The kids are not alright - A look at US religious belief and practice

Analysis

A large generational divide is developing on both belief in God and regular church attendance in the U.S., according to national survey data. Data shows that each generation has a lower church attendance rate than previous generations, but also shows that within each generation, church attendance remains relatively stable over the years.  

For years, polls have shown that Americans have increasingly fallen away from organized religion and from religious belief in general. The growing demographic of non-believers is sometimes called the Nones, meaning those who mark “none” on surveys asking about their religious beliefs.

Who are the Nones and what missionary challenge do they represent for the Catholic Church? To better understand, we turned to data from the General Social Survey (GSS), a nationally representative survey which polls adults on a variety of topics about their lives, habits, and viewpoints.

Since 1988, the GSS has repeatedly asked respondents about their belief in God.

The percentage of Americans who agree with the statement “I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it” dropped from 63% in 1988 to 54% in 2018. Meanwhile, the percentage who say “I don’t believe in God” or “I don’t know whether there is a God and I don’t believe there is a way to find out” has increased from 5% to 12%.

But this aggregate view of American beliefs masks a much more dramatic generational shift. 

For the last 30 years:

  • Just under 70% of Americans born in the 1920s and 1930s have said that they “know God exists.” 

  • For the generations born from the 1940s-70s, the number is slightly lower, but an average of 60% also agree that they know God exists.

  • For those born in the 1980s, however, that number drops to 50%.

  • And for those born in the 1990s to 40% and falling.

  • Only the oldest of those born in the 2000s were old enough to participate in the 2018 GSS survey, but among that group, only 32% said they know God exists.

The number of atheists and agnostics has increased, with 18% of those born in 2000 saying either that there is no God or that there is no way to know if God exists. The number of people who do not believe in God but believe in some sort of higher power has also increased.

But among the youngest people in the GSS survey, the single largest category of belief is the 41% who say either “I find myself believing in God some of the time, but not at others” or “While I have doubts, I feel that I do believe in God.”

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a similar generational trend in attendance of religious services. Church attendance is stable or increases within each generation over the years, but each generation has had a lower attendance rate than those before, although those born after 1980 seem to have found a floor with a church attendance rate of about 15%.

The above data looks at trends for Americans in general. How do those who were raised Catholic compare?

Overall, those raised Catholic are similar to Americans as a whole: in 2018, 51% said that they know God exists, as compared to 54% of the population as a whole.

The generations of people raised Catholic from the 1920s to the 1970s grew up to have rates of belief in God slightly lower than those who were raised Protestant. However, Catholics born in the 1980s and 1990s have decreased in belief much more than those who were raised Protestant.

Younger generations of Americans who were raised Catholic are also less likely to continue their affiliation with the religion of their upbringing.  Among GSS respondents born from 1980 to 2000, 70% of those raised Protestant still described themselves as Protestant while only 57% of those raised Catholic still described themselves as Catholic.

What happened to these Millennial and Generation Z Catholics?

It is, of course, hard to answer such questions definitively with data, but there are some clues.

Because GSS has been asking questions about religious belief and church attendance for so long, we can look at how often the Catholics attended church in the 1980s and 1990s when these younger generations of Catholics were growing up. 

Church attendance during that period among Catholics who had been born during the 1940s-70s (the generations that were the parents of Catholics born from 1980-2000) was dramatically lower than it had been among the Catholics born in the 1920s and 1930s who were their parents.

Protestants dropped in church attendance during the same period, but their rate of church attendance has been lower to start with and it did not drop nearly as much.

So if we want to understand why only 10% of Catholics born in the 1990s and 2000s are going to Mass weekly as adults, we may consider the fact that only 18% of their parents (who were probably born in the 1960s and 1970s) were taking them to Mass on a weekly basis when they were growing up.

For a given generation, the rate of weekly Mass attendance does not change much over the years, so causes for low Mass attendance as adults might be traced to childhood and early adulthood.

There is no guarantee that parents who take their children to Mass every week will see their children grow up to remain practicing Catholics. But the collapse in weekly Mass attendance from nearly 50% among those born in the 1920s-30s to less than 20% among Catholics born in the 1960s-70s suggests that those parents born in the 1960s and 1970s, while they in many cases still identified themselves as Catholic, may have been less successful in passing on their faith to their children.

If the Catholic Church is to reverse this trend, and have both the Catholics to fill parish churches in the future and the vocations to lead those parishes, both parishes and families will need to find more successful means to pass on their faith to the next generation.