Religion plays a considerable role in American society, whether it is mentioned during presidential debates or in everyday conversation. However, the number of Americans who are unaffiliated with a religion is rapidly increasing while religious affiliation, particularly to Christianity, is decreasing. This shift is occurring among all demographics, but is most defined in young adults. Fewer than six in ten American Millennials identify with Christianity today. Thirty-six percent of young Millennials, those between the ages of 18 and 24, are religiously unaffiliated. This trend is also occurring among older Millennials, with 34 percent of those between the ages of 25 and 33 choosing to be unaffiliated with a particular religion, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study.
Despite religious “nones” being on the rise, Americans tend to view Christians and Jews positively, and atheists and Muslims more negatively. However, researchers for the Pew Research Center found that affiliation with non-Christian faiths, such as Islam, are the only religions to see an increase in members.
There are many reasons for the change in how people are viewing religion. A few of the reasons are distaste for