Checking out of church: Are young people giving up on God?

Published: Friday, Feb. 18 2011 10:00 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — This is how the pattern works: Young people go to church with their parents until college, then they start sleeping in and drifting away from the faith of their parents. After they marry and settle down, they begin to miss something in their lives. So they go back to church again.

Crisis over.

But now some experts are saying the pattern has changed and the current generation is not as likely to return to church.

"I think there has been a lot of evidence that they are dropping religion at a greater rate than the younger adults of yesteryear," said Drew Dyck, the author of "Generation EX-Christian: Why Young Adults are Leaving the Faith … And How to Bring Them Back."

If you compare the millennial generation (born 1981 or later), Gen X (born 1965 — 80) and boomers (born 1946-1964), it looks like the millennials are less affiliated with churches than previous generations were at the same age, according to data gathered by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: "Fully one-in-four adults under age 30 (25 percent) are unaffiliated, describing their religion as 'atheist,' 'agnostic' or 'nothing in particular.'"

For decades, the Pew Forum has asked young people the following question: "What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion or no religion?" In the 1970s and 1980s, about 12 percent of young people 18-29 years-old said they were unaffiliated. By the 1990s, it was up to 16 percent. By the 2000s, that percentage of young people claiming "no religion" had risen to 23 percent.

Rodney Stark, a sociologist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, a private Baptist university, is skeptical that this is a new trend.

"The years pass and nothing changes," Stark said. "This has been going on forever. I published data on this in 1965 for heaven's sakes."

Stark said that poll questions about affiliation leaves too much in question about the choice "no religion." If you take the atheists out of that group, he said you would discover that most of the "no religion" people pray. "Most people who say they have no religion mean they have no church. They aren't saying they have no religion."

The Pew Forum survey looked at daily prayer among young adults and found that 41 percent of young people in the 1980s said they prayed daily. That number dropped slightly to 40 percent in the 1990s. The number of millennials who say they pray daily, however, actually jumped--to 45 percent. The percentage of affiliated young people who said they are "strong" members of their faith is 37 percent, the same as it was for members of the gen X generation at that age and six percent higher than it was for boomers at that age. Pew also found that "young adults' beliefs about life after death and the existence of heaven, hell and miracles closely resemble the beliefs of older people today.

"Church membership is the highest it's ever been — it is about 70 percent," Stark said. "In 1776 it was 16 to 17 percent. Think about that some time. It has been going up every year for more than 200 years. Most of those people were religious, but they didn't belong to a church."

Dyck, however, is still disturbed that the number of youth that describe themselves as unaffiliated has doubled in two decades. "Young adulthood is not what it used to be. It is much longer. And so those primary sociological drivers back to religious involvement — like getting married, like getting a career established and settling down in one place — are no longer there."

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