Generation Next Is Stepping Away from Church October 19, 2010

Generation Next Is Stepping Away from Church

Another article about religious demographics, another sign that we’re heading in the right direction:

As recently as 1990, all but 7% of Americans claimed a religious affiliation, a figure that had held constant for decades. Today, 17% of Americans say they have no religion, and these new “nones” are very heavily concentrated among Americans who have come of age since 1990. Between 25% and 30% of twentysomethings today say they have no religious affiliation — roughly four times higher than in any previous generation.

Wow… nice work, atheists “nones” under 30!

What’s the reason people are getting away from the Protestant church?

Authors Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell say it’s because of its association with conservative politics.

… in our recent book, “American Grace,” we have extended their analysis, showing that the association between religion and politics (and especially religion’s intolerance of homosexuality) was the single strongest factor in this portentous shift. In religious affinities, as in taste in music and preference for colas, habits formed in early adulthood tend to harden over time. So if more than one-quarter of today’s young people are setting off in adult life with no religious identification, compared with about one-20th of previous generations, the prospects for religious observance in the coming decades are substantially diminished.

When it comes to Christianity’s treatment of homosexuals, I’m not always sure what I want.

Usually, it’s an easy call — I want Christian to accept gay people as they are, without trying to change them, and stop getting in the way of equal rights.

But part of me wants them to keep being intolerant. The more they keep up their bigotry, the easier it is for people to walk away from them.

That’s purely selfish of me, though. For the sake of my gay friends, it’d be much better if anyone claiming to be a Christian did a better job telling other Christians that homosexuality wasn’t a sin, gay people deserve the right to get married, and the church is on the wrong side of this issue.

If they condemned their own church leaders for being bigots and urged others to leave the church as a result, even better.

But I’m not holding out hope that a lot of Christians, even the young ones, will ever get that sort of courage. I know a handful of Christians who are LGBT-friendly and brave enough to speak out publicly on the matter, but they’re a rare breed. They need more Christians to join them.

Even the “non-jerky” Christians seem to have a hard time saying there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality. I’ve talked to two Christians recently who have told me how angry and upset they are about the church’s stance on homosexuality… but when I ask them if they would vote for gay marriage, they go silent.

It’s pathetic.

But if there’s any silver lining to that, people are leaving the churches in droves.

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  • Zac

    You can’t fight progress.

  • Watoosh

    Funny you should bring up this issue now. There’s been a tremendous spike in church resignations in Finland over the last week because a prominent conservative politician dared to suggest that gays ought not have the right to marry (and that they should also suppress their homosexual desires) – and the people are outraged. Finns are abandoning the Lutheran Church in droves and the statistics are a joy to witness.

    Church Resignations Now Exceed 20,000

  • One also wonders that if “the Protestant church” starts to accept gays and no longer aligns itself with social conservative and pro-business policies whether gays and “gay enablers” will start to flock back to church… Only time will tell. It is ironic that the more evangelical churches basically ask WWJD and then do the opposite in all their political involvement.

  • SecularLez

    I always had my doubts about the existence of god but once I realized I was into women, it was much easier for me to walk away from the church.
    At the time I wasn’t aware there were accepting churches out there but my church’s position on homosexuality (it’s a sin, GLB people can change their sexual orientation, + all the other Conservative Christian positions on homosexuality) was what I thought ALL churches believed.

    I think my church’s position just pushed me further away from Christianity and religion in general.

  • cass_m

    Is it enough that people don’t affiliate with a religion? I would prefer that people examine their beliefs so when they get questions about supporting gay marriage ( any other traditional core value) they can actually make an argument for their stand because then we can have a dialogue. Religious or not, we still live in a Christian culture with all the implied oppressions.

  • Wow, I think I know more than two non-jerky Christians who would vote for gay marriage and have been vocal about it. (Muggle tries counting in her head and can easily think of four Christian friends who easily would, including one Lesbian — no, I don’t ask her to explain that one, mostly because she comes out of a strict Italian Roman Catholic background — but there’s a half dozen more friends and acquaintenances she’s not sure of which way they’d vote which also means that while they have vocally said it’s up to gawd to judge means they haven’t been vocal on gay marriage.) I’d attribute this to living in New York but I would have thought Chicago would be similar politically. That’s disappointing.

    My daughter falls in the generation next demographic. (Proud smile.) But then my daughter is also bi and was raised without religion. Perhaps this is part of it. A lot more in that generation have been raised without religion and grown up open Atheists hence making their friends in turn think. I know, growing up, my daughter had several friends tell her they didn’t believe in gawd either but wouldn’t dare tell their parents so.

