Millennial Adventures: Millennials are killing religion...or are they?

There’s been a rather annoying trend among clickbait titles lately of pointing out things that millennials have “killed.”

A quick search shows articles capitalizing on the “deaths” of things like paper napkins, chain restaurants, the 9-to-5 work week, and even stuff the average 20-something can’t afford like a vacation cruise.

There’s also the accusation that millennials are killing religion. Most notably, we’ve been accused of causing the decline in church enrollment that leads to parish closures, but really we’re a convenient scapegoat for any sort of change that a certain religious group objects to. We’re contributing to the end times, if you will.

But how big is this rising tide of young godless heathens? According to a 2014 Pew study, about a third of millennials in the U.S. identify as “nones,” or unaffiliated with a religion. The average age of “nones” is 36, much lower than the average adult age of 46 and the average age of Protestants (52) and Catholics (49).

It’s not just millennials, though. The percentage decreases with older generations — Baby Boomers, for example, sit around 17 percent — but each generation group surveyed showed a small uptick in the percentage of “nones” from the previous Pew survey in 2007. A 2016 study showed 23 percent of all adults in the U.S. are “nones.”

Tom Krattenmaker, who writes about religion in public life and sits on the board of the Yale Humanist Community, has been studying this trend toward secularism. Referencing a 2016 study out of the Public Religion Research Institute, he said people leave with a religion or don’t identify with one in the first place primarily because they don’t believe in its teachings, regardless of their age.

Other reasons included politicization, abuse scandals, treatment of LGBT people and church views on science.

As an atheist myself, I agree with this assessment, but I decided to ask around to get reasons why other people left. Unfortunately, “outing” is still an issue (which I will discuss in the second installment of this piece), so finding people willing to be quoted was tricky.

I attended a meeting of the Atheist Humanist Society of Connecticut and Rhode Island in July, and the 10 or so people in attendance that night gave reasons ranging from finding other groups to be too “churchy” to wanting a group where they can have civil conversations that don’t get mired by religious conflict. Despite nationwide trends, the group was primarily older adults (well, older than me, anyway), and they noted that while membership was largely male and “engineer-types,” they were starting to see more women attending.

A super-not-scientific survey of “none” friends on Facebook found many simply didn’t believe religious creed. One came to the realization after studying biblical theology at a Lutheran college (and quit shortly thereafter), and another who self-identified as a “recovering Catholic” came to it after listening to arguments by Sam Harris, one of the so-called “Four Horsemen of New Atheism.”

Other answers fit more like my own experience of not really believing in the first place, boiling down to too many questions with no or unsatisfying answers. For them, putting a god into life’s equation only complicates issues rather than solving questions.

In the second installment, I’ll explore what exactly “nones” do with their time not spent doing religious things. Keep an eye out for that, or visit my blog for the full version.

Amanda Hutchinson is the assistant community editor for the Times. Read more of her work at amandalhutchinson.wordpress.com.

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