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Opinion

Millennial Generation challenges religion in America

The Millennial Generation believes in God, but is even less interested in organized religion than were baby boomers or Generation X in their youth. Religions in America may be able to attract Millennials by appealing to their values, especially volunteering and service.

By Morley Winograd, Michael D. Hais / September 26, 2011



Arcadia, Calif.

While most religions believe their doctrines and practices to be eternal verities, all denominations, like other institutions, must continually enlist and renew the commitment of each new generation if they are to survive and carry on their work. At perhaps no other time in the nation's history has this task been more challenging for America's religious faiths than it is now.

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It is not that the country's newest generation of young adults, the Millennial Generation, rejects the spiritual values that deeply permeate the nation's culture.

Americans, to a greater extent than those who live in other Western countries, believe in God (in numbers ranging from two-thirds to 80 percent depending on how pollsters ask the question). Millennials, born in the years 1982 through 2003, fully share this belief with older generations, according to the Pew Research Center. Two-thirds of Millennials (64 percent) are certain God exists.

In spite of these beliefs, however, a large majority of Millennials (72 percent) describe themselves as "more spiritual than religious," according to a LifeWay Christian Resources survey.

Millennials are significantly less likely than older Americans to be members of a specific denomination or to participate in traditional religious rituals. About 1 in 5 Millennials (18 percent) has left the denomination of their childhood and a quarter of them are completely unaffiliated with any denomination. Millennials are also less likely than older generations to attend religious services weekly or to read Scripture, pray, and meditate regularly.

Not just youthful skepticism

And for any who may believe that the generation's lesser commitment to specific denominations or participation in religious rituals simply stems from youthful skepticism, Pew tracking surveys indicate otherwise. Millennials are twice as likely to be unaffiliated with a specific denomination than were baby boomers in the 1970s and 1-1/2 times more likely than were members of Generation X in the 1990s – when both of those cohorts were the age that Millennials are today.

In the end, however, perhaps the biggest impact Millennials will have on the country's religious landscape is to increase its diversity and expand the definition of what faiths are recognized as part of the American mainstream.

Since ratification in 1791, the First Amendment has protected the rights of religious minorities and nonbelievers. But from the beginning, the United States has been predominantly a Christian, and more specifically, a Protestant, nation. The Millennials put a large dent in that description.

This generation is not only the most ethnically diverse in US history, it is also the most religiously diverse. Millennials are half as likely to be white Evangelicals or Roman Catholics and a quarter less likely to be white mainline Protestants compared with older generations. By contrast, they are twice as likely to be Hispanic Catholics or unaffiliated and a third more likely to be non-Christians (Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists), finds Pew.

As a result of all these trends, only two-thirds (68 percent) of Millennials are Christian, compared with about 80 percent of older Americans. Fewer than half (43 percent) are Protestant, in contrast to 53 percent of all older generations and almost two-thirds of senior citizens.

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