    They were often shocked and envious at the things she not only could discuss with me but was so comfortable doing so that she thought nothing of it until some friend would say you told your mother that. I think that’s sad — for both the kids and the parents. To have this line you could not cross. I can’t imagine raising a child with anything less than an open door policy. I even tell my grandson you can discuss anything with me and if you don’t want me to tell your parents, I won’t. My daughter knows this and supports it. She figures if there’s ever something troubling him and he’s not discussing it with her or dad, she’d just as soon he felt free to come to me to talk it over. Plus she knows that if it were something I really felt they needed to know, I’d tell him he needs to tell her and offer to be there with him to do so or tell her for him if he felt he couldn’t.

  • JD

    “not affiliated” sounds like a step in the right direction. However, it doesn’t sound like a “doesn’t believe in mythology” position like atheism.

  • Claudia

    This is certainly encouraging, but I would dispute that it’s hard to find believers that abhor homophobia and would happily support gay marriage. Walk into a UU or UCC church and you’re likely to find lots of them. Of course they are probably a minority of Christians, but they can no more be dismissed as we can be dismissed for being a minority of Americans. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of affirming Christians was higher than the total number of atheists in the country.

    I’m in Europe so my experience is a little different. I will say that though I have friends who are Christians, they all hate the Church (which in Spain means they hate the Catholic Church). In response to a question about religion it’s almost standard these days to hear “I believe in God, but not the church”. This means they had sex before marriage, are pro-gay, are pro-choice (though they wouldn’t choose it for themselves) and really, really hate church authorities.

    What I’ve read of these studies indicates that many of these “no religion” folks still believe in god, but express no religion as a rejection of religious dogma. This is lovely, and I’d be happy if the country were suddenly full of deists, but I think we still need to work towards a country full of skeptics.

  • WishinItWas

    Most “not affiliated” people I know are not even close to the “typical” Atheist. All that means is they have their own mythological and superstitious ideas about a god and what it wants.

    They might not follow a specific religion’s ideals but they will pick and choose from the most major forms. something like “well creationism is obviously false,but gay people should not have equal rights”

    A mix and match your personality with “gods” so its all justified, amazing lives people live

  • gander

    Intolerance and ignorance vs progress and more knowledge with faster, better dissemination of information. Bit by bit, we come closer to a tipping point. We may be a generation away (or maybe just a decade or so), but I would bet that civilization will accelerate an exodus from religions soon, and geometrically.

  • Silent Service


    I wish I had your faith [snark] in the impending collapse of religion. The pendulum swings back and forth. In twenty years the kids that are today not aligned with any faith will settle down into families and find their faith. My generation declared ourselves the Immoral Minority in the ’80s as a response to the Moral Majority religious movement. Today, a lot of them have joined the Tea Party madness and would fit right in with Pat Robinson’s Moral Majority.

    What happened to change a lot of them? They had kids and then remembered all the crap they pulled as kids. That Scared them into finding gawd. 🙁

  • L.Long

    Are they leaving because they do not like their bigotry or birth control policies, but still accept into their hearts the bastard son of an psychopathic sky-fairy as the only way to heaven, or do they realize that its really BS and no long believe. Because if they they still believe then then nothing really has changed.

  • Craig

    @WishinItWas, while many of the non-affiliated have plenty of their own superstitions, most of the ones I know are not among the superstition-driving-bigotry sort. I know the ones who “believe in something” but can never describe what it means. The ones who say “well I feel like everything has a purpose.” Or some that will even say they believe in a God, but are deist, or who maybe think there’s something to prayer but don’t believe in things like dogma and scriptures and such. It’s not optimal, but its better than the alternative.

  • It’s doubtful we’re going to see any huge rational awakening in the next few generations. A lot of the unaffiliated still say they believe in a god, or astrology, or reincarnation yada yada.

    Still, progress in this field will be slow. How could it be any other way? I’m glad to see the exodus of young people from the church. I’m also glad to see these “non-jerky” Christians whose Christianity isn’t anything like what the religion was through most of it’s existence. Many Christians I know (and I’m in Oklahoma, mind you) have a religion based in a nostalgia for the ritual and vocabulary of the original faith, but that rejects anything the Bible says that is obviously silly. LGBT-ness, divorce, remarriage… there are a growing number of things things these new Christians pretend their Bibles accept even in the face of those Bibles explicitly condemning them.

    It’s a great step forward. When a religion begins to be based on nostalgia rather than doctrine, you know it’s gonna be a good day.

  • HamsterWheel

    Let’s not get too excited. The article says that very few of the people who claim no religious affiliation identify themselves as atheists. I’ll be a lot happier when I start seeing articles describing that the reason people don’t go to church is because they realize religion is fairy tale bullshit.

