Q&A of the Day – How Rapidly is Religion's Role in Society Declining? 

Q&A of the Day – How Rapidly is Religion Declining? 

Each day I feature a listener question sent by one of these methods.   

Email: brianmudd@iheartmedia.com  

Social: @brianmuddradio    

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Today’s Entry: @brianmuddradio If believers are dying out and nonbelievers are taking their place is there any way of telling how many believers will be left once the youngest generations are adults? 

Bottom Line: Today’s question comes as a follow up to one of yesterday’s takeaways in which I mentioned this... Since 1944 Gallup has studied our collective belief in God. Back then, 96% of Americans were believers. As recently as a decade ago, 92% still were but today...a record low 81% of Americans believe there’s more to our story. And the speed with which the conversion into non-belief is happening is staggering. In nearly 70 years a decline was there but it totaled 4%. Faith has now dropped by nearly three times as much in just the last decade as commonly believers pass on and younger generations of nonbelievers grow up. So, enter today’s question. Is there any indication as to how low religious adherence and a belief in God could go?  

While it's obviously impossible to reliably predict the longer-range future, we do have an idea of what we can expect to see over the next twenty or so years based on current trends. And yes, the answer is that we’re likely to see more of the same of what we’ve experienced over the past decade plus. On that note, we do see huge generational differences. The gap between the most and least religious, which corresponds with the oldest and youngest adults, is huge.  

According to the Pew Research Center:  

  • 94% of those over 65 hold specific religious beliefs 
  • 33% of those under the age of 30 don’t hold religious beliefs 

First, you can see the huge generational gap with a difference of 27% separating grandparents and young parents. I wanted to start the conversation here because historically there’s been no greater predictor of one’s belief in God, than the way they were raised. If a third of younger adults don’t hold religious beliefs, one wouldn’t expect them to raise their children with specific religious beliefs. Now, while a third of adults under 30 don’t hold specific religious beliefs, there is a sliver of them which are at least intellectually interested. 12% of those without religious beliefs are open to a belief system. One might imagine that if young adults are likely to believe in God it might be most likely to occur with having children and typical family formation. What this means is that the range of young parents which are currently on path to raise their children with a belief in God is 67% to 71%. Of course, that’s only part of the story. With well over 90% of older adults being believers who commonly brought children up with religious beliefs, it obviously didn’t always stick. And that takes us back to Gallup.  

Across all adults a record low 46% of adults currently say religion is very important to their life. That’s a decline of 12% over the past decade. What we’ve seen in society is a nearly identical link between the decline in the importance placed on religion in our lives and the decline in overall believers. On that note, we have a pretty good idea regarding how many of the youngest generation of children will end up as believers based on historical trends.  

The current generation of adults under 40 were raised in a society in which an average of 58% of their parents placed a high priority on their faith. That corresponded to a third of younger adults not holding religious beliefs. If the trend line were to hold, with current data available, approximately 55% of today’s children will hold religious beliefs while 45% won’t. When you think back to Gallup’s original work on this, which incidentally began during World War II, when only 4% of Americans didn’t hold religious beliefs, and the direction we’re currently heading - with an estimated increase in non-belief that’s 11 times what it was back then – it explains a lot. And that ties into something I’ve frequently spoken to over the past five years. Harvard’s groundbreaking study in 2018 which showed a profound impact on faith and mental health outcomes. The bottom line is that those who are raised with strong religious beliefs are those most likely to be happy, healthy and productive citizens. It’s never too late for our society to begin to reverse the course in the decline of faith. Those of us who believe, play a key role and sharing our faith is one of the most compassionate things we can do to improve our society. 

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