Wednesday, May 13, 2015

New Data | Generational Shifts in American Adolescents' Religious Orientation from 1966-2014

In four large, nationally representative surveys (N = 11.2 million), American adolescents and emerging adults in the 2010s (Millennials) were significantly less religious than previous generations (Boomers, Generation X) at the same age. The data are from the Monitoring the Future studies of 12th graders (1976–2013), 8th and 10th graders (1991–2013), and the American Freshman survey of entering college students (1966–2014). Although the majori- ty of adolescents and emerging adults are still religiously involved, twice as many 12th grad- ers and college students, and 20%–40% more 8th and 10th graders, never attend religious services. Twice as many 12th graders and entering college students in the 2010s (vs. the 1960s–70s) give their religious affiliation as “none,” as do 40%–50% more 8th and 10th grad- ers. Recent birth cohorts report less approval of religious organizations, are less likely to say that religion is important in their lives, report being less spiritual, and spend less time praying or meditating. Thus, declines in religious orientation reach beyond affiliation to reli- gious participation and religiosity, suggesting a movement toward secularism among a growing minority. The declines are larger among girls, Whites, lower-SES individuals, and in the Northeastern U.S., very small among Blacks, and non-existent among political con- servatives. Religious affiliation is lower in years with more income inequality, higher median family income, higher materialism, more positive self-views, and lower social support. Over- all, these results suggest that the lower religious orientation of Millennials is due to time peri- od or generation, and not to age.
Some first-blush observations from where I sit:

• The study covers a lot of ground — 1966-2014

• It reports on a massive number of respondents —11.2 million nationally representative adolescents

• The big drop in weekly church attendance for 12-graders was between the mid-70s and the mid-90s — the drop from the mid-90s to 2014 is two-three percent, compared to eight percent from 1974-1994

• The percentage of college freshmen who said "none" under questions about religious affiliation yo-yoed from the mid-70s to mid-80s, rose slightly to the mid-90s, then more steeply to 2014

• The small number (less than one percent) of college students who said they planned to become clergy dropped precipitously from the mid-60s to the mid-80s, and has yo-yoed since

• In the mid-90s to mid-teens, the percentage of college students who say they discuss religion returned to mid-60s levels after having fallen below 25 percent

• Since the question was added in the mid-90s, the number of college students who consider themselves above average in spirituality has stepped down from 45 percent to 36 percent

• 12-graders have, since the mid-70s, rated the importance of religion in life somewhere between 2.6 on a scale of 1-4 in 2010-14 and 2.82 on a scale of 1-4 in 1980-84

• The percentage of college student who said they never attend religious services rose sharply after the mid-90s, hovering around 27 percent in the mid-teens

• The number of 12-graders saying religion is not important in their lives stood near 13 percent at the end of the 90s — which was about where it stood in the mid-70s, before yo-yoing from the late-70s  to the late-90s. From the late-90s to the mid-teens, the percentage saying religion is no important in their lives leapt from about 13 percent to near 22 percent in 2010-13

• The data don't support cause and effect inferences, but they do record rises and declines in adolescent religious identification in parallel with certain social trends between 1966 - 2014: 
More 12th graders and college students reported no religious affiliation in years with higher median family income, more income inequality, higher materialism, less social support, and more individualism (such as higher self-confidence, a higher need for uniqueness, and more individualistic language in books). These analyses suggest that religious affiliation is low when the culture is high in indi- vidualism and low in social support.
• The trends reported in the study touched every major demographic group with "the possible exception of Black Americans and political conservatives."

• Age is a constant throughout the data in these studies, so the differences point not to adolescent development over time (e.g. older adolescents are always less religious than younger ones) but to cohort effects that compare, say, 12th-graders in 1976 with 12-graders in 2010 and show a measurable shift toward less religious involvement among people of the same age over that period

The study authors conclude:

Importantly, the declines extend to religious orientation outside of affiliation, showing decreases in religious service attendance and attitudes toward religious organizations. The declines also extend to the importance of religion, spirituality, and prayer, though these effects are both smaller and more limited. Thus, these results are not consistent with the idea that Americans are less religious but not less spiritual [Fuller RC (2001) Spiritual, but Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America. New York: Oxford University Press. 212 p.], but they are consistent with Smith and Denton’s [Smith C, Denton ML (2005) Soul Searching: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford University Press. 368 p] conclusion that today’s young Americans are not strong proponents of spirituality. 
.... 
In conclusion, survey results from 11.2 million American adolescents demonstrate a decline in religious orientation, especially after 2000. The trend appears among adolescents as young as 13 and suggests that Millennials are markedly less religious than Boomers and GenX’ers were at the same age. The majority are still religious, but a growing minority seem to embrace secularism, with the changes extending to spirituality and the importance of religion as well. Correlational analyses show that this decline occurred at the same time as increases in individ- ualism and declines in social support. Clearly, this is a time of dramatic change in the religious landscape of the United States. 
 You can read the report for yourself at Generational and Time Period Differences in American Adolescents’ Religious Orientation, 1966–2014.

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