  • Karmakin

    Superstition is fine, I think. Or at least, it’s not THAT bad. The problem that comes is when people think that their own personal religion is the absolute word in terms of morality and ethics, especially when pretty much every religion is just so much fail when it comes in those terms.

    The thing about personal superstition is that it’s hard to use it to leverage political/cultural power. It’s when it’s regimented in a structured framework that it can cause trouble.

    And yeah, there are a lot of Christians out there who support gay marriage (although not the majority of Christians), however, many of those people will turn around and support the reasoning and the power of the people who want to ban gay marriage.

    Not. Helping.

  • BeamStalk

    One of the things that caused me to start looking at my religion was a vote on whether to allow homosexuals to marry or not. I started to think about how the society that voted against this would be viewed in history and what side I wanted to be on. I compared it to letting interracial couples marry and similar votes. I realized I could not be a part of a group that was soundly against love and tolerance. I didn’t reject Christianity right away but it helped me to start thinking about things.

  • Steve

    I don’t expect everyone to suddenly become full-fledged atheists. It would be a great step forward already if larger parts of Americans treated religion in the same way as lots of Western Europe does (especially Scandinavia). People go to baptisms, weddings, funerals and maybe visit church on big holidays like Eater and Christmas. That’s it for many people. They take the ceremony and maybe the community, but reject the oppressive obligations and trappings. And most especially, they hate when religious people become involved in politics.

  • Richard Wade

    I see this as an optimistic sign, but only in a very long-term view. Clearly, as the article indicates, American Christianity is paying a price for getting into bed with right wing politics and repressive social policies, and that will continue to repulse more of each new generation.

    But I don’t think they’ll immediately become atheists in droves. As other commenters say, young people will hang on to basic beliefs in a creator and an afterlife.

    The question to consider is whether or not these young “nones” will remain individualistic in the religious beliefs they retain. If more and more young people avoid organized religion, I think that over the next 100 to 200 years, their theistic beliefs will become increasingly vague, and gradually will be replaced by predominantly deistic beliefs. Only from that transitional phase will the majority of society finally reject belief in gods.

    This of course is my own science fiction. I left my crystal ball around here somewhere…

  • I think the most positive thing about these people is that they will be FAR more receptive to deism and atheism than their counterparts who are raised within the confines of organized religion.

    As I’m sure every single one of you have experienced, attempting to have a rational positive discussion with someone who was raised with Jesus before they could read is next to impossible. It is simply too ingrained.

    Obviously they won’t become Atheists in droves, but their increasingly individual, nebulous and vague notions of higher powers and afterlife are FAR less likely to do the kind of lasting damage to the social fabric than their Organized Counterparts are routinely do. They are far less likely to actively proselytize and far less likely to resist evolution, science, etc.

  • Spherical Basterd

    I really like the optimism of most of the posts here. However, to be an atheist takes the hard mental work of critical thought and then the the courage to accept the freedom and the burden of personal resposibility and morality of your actions or inactions. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe most people are up to it nor willing to take the time for introspection.

    It’s far easier to accept and believe that someone or somthing else controls your destiny than to accept the randomness of events in your life and your own responsibility to deal with them.

  • Older atheists are probably pleased by this news. On the other side (as one of the “next”), when I see an older person who’s also an atheist, I tend to think “Awesome, go you!” because I tend to perceive the elderly in particular as overwhelmingly stodgy and theist.

    On another note, I wish schools were particular on teaching What Evolution Is in a way that can’t be misrepresented/subverted by the religious, and that high schools offered critical reasoning courses. Most objections to evolution that I hear result from complete misunderstanding of what the theory posits/what a theory even is. And similarly, plenty of logical fallacies in theological arguments from the few theist kids who do talk about theology (mostly evangelicals), fallacies whose flaws are obvious even to a philosophical layman like myself.

    I think if education did better at addressing these issues that parents and churches can’t, don’t, or won’t, strong/conservative theism would be less prevalent in the majority-theist youth.

  • Magdalena

    This article was clearly about non-affiliation, not non-belief.

    Regarding your first citation of this article, if you go just a few sentences farther into the article, there is this: “Very few of these new “nones” actually call themselves atheists, and many have rather conventional beliefs about God and theology.”

    So I’m having trouble with your pat on the back to “athesits” under 30.

  • Jim H

    @SecularLez: it looks like you had One advantage over me: official “help” in your deconversion. Not that I imagine it was painless…

    I see this trend as: it’s easy to see through the BS on the churches’ stand on homosexuality, and maybe this will help people be willing to question other of their “teachings.”

