Young Americans are becoming less religious. But why?

March 28, 2023, 6 a.m. ·

Dr. Phillip Schwadel stands smiling in a blue blazer-- Headshot.jpg
Dr. Phillip Schwadel (Photo Courtesy of Phillip Schwadel)

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Nebraska Public Media's William Padmore sat down with Dr. Phillip Schwadel to discuss why, according to Schwadel's research, young American's are becoming less religious.

William Padmore: So, for a quick history lesson, would you mind explaining America's religious roots and why that matters in today's society?

Dr. Phillip Schwadel: Well, it's a contentious issue to some extent about the role of religion in the founding of our nation in the history of our nation. But what's not contentious and very clear is that religion has always played a robust role in the United States. We are a relatively religious nation, or at least we were throughout most of our history compared to other advanced industrialized nations. Throughout the 20th century, we saw ourselves as more religious and we participated more in religion and we saw religion as, really, part of the national story of our country.

Padmore: And how has that changed in recent years?

Schwadel: Well, I think for many people it hasn't. Religion is still a key part of their lives and as they see it, a key part of our nation (and) what it means to be an American. But for some Americans, and especially a disproportionate number of young Americans, religion has become a less important part of their lives. And, in particular, we've seen a growing number of Americans who now say they have no religion. When we ask them on a survey, Are you Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, so on, they just say they're nothing.They have no religion. This used to be a very small portion of our country, and it's now a large minority. Over three in 10 Americans now say they have no religion.

Padmore: So why focus your study on young Americans in particular? And by the way, how do you define young in your study?

In this project, in this research, I look at adolescent and young adult religion. So we're looking at religion from sort of the ages of 13, to really the late 20s, to at most the early 30s.

Padmore: Is there something significant about that age range?

Schwadel: Well, there's two things: One, most importantly, when we're talking about non religion, or "secularity," we see that it's particularly common among young Americans, and the growth of it has been particularly common among young Americans. This is a phenomenon that affects older Americans as well, but much more so among young Americans. Moreover, there's a simple history to this event - I started working with the national study of youth religion 20 years ago as a postdoctoral researcher and so I have continued with that kind of research since then.

Padmore: So the $20 million question: Why? Why this sudden, dramatic drop in religious young Americans?

Schwadel: That's a tough question. Unfortunately, it's not one I can answer very readily, or even in my longer talk that's coming up very easily. There are various reasons. Many people point to the growth of Evangelical Protestantism and something of a backlash against that, starting in the 1990s, and early 2000s among some young Americans who may not have liked the idea of the politicization of religion that was happening a lot in our country. That's one reason that some of the research points to in terms of the growth of Americans who don't claim to have a religion anymore. Other reasons are simply the changes in our society with the advancement of our society and changes in people's roles in our culture and the diversity of our nation that have just led to, really, other options for people where religion hasn't played a central role as it used to. But there are really various factors that play a role - as we become more migratory, as we move more around the country, we will probably see declines in religion, because people aren't as close to their family of origin, their church, mosque, synagogue temple that they grew up with, and so on. So there's really a host of reasons.

Padmore: Now part of what you teach is sociology as it relates to religion. So, what are some of the benefits and costs of religion in society? And what does a decline in religiousness and Americans mean for society?

Schwadel: You're asking me to give away the second half of my talk, which is very fair. No, the decline of religion is very concerning, whether you're religious or not. Even people who aren't religious, you know, non-religious people can certainly acknowledge that religion brings benefits to people's lives, and it does. We know that religion provides all kinds of benefits. Particularly and most obviously in the forms of social support that come with people attending religious congregations, religious services, and having the kinds of social circles that accompany participating in religion. We know that people who are religious tend to be healthier. People who are religious tend to be happier. People who are religious are more likely to get married, to stay married, all these kinds of things. Then, the decline of religion is concerning for these reasons.

Padmore: Final question for you: With this dramatic increase in Americans who are non-religious, does your study, or any study, indicate whether there's no going back? Or could religion feasibly swing the pendulum back the other way?

Schwadel: We have seen some examples of nations — advanced industrialized nations — that secularize or become less religious, that have at least for periods become more religious or what we call sacralized. Honestly, they are the exception, not the rule. Often it reverses course again later. But it has happened. I think, probably the better question, honestly, is can the decrease in non-religion level off? And indeed, our demographers suggests that it can and potentially will. And so, while I don't expect a tremendous sort of reversal, of course, there is a potential for the trend to level off.

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