Millennials Pushing the Sharp Rise of the Religiously Unaffiliated

By Michael Nam


Nick Fox / Shutterstock.com

America has the largest population of affiliated Christians in the world, but recent data shows a clear trend of people increasingly leaving organized Christianity while secular and other faiths see an uptick in their ranks. The fastest rate of decline seems to be among the millennial generation, a population that has recently been shown to be more open to social change on issues such as LGBT rights and marriage equality.

Pew Research Center’s latest research into the changing religious landscape shows that the Christian share of the U.S. population declined by nearly 8 percent between 2007 and 2014, while the religiously unaffiliated population (including atheists, agnostics and “nothing in particular”) rose by almost 7 percent. Other non-Christian faiths also grew by about 1 percent.

While Christianity remains the largest religious group by far, the nature of the downward trend has been consistent and interesting in its details. Mainline Protestant and Catholic denominations had the steepest decline with over a 3 percent drop in affiliation. Even evangelicals lost a small share of adherents. Members of the millennial generation particularly are likelier to consider themselves “nones”:

Although older generations also have grown somewhat more religiously unaffiliated in recent years, Millennials remain far more likely to identify as religious “nones.” The 35% of Millennials who do not identify with a religion is double the share of unaffiliated Baby Boomers (17%) and more than three times the share of members of the Silent generation (11%).

This information correlates with the data showing millennials to be more liberal on social issues compared to earlier generations. In a time when the religiously conservative have pushed an agenda that denying LGBT rights and marriage equality are religious issues, such relentless messaging may be seeing a backlash with a generation that is largely accepting of those hot-button topics

Anti-LGBT bigotry cloaked in religion (such as the gay-bashing legislation leaving LGBT citizens open to discrimination by businesses, passed in states like Indiana), as well as the current legal fight (again) over same-gender marriage being deliberated by the Supreme Court, may be helping to alienate a generation that supports gay rights in its majority.

Along with supporting LGBT issues, millennials are more open to identifying as part of the LGBT spectrum. 8 percent of millennial respondents identified as such in a Public Religion Research Institute survey, compared to figures 3 and 4 percent in previous surveys of all adults.

Pew Research also broke down religious affiliation by sexual orientation and found that 41 percent of LGBT people are religiously unaffiliated with 48 percent identifying as Christian, which is quite a difference from the general population of approximately 23 percent unaffiliated to 70 percent Christian.

Notably, the term religiously unaffiliated does not necessarily mean that the population does not hold religious beliefs. While those who identify as atheists and agnostics have also risen in numbers, the specific takeaway appears to be that of large numbers of Americans moving away from traditional, authoritarian institutions that relate to religious belief, whether it’s leaving it behind entirely or exploring religious ideas other than Christianity.

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