Read the original post at Ken’s Blog for the Houston Chronicle – Sacred Duty
According to a recent Gallup poll, if you were to run into a liberal-independent male doctor from, say, New York who is 29 years old, there is a slightly higher chance that he is an atheist.
Good to know right?
But what to make of it?
Various news agencies and religious commentators are making different observations concerning the findings of the recent Gallup poll on belief in God. According to their statistical survey, liberals are less likely to believe in God or a supernatural being than conservatives, independents less likely than Republicans or Democrats, people living in the East less than the West, North or South, males less than females, younger people less than older people, postgraduate educated individuals than those with high school or less.
The real “discovery” is, despite the differences, Americans are still fervently full of belief and, by proxy, intensely religious.
For the sake of this article I want to keep this point in mind while focusing on the greatest statistical gap that the Gallup poll recorded – the 10 point difference between 18 to 29 year olds and every other age group. According to the survey done by Gallup, only 84% of Young Americans between the ages of 18 to 29 believe in God or a universal spirit, while among people 30 or older 94% believe.
This may strike many readers as a major generational shift occurring between the Baby Boomers/Generation X and the so-called Millennials (Generation Y) and to a point, it is definitely something that religious leaders and observers should take note of.
However, I think it is important to keep in mind the characteristics of the Millennials when interpreting Gallup’s, and other survey’s, data regarding Generation Y’s belief in God and their subsequent faith and religiosity.
According to a Pew Forum report on Millennials, they are, as a group, generally less interested in money and religion and more concerned with family and friendship. They are comfortable with technology and enjoy communication. They are less defined by racial boundaries and more open to other world views. While they value family they aren’t rushing to the altar, and many of them (nearly 80%) remain single into their late twenties.
What is important to note is that yes, Millennials are less likely to believe in the divine or an ultimate deity and that they are less religious, but that this fact might change in the near future as they grow older, settle down and have a family. As Robert Putnam and David Campbell note in their tome on contemporary religion, American Grace, there is a difference between generational change and lifetime change. What we may be seeing here is a mixture of both. While the Millennials will probably believe less than their parents (Baby Boomers) and their older siblings (Generation X) the difference will not be as striking (10 percentage points) once they grow up a little more.
Many religious statisticians and observers note that belief in God and participation in religion increase once individuals settle down, get married and have a family. Life cycle changes generally trend towards more religiosity as individuals get older. Thus, we can expect that Millennials, currently in the 18-29 range, will be slightly more religious and, by association, more believing in their later years with another decade of growth.
In addition to this sociological progression, there is also an immigrant influx of believing young people from the Southern and Eastern world to consider. As Philip Jenkins notes in his work The Next Christendom, people from Central and South America, Africa and many nations in Asia are much more religious (not just Christian) and that this has major implications for Europe and America as it pertains to immigration of such individuals to the U.S.A. Since they are moving here and the Millennial generation itself seems to be more ethnically diverse and open to other world-views, such an immigration shift may impact Millennial belief patterns.
While I don’t believe there will be a major change in their religious practice or belief in God, I think we have yet to see just how believing and religious the Millennials will be when they are in their 30s and 40s. In the end, I believe that their belief and religiosity will rise a few percentage points and that America will continue, for another generation, to be fervently religious.
Furthermore, it is one thing to discuss the amount of Millennials’ belief and religiosity and another thing entirely to discuss the content of their faith and practice. What we can infer from their general characteristics is that being more open, being better educated, being more ready to communicate and dialogue with others, being more oriented towards the family and being less partisan than generations that came before them the 84% or more of them that do believe and put their belief into practice will be much more open minded when it comes to the religious other. In addition, they will continue to be wary of religion as it is associated with religiously conservative politics (although as they grow older, Millennials may turn out to be more “conservative” politically than they once were given that older family men and women tend to be more conservative in their politics as well).
Rather than being bad news for the future, this may very well come as a “sigh of relief” to many Americans and other, less religious, countries who often associate America’s propensity for religious belief and practice with stubbornness, close-mindedness and ignorance when it comes to the religious other.
For now, Millennials aren’t quite as religious or believing as their generational predecessors, but that may change given time. I’ll get back to you after Gallup releases its statistics from surveys regarding belief in 2021; then we can see if I was right. In the meantime, it is best for the general populous to not pigeonhole this generation of believers and non-believers, we may yet surprise you.