3Qs: Losing our religion?

Aug 09, 2012 by Kara Shemin

The Pew Research Center Amer­ican Values Survey, which polled more than 3,000 adults nation­wide, found that approx­i­mately one in five Amer­i­cans don’t have a reli­gious affil­i­a­tion — the most ever doc­u­mented. The survey, which was con­ducted in April and then released in June, also found that some 32 per­cent of Mil­len­nials have doubted the exis­tence of God — double the number of those who felt the same way just five years ago. Northeastern University news office asked Susan Setta, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of reli­gious studies in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, to explain the pre­cip­i­tous rise of unbe­lief among the young.

What has caused belief in God to wane, particularly among the young?

Although reli­gious affil­i­a­tion has waned in the U.S. since the Pew sur­veys began, the drop is small among most of the cohorts sur­veyed. The Mil­len­nial gen­er­a­tion, how­ever, shows a note­worthy decline from ear­lier sur­veys. Many fac­tors, including actual decrease in belief in God, may be at work here. There may be other influ­ences as well. Soci­etal tol­er­ance for dif­fer­ences in belief, for example, may be a key factor. Or, this group may simply be more willing to admit what they believe.

The Pew survey also found increased tol­er­ance for dif­fer­ence in every age, reli­gious pref­er­ence and polit­ical group. One pop­ular You Tube video of a young boy’s Bar Mitzvah shows him ques­tioning the exis­tence of God in his lec­ture to the con­gre­ga­tion. His instruc­tors and the con­gre­ga­tion laugh with delight when he says he is not sure whether he believes in God. In addi­tion, the Mil­len­nial gen­er­a­tion is known for wanting to dis­tin­guish itself from its peers — to stand out so to speak — by sporting unusual ideas. This could be a factor as well.

Reli­gious­ness or its lack among America’s youth is dif­fi­cult to assess. A geo­graphic study would pro­vide inter­esting data by deter­mining regional dif­fer­ences in reli­gious activity among teens and young adults. Com­pe­ti­tion from sporting activ­i­ties, with matches often held on Sunday morn­ings, a for­merly sacro­sanct time period, is one clear reason for decreased church attendance.

Religious identification has increased over the past decade among other generations, especially among aging Baby Boomers. In fact, the Pew survey found an increase in the percentage of Boomers who say they never doubt God's existence. Is it common for people to become more religious or spiritual as they age?

People tend to join churches in their child rearing years, but Baby Boomers who have been church affil­i­ated do become more active as their child rearing respon­si­bil­i­ties end and as their free time increases after retire­ment. Increased belief in God, how­ever, is a dif­ferent matter. As Baby Boomers age, their reluc­tance to admit to not believing in God may increase. It is per­haps an example of Pascal’s wager. Blaise Pascal was a 17th-​​century phi­los­ophy who noted that there was no down­side to believing in God. But, if God did indeed exist, he argued, there could be neg­a­tive con­se­quences from unbe­lief. If God did not exist, in con­trast, there would be no neg­a­tive con­se­quences to a person who did believe.

A separate Pew study released late last month found that many Americans aren’t aware of the religious faiths of President Obama or presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. According to the survey, roughly one-third of Americans don’t know that Romney is Mormon and 17 percent believe Obama is Muslim. What are the dangers of misunderstanding an individual’s religious affiliation, especially if that person is a political figure?

The change in Amer­ican under­standing of Pres­i­dent Obama’s reli­gious affil­i­a­tion con­tinues to be sur­prising. In 2008, Amer­i­cans were more likely to cor­rectly iden­tify his reli­gious affil­i­a­tion as Chris­tian. At that time, polit­ical oppo­si­tion to then pres­i­den­tial hopeful Obama called up the images of his pastor, Jere­miah Wright. Iron­i­cally, the polit­ical dis­cus­sion about Pastor Wright’s sup­pos­edly racist remarks had the effect of making it clear that can­di­date Obama was Christian.

The cur­rent Pew study shows that Amer­i­cans are not opposed — and indeed some favor — strong reli­gious ties in their polit­ical can­di­dates. Yet misiden­ti­fying or mis­un­der­standing that back­ground can be impor­tant. A candidate’s reli­gious per­spec­tive can have a sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence on his or her social beliefs, which is to be expected. Protes­tant Chris­tians join churches or remain mem­bers of the group into which they were born because they agree with the teach­ings of their chosen reli­gious affiliation.

A candidate’s reli­gious pref­er­ence, then, can be an indi­cator of their stance on social issues. The Latter Day Saints (Mor­mons), for example, have con­ser­v­a­tive views on gender issues and homo­sex­u­ality and on LDS mem­bers’ ability to dis­agree with offi­cial teach­ings. The United Church of Christ, Pres­i­dent Obama’s chosen affil­i­a­tion, is more lib­eral on these issues. Unlike the LDS, the UCC will not show uni­for­mity across all its con­gre­ga­tions because doc­trinal issues in the UCC are decided at the con­gre­ga­tional level, not at a cen­tral insti­tu­tional level, as is the case in the LDS.

Although Amer­i­cans are tol­erant of, and may favor, strong reli­gious ties in their politi­cians, they do not approve of insti­tu­tional inter­fer­ence in the polit­ical process as a 2006 Pew study showed. The dif­fer­ence between increasing tol­er­ance for homo­sexual rights among the reli­giously affil­i­ated and the stated views of their chosen tra­di­tion con­sis­tently exem­pli­fies this.

Explore further: Why are UK teenagers skipping school?

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

3Qs: The fastest man on no legs

Jul 30, 2012

South African double-​​amputee Oscar Pis­to­rius will com­pete in the 400-​​meter sprint at the 2012 London Olympics wearing high-​​tech carbon-​​fiber ...

The risk of carrying a cup of coffee

Jun 15, 2012

Object manip­u­la­tion or tool use is almost a uniquely human trait, said Dagmar Sternad, director of Northeastern’s Action Lab, a research group inter­ested in move­ment coor­di­na­tion. ...

3Qs: Celebrating America's independence

Jul 04, 2012

Wednesday marks the country’s annual cel­e­bra­tion of the adop­tion of the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence on July 4, 1776. But there are many inter­esting his­tor­ical ...

Chipping away at cancer

Jun 25, 2012

(Medical Xpress) -- In the last two decades, the number of deaths from col­orectal cancer has steadily declined, according to the Amer­ican Cancer Society. While some of the decrease can be attrib­uted ...

Recommended for you

Why are UK teenagers skipping school?

18 hours ago

Analysis of the results of a large-scale survey reveals the extent of truancy in English secondary schools and sheds light on the mental health of the country's teens.

Fewer lectures, more group work

18 hours ago

Professor Cees van der Vleuten from Maastricht University is a Visiting Professor at Wits University who believes that learning should be student centred.

How to teach all students to think critically

19 hours ago

All first year students at the University of Technology Sydney could soon be required to take a compulsory maths course in an attempt to give them some numerical thinking skills. ...

Consumer loyalty driven by aesthetics over functionality

Dec 17, 2014

When designing a new car, manufacturers might try to attract consumers with more horsepower, increased fuel efficiency or a lower price point. But new research from San Francisco State University shows consumers' loyalty ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

rwinners
not rated yet Aug 10, 2012
Religion, at its/their heart, is based upon superstition. Fear of the unknown. I'll bet dollars to donuts that religion has to the second oldest profession in the world. The third, by the way, is that of the politician.
Personally, I prefer the first. While the three share much in common, the first more honest.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.