By Brandon Bub
April 29, 2014
Here’s something you might have missed in all the hubbub surrounding the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II on Sunday: new research from Carnegie Mellon University suggests that Americans of the Millennial generation are actually more religious than we might have thought: CMU’s poll found that 52 percent of Millennials look to religion for guidance, whereas 62 percent say that they talk privately to God.
This poll is particularly interesting when we compare it with a 2012 study undertaken by the Pew Research Center that found that one fifth of American adults today have no religious affiliation. Given that the Pew poll sampled from all American adults and many assume that older people tend to be more religious than their younger counterparts, it is ostensibly confounding that such a high percentage of Millennials still claims to have a connection with God.
What this study underscores is a phenomenon I discussed in more detail about a year ago: Americans (especially younger people) seem to be turning away from religion, but that does not mean they are becoming atheists or agnostics; rather, the trend suggests that young people are more dissatisfied with institutionalized religion.
MSNBC reported in February that 31 percent of young people (ages 18 to 33) who left organized religion cited “negative treatment” of homosexuals as an important part of their decision. We might assume then that politics is the driving force here–either the Evangelical community must adapt to a generation that is less incensed by social issues like gay marriage, or risk becoming irrelevant.
However, I fear this political explanation might be too simplistic. Though I can’t say I have the numbers to back me up on this, what I suspect is at work here is a wider distrust of traditionally venerated institutions. To me, it is no coincidence that this “exodus” (if we could accurately call it that) from American churches is happening simultaneously with record low approvals of Congress and the media.
Millennials have grown up in a unique political environment that encourages the questioning of authority as a tenet of faith. When notions of the “public good” tend to be defined on an individual, relativistic basis, it is much easier to write off the viewpoints of hierarchical institutions like churches or governments as “just like, your opinion, man.” I’m certainly not one to cite this kind of societal atomism as damning, but I do think it is a pattern that is becoming increasingly manifest in research like this.