now! As time passes, and we see the increasing immorality of religion (viz., Catholic child rape, Islamic oppression), its attractions wane. And we also see European countries, far more secular than the U.S., not being immoral, but in fact being more moral than America in many ways. Finally, the well-known positive correlation between being well off and being less religious is taking effect as the rising tide in America is affecting all the boats.
There’s one more reason in the 538 piece: “A majority (57%) of millennials agree that religious people are generally less tolerant of others, compared to only 37% of Baby Boomers.” I’m not sure why the increasing recognition of what is true (American religion by definition is intolerant), but it’s a synergistic effect, I think. For as secularism increases, religious people become more defensive and vociferous, and that can manifest itself as intolerance.
At any rate, FiveThirtyEight sees two big implications of this trend. The first I see as just plain weird, for they’re worried about it:
Why does it matter if millennials’ rupture with religion turns out to be permanent? For one thing, religious involvement is associated with a wide variety of positive social outcomes like increased interpersonal trust and civic engagement that are hard to reproduce in other ways.
We hear this all the time, and some of the results may be correct. On the other hand, I don’t much care given the data from nonreligious countries like Denmark and Sweden, which show us that the loss of faith in a nation needn’t have dire consequences. (The data cited are, of course, all within the U.S.) “Hard to reproduce in other ways”? Ask the Swedes and Danes! Finally, I’d rather have a country based on rationality, especially when the citizens do practice “civic engagement.”
The site’s second conclusion is that because Democrats lose faith faster than Republicans, the gap between parties will widen:
As we wrote a few months ago, whether people are religious is increasingly tied to — and even driven by — their political identities. For years, the Christian conservative movement has warned about a tide of rising secularism, but research has suggested that the strong association between religion and the Republican Party may actually be fueling this divide. And if even more Democrats lose their faith, that will only exacerbate the acrimonious rift between secular liberals and religious conservatives.
Ask me if I care! Are we supposed to engage in superstitious delusions just so Democrats and Republicans can be friends? We don’t have to hate Republicans to reject their ideology and their platform, but neither should we worry about increasing secularism exacerbating the political divide. For one thing, in the distant future almost nobody will be religious in America. And really, what can we do about it—save the unpalatable solution of re-indoctrinating our children in baseless superstitions?
UPDATE: Reader Pliny the in Between has a relevant cartoon at The Far Corner Cafe, making the point that “nones” can still—and often do—subscribe to magical thinking.