The percentage of the population that has no religious identity may be increasing, but a new Gallup report says such an anti-religion worldview is primarily embraced by younger people – and that as people age, they are more likely to get back in church.
“Predictions of the forthcoming demise of religion as we know it may be premature,” Gallup’s Frank Newport wrote in the new report.
The report notes that between 20 and 25 percent of U.S. adults are now identified as “Nones,” meaning they answer “none” in surveys when asked about their religious identification.
But “despite this overall increase of nones,” Newport wrote, “older people are still less likely to eschew religion than those who are younger.” This is even true among people in their 30s compared to those in their 20s.
Newport referenced a recent Washington Post story – “Why Millennials Are Skipping Church and Not Going Back” – and argued the picture is more complex.
“There are signs that older millennials may in fact, contrary to the headline, be going back to religion,” Newport wrote. “... Older millennials are more likely than younger millennials to have a religious identity, and older millennials are more likely than younger millennials to say they attend religious services frequently.”
About 38 percent of adults in their mid-20s identify as “nones,” according to 2019 Gallup data, but that percentage falls to 24 percent among those in their early 40s, around 17 percent among those in their 50s, and only around 7 percent among those in their early 80s.
A similar pattern holds for church attendance, Newport noted. About 20 percent of adults in their mid-20s attend church weekly or almost weekly, but among adults in their 80s, it’s around 50 percent.
“People return to religion as they age,” he wrote.
No doubt, “nones” are up among all age groups, Newport wrote. But older people are still less likely to renounce religion.
“Religiosity plummets after age 18, coincident with young people leaving home and heading out into the real world of work or college,” Newport wrote. “Then, religiosity begins to rise again as young people go through their 30s, coincident with marriage, children and more stable involvement in specific communities. Religiosity generally continues to rise with age, albeit with some points at which it is fairly flat and reaches its peak in Americans' late 70s and 80s.
“... Broad structural changes in society and culture may well continue to affect religiosity across all groups, but the big bulge of millennials may actually get more religious as they age,” he wrote.
Glenn T. Stanton, director of family formation studies at Focus on the Family, told Christian Headlines the Gallup data reflects a demographic trend that has always been true. He is the author of the book, Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity Is Actually Thriving in America and the World.
“It has long been a truism of generational human experience that young people tend to be less religious in their practice than they were as teens or what they will be in their coming adult years,” Stanton told Christian Headlines. “Even the good Puritans in the Colonial days bemoaned the troubling ‘loss of faith’ among their own children. Weekly church attendance does increase as people grow older and settle into a greater rhythm of life with their children.”
Additionally, Stanton said, Americans who identify as “none” are often mischaracterized within mainstream media.
“The nones are not a new group of growing secularists or unbelievers,” Stanton said. “Leading sociologists of religion are clear and consistent on this point. These are simply those who used to say they identified with some denomination but only went at Christmas or Easter, if that. Now they are simply more comfortable admitting what they’ve always been: nothing. It’s simply a change in categorization, not belief so much.”
Michael Foust is a freelance writer. Visit his blog, MichaelFoust.com.
Photo courtesy: Ezra Jeffrey Comeau/Unsplash
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, The Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.