Are millennials really losing their religion?

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: young people losing their religion.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Or are they? We hear a lot about millennials falling away from church. But a new study suggests they may never have had much faith to begin with.

Joining us now to talk about it is Daniel Cox. He researches religion, youth culture, and identity at the American Enterprise Institute.

Good morning, Daniel!

DANIEL COX, GUEST: Good morning!

REICHARD: So it’s no secret that young people, on the whole, are less interested in church than their parents and grandparents. Some researchers have speculated that as these millennials get older they will return to the beliefs their parents taught them when they were children. But you discovered a problem with that assumption. What’s the problem?

COX: Well, right. I think in sociology and a lot of research on religion, there’s this built-in assumption that—and I think it was mostly true for the Baby Boomers—that religion follows a life cycle. So, when you’re young and you’re living under your parents’ roof, you sort of follow their religious trajectory. When you move out and go to college, get your own place, what have you, you drift away from religion a little bit. But then you come back when you start a family—you get married and have kids. And this was, again, broadly true if not perhaps a little exaggerated for Baby Boomers. But for Millennials, many of whom are the children of Baby Boomers, we found that this is less true. And it’s largely because they were less well-connected to religion to begin with.

REICHARD: You found two factors that contributed to less regular religious practice in families. Tell us about those.

COX: Yeah, so there’s a number of changes in sort of family structure and dynamics that matter. The couple that we focused on are divorce rates—which topped out in the early 1980s, right when the oldest Millennials were being born, and we saw that spike was correlated with an increasing number of people being raised outside religion. 

The other thing I think that’s really important that’s also increasing is this increase in interfaith families. And people who are raised in interfaith families tend to be less religious.

REICHARD: Your report had some interesting findings about religious engagement in families depending on the age of the children in the family. Can you unpack that a little and tell us what conclusions you drew from those findings?

COX: Yeah, these are fairly preliminary and they’re just correlations. So I’m not saying anything about causality here. But we found that people with very young children—and I have two of those running around my household, a 3-year-old and a 22-month-old—and we found that parents of really young children tend to be less religious whereas parents of children who are a little bit older—5 to 11 or so—tend to be more engaged religiously. And when kids are a little bit older, we find, again, that parents tend to be a little bit less engaged. And that makes intuitive sense where children are sort of making some of their own decisions now and sometimes going to sitting in the pews on Sunday is not top of the priority list.

REICHARD: And it’s hard for parents sometimes to exert their will over kids who are not interested.

COX: Right, and I think there’s been a larger shift in culture where so much of our focus on raising children is about achievement. We want to set them up to be successful academically, scholastically, in sports. And so I think we—now particularly for parents of means—private camps, tutoring, and piano lessons and other types of activities, and these kids are really heavily scheduled and religion sort of falls by the wayside.

REICHARD: So it sounds like we are still talking about a generation that fell away from church and never came back. It’s just the previous generation, not this one. Is that true across the board or did you find demographic differences?

COX: We looked a little bit and we didn’t see huge demographic differences. I mean, what is driving this is really generational. So, I’ll just give you an example. So, overall, around 4 in 10 Americans age 18 to 29 are religiously unaffiliated, but interestingly, about half of those were raised unaffiliated. And the problem there is that they are not then establishing patterns of belief, patterns of behavior and being brought into these religious communities that allow them to retain their connection to religion even if they go through some major life event that may take them away for a bit. And because they’ve never had these sort of strong attachments, it’s really hard for them to return.

REICHARD: Daniel, I’m wondering, how the bringing up, the formative experiences of Millennials differ from how the Boomers grew up.

COX: Among young adults age 18 to 29, only 29 percent said they attended religious services regularly with their family, compared to 52 percent of seniors. Among young adults, only 32 percent said they said grace or prayed with their families regularly. Again, compared to about half of seniors. And when it comes to engagement in institutional religion, we also found that a majority of seniors said that they attended Sunday School or some other religious education program, but only 27 percent—so only about half as many—young adults engaged in religion that way. So we’re seeing really significant differences in that way in the formative experiences of young adults today versus their parents and grandparents. And that has a really critical effect on their religious lives later on.

REICHARD: Daniel Cox researches religion and youth culture at the American Enterprise Institute.

(Photo/Creative Commons, Flickr)

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