American Humanist Association | Humanist Network News Ezine Archives

Religious Decline in U.S. Follows Europe

HumanistNetworkNews.org
Jan. 24, 2007

Is the U.S. following Europe in becoming less religious and more humanist? This is the tantalizing prospect held out by some recent surveys.

Matt Cherry, IHS Executive DirectorA new survey in the U.S. shows that the number of 18-25 year olds who are atheist, agnostic or nonreligious has increased from 11 percent in 1986 to 20 percent today. Meanwhile a survey of the United States and the five largest countries in Western Europe reveals that religious belief continues to plummet in Europe, with Italy being the only country with a majority believing in any form of God or supreme being. And even in these overwhelmingly godless countries, the young are still significantly less religious than their elders.

A survey of young people ages 18-25 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press includes encouraging news about the growth of humanist beliefs among the so-called "Generation Next." Among the findings:
  • One-in-five members of "Generation Next" say they have no religious affiliation or are atheist or agnostic, nearly double the proportion of young people who said that in the late 1980s.
  • Nexters are among the least likely to attend church regularly: 32 percent attend at least once a week compared with 40 percent of those over age 25.
  • Nearly two-thirds of Nexters (63 percent) believe humans and other living things evolved over time. By contrast, Americans over the age of 40 favor Creationist accounts over evolutionary theory.
  • Nexters are the most tolerant of any generation on social issues such as immigration, race and homosexuality.
  • Nexters are among the most likely to say the will of the American people, not the Bible, should be a more important influence on U.S. laws.
  • And just 4 percent of Gen Nexters say people in their generation view becoming more spiritual as their most important goal in life.

Connecting with GenNext

Generation Nexters have also been called the "DotNet" generation, because they grew up with the Internet. Virtually all college graduates in this generation use the Internet and overall 86 percent of 18-25 year olds use the internet at least occasionally. In this regard they are no different from Gen Xers, 91 percent of whom say they use the Internet. Roughly three quarters of Boomers (73 percent) use the Internet, but only 46 percent of Seniors do.

The Internet permeates the life of Gen Next more than any other generation. They are not passive viewers of Internet content: they generate their own content and make social connections through the Net. For example, social networking sites like MySpace play an important role in the lives of Gen Nexters. More than half of Gen Nexters (54 percent) have used one or more of these social networking sites, and 44 percent have created a profile for themselves. Among those Gen Nexters who use social networking sites, 38 percent say they do so at least once a day, 38 percent use them at least once a week, and 24 percent use them every few weeks or less often.

The Institute for Humanist Studies has found its MySpace page to be a great way to connect with teenage freethinkers. But we also reach a lot of GenNexters through the HNN podcast. And this audience is growing rapidly. A Pew Forum survey in August last year showed 12 percent of 18 to 30 year olds had downloaded a podcast, up from 8 percent in the February to April 2006 survey.

The flipside of the GenNext reliance on the Internet is that they are far less likely to read newspapers or watch TV news than older generations. Only 23 percent of GenNexters reported that they had read a newspaper "yesterday", well below half of the 56 percent of Seniors who did. A similar pattern can be seen on TV news viewership. However young people get more news online than older generations. A quarter of GenNexters say they got news online yesterday. This is lower than the 30 percent of Gen Xers and the same as the proportion of Boomers, but more than double the 11 percent of Seniors who said they went online for news yesterday.

Late last year, a Harris Poll, for the Financial Times, conducted a large survey on religious beliefs in France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain and the U.S. The U.S. was the most religious country, with 73 percent of respondents describing themselves as believers in "any form of God or any type of supreme being." (This figure is lower than many other surveys, but the totals include 6 percent who prefer not to say and 3 percent who don't know -- categories that other surveys often drop from their results.)

Italy wasn't far behind the U.S., with 62 percent believing in a god. In the other countries, believers in God are the minority: 48 percent of Spaniards, 41 percent of Germans, 35 percent of Britons and just 27 percent of the French believe in any form of a supreme being.

Looking at similar surveys over the past few decades, religious belief is in decline and humanist values are on the rise in all Western nations. The general pattern is that there is a small decline in religious adherence as people age, but that skepticism about religion -- and other humanist values -- increases markedly with each rising generation. In other words, the big changes in religious belief do not come from people changing their beliefs as they age, they come from new generations having different beliefs.

As the Pew Forum notes, in its 1986 survey on religion and belief, 11 percent of 18-25 year olds gave their religious preference as "no religion/atheist/agnostic" and 8 percent of American over 25 said the same. Moving forward two decades, 20 percent of 18-25 year olds had no religion as did 11 percent of those over 25.

Digging deeper into the Harris research data, we see that religion is declining in almost every generation in every country (an interesting exception is France where 38% of those over 55 believe in God, but every other generation has between 22 and 26% believing however, the younger generations increase the proportion of atheists to agnostics!) In the US, 64% of 16 to 24 believe in a god, with 18% agnostic and 8% atheist, and then each older generation increases in religiosity, with 55+ showing 78% believing in God. Britain is fairly typical of the European pattern, with 40% of those 45 and over believing in God, but with each younger generation reporting lower levels of belief, with just 23% of 16 to 24 year olds believing in any form of Supreme Being.

Overall, the US looks a lot like Western Europe 30 or 40 years ago. At that time most Europeans still believed in a god, but younger generations were more atheist and agnostic than their elders. That trend has continued with religion steadily declining, generation by generation.

While a current snap shot of religious belief makes the two continents look very different, the long-term trend appears remarkably similar. Young people are growing up less religious and the most religious generations are dying out. At the same time, support for secular government and greater tolerance is rising with each new generation. Or to put it another way: the future looks bright for humanism.

Footnotes

FT/Harris Poll was conducted online by Harris Interactive(R) among a total of 12,507 adults (aged 16 and over), within France (2,134); Germany (2,127); Great Britain (2,090); Spain (1,991); the United States (2,078), and 2,087 adults (aged 18 and over) in Italy, between Nov. 30 and Dec. 15, 2006. Click here to read the full survey results.

Pew Forum survey interview were conducted by phone Sept. 6 to Oct. 2, 2006 among a 1,501 adults ages 18 and older, including an oversample of members of Generation Next (ages 18-25). The total sample size for those 18-25 was 579. Click here to read the full survey results.

Matt Cherry is the executive director of the Institute for Humanist Studies. He is the author of Introduction to Humanism at the Continuum of Humanist Education, the online school of the Institute for Humanist Studies.



 
Appignani Bioethics Center