  • Hitch

    Well stricly speaking sweden doesn’t have that many atheists if we take that definition. Most are members of some church! But if you ask people if they believe in a personal god, an abstract god etc, the numbers reveal that the amount of theistic and religious belief in Sweden is low.

    No religious affiliation can indeed mean “spiritual but not religious”. But hey, that’s still atheistic in the same sense that Buddhism is atheistic.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    “Very few of these new “nones” actually call themselves atheists, and many have rather conventional beliefs about God and theology.”

    So I’m having trouble with your pat on the back to “athesits” under 30.

    @Magdalena: I noticed that too. Another reason to be wary of that conflation: The recent Pew survey that found that atheists/agnostics were the most religiously literate also found that the Nones were among the least religiously literate. I’m betting that they aren’t atheists but unreflective ‘apatheists’.

    Still, I’ll take apatheists over evangelicals any day 🙂

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    In twenty years the kids that are today not aligned with any faith will settle down into families and find their faith. My generation declared ourselves the Immoral Minority in the ’80s as a response to the Moral Majority religious movement. Today, a lot of them have joined the Tea Party madness and would fit right in with Pat Robinson’s Moral Majority.

    @Silent Service: That’s the major problem with pop atheism today. Like any popular movement, it’s fickle. Those who take part in it go with the wind. One minute atheism is cool or rebellious, the next it’s Buddhism or Wicca.

    The downside of people who become atheists for social or political reasons is that their atheism is superficial. It is not at all reflective. Questions about what really exists or how we know things to be true do not motivate it. Social/political-only atheists could have just as well become New Agers given different life circumstances, different influences that they happened upon. What’s fashionable is trivial; what’s true is not.

    This is why promoting science and critical thinking is far more important than promoting atheism qua atheism, IMO.

  • Do you think that that “no religious affiliation” is necessarily the same thing as atheist? It’d be nice to think so, but that’s kind of a large assumption to make.

  • JB Tait

    @Watoosh The Finland exodus might not be for that reason alone. It might also be that it recently got easier to leave the church and avoid the tax.

  • todwith1d

    woohoo !

  • Neon Genesis

    Are the nones atheists or are they spiritual but not religious people who might believe in God and Jesus but have more liberal beliefs and not attend church anywhere?

  • Yes, I’m also not seeing this as encouraging news for atheism.

    Very few of these new “nones” actually call themselves atheists, and many have rather conventional beliefs about God and theology. But they have been alienated from organized religion by its increasingly conservative politics.

    To be sure, some of these young people will remain secularists. Many of them, however, espouse beliefs that would seem to make them potential converts to a religion that offered some of the attractions of modern evangelicalism without the conservative political overlay.

    These people haven’t jettisoned their supernatural beliefs, just the label that’s been applied to them. And they’re sitting ducks for the marketing campaigns that so many churches are putting on in an effort to draw people back to the fold. As soon as a church strikes their fancy, ie: by being suitably hip, attractive, or non-political, it sounds like most of the unaffiliated will be only too happy to join up.

  • Hitch

    I don’t get all this nay-saying about the study. It’s quite in line with what we overall see. Compare the survey work by Zuckerman and Norris and Inglehart.

    But I do see this quite a bit. Attempts to explain away secularization in the US or claims that it’s not genuine or solid. The data doesn’t really support these theories however.

  • Rieux

    I’m with Hitch: it’s true that “no religious affiliation” is not the same thing as “atheist,” but (1) it’s a big step, (2) the trendline is unmistakable, and (3) it ends at a much more secular country.


    What I’ve read of these studies indicates that many of these “no religion” folks still believe in god, but express no religion as a rejection of religious dogma.

    According to ARIS 2008, “many” is about half. A little more than half of the 15% of Americans who claim no religion believe in god(s); the other slightly-under-half don’t. The latter is what “atheism” means, though identification with that label is less common.

    I would dispute that it’s hard to find believers that abhor homophobia and would happily support gay marriage. Walk into a UU or UCC church and you’re likely to find lots of them. Of course they are probably a minority of Christians, but they can no more be dismissed as we can be dismissed for being a minority of Americans.

    Er… according to the above study, there are more than 20 million nonbelievers in gods in the United States. Meanwhile, there are about 1.9 million UCCers and under 900,000 UUs over here. So we’ve got those two groups outnumbered almost 8 to 1.

    And meanwhile, those 2.8 million UCC + UUs compare to a total U.S. Christian population of 225 million. So even if all UUs were Christian (in fact, less than half are), the UCC + UU subgroup amounts to approximately 1.2% of all American Christians. From a demographic standpoint, it’s not just “probably a minority”; it’s a miniscule fringe.

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