The Millennials: America's Secular Future

I had a run-in with an old adversary lately, and after I've sent him on his way, I always feel compelled to point out some of the hopeful things he never mentions. This post is about one of those things.


In recent posts, I've expressed my disillusionment with the Democrats. But whatever the current state of politics in America - and I'm not denying that it's depressing and infuriating by turns - the long-term trends look very good for us. One of the brightest of these trends is the rise in religious doubt and skepticism among the generation that's on the cusp of adulthood, usually called the Millennials.

There's no hard-and-fast definition of a Millennial, but the one that I've seen the most often is that it includes all Americans born between 1982 and 2000. Since the former is my birth year, I'm fond of using these as the boundary markers. This means that the oldest Millennials, like me, are just entering their 30s, while the youngest are entering adolescence.

Polls and surveys, like this one from Pew or this one from the Center for American Progress, have helped paint a picture of the Millennials. They're the most ethnically diverse generation in American history: just under 60% are white, a record low. They're also one of the most politically progressive generations in decades: they voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by a 2-to-1 margin and opposed the Iraq war by 77% to 21%. They're disinclined to prolong the culture wars: for the most part, they're comfortable with gay marriage, immigration, racial and gender equality. They tend to marry later in life, to be highly educated, politically engaged and technologically savvy, and to place a high value on leisure and civic engagement. And most important of all for this post: they're the least religious generation of Americans ever.

The atheist blogs have been chattering about this chart from Pew, as well they should. It shows that the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans has been rising slowly with each generation, and now exceeds 1 in 4 among the Millennials, a record high:

Millennials are also less likely to report that they pray daily, to regularly attend religious services, or to describe their religious commitment as "strong". Just 40% of them say religion is "very important" in their lives, and only 27% believe the Bible is the literal word of a god, both record lows. And as Jerry Coyne points out, while most older generations' belief in God has stayed steady throughout the course of their lives, the Millennials are apparently getting less religious as they get older, something that's unprecedented in American history. As The Week says, "Only 67 percent of Americans under 30 say they 'never doubt the existence of God.' That's down from 76 percent in 2009 and 83 percent in 2007 — a 15 percentage point drop in just five years." (See also.)

These are positive signs by themselves, but there's still more to take heart in. For one thing, the Millennial generation is big. How big? It's bigger than the Baby Boomers: there are nearly 78 million Millennials, as opposed to just 76 million Boomers. By 2020, the Millennials will represent almost 40% of all American voters.

It's not just freethinkers who've noticed this trend, either. Thom Rainer, a church consultant, writes of the Millennials:

Fourth, they are a less religious generation. I have to admit that this aspect grieves me, but motivates me as well (imagine the missiological implications!). Only 13 percent of the Millennials considered in our study said that spirituality of any type was important to them. One out of ten. Most Millennials don't even think about religious matters at all. This generation is not antagonistic toward religion, especially Christianity, but rather agnostic toward all aspects of religion.

Although wishfully-thinking Christian proselytizers may convince themselves they can reverse this trend, it's clear that America is growing less religious and will continue to do so. The question is, why is this happening?

Since rates of nonbelief have been slowly rising for decades, it's unlikely that any particular person or group can claim all the credit; it seems to be an organic cultural process, possibly having to do with levels of education. But I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that the vigorous activism and advocacy of the New Atheists is accelerating the process, bringing atheism out of the closet and into the daylight. It's not that hundreds of millions of people are reading The God Delusion, but the influence of a book (or a speaker or a website) extends beyond the people who are directly acquainted with it: those who are convinced to be open atheists can start a cultural shift that spreads to their peers, making atheism a more normal and familiar worldview, giving it validity as one option among others.

Granted, even among the Millennials, atheists aren't the majority. But we don't need to be a majority to win: we just need to be numerous enough that our voices can't be silenced. In any even remotely fair battle of ideas, we'll carry the day. And if we continue to progress, who knows how much less religious the next generation will be?

I'm on Twitter now! Follow me at @DaylightAtheism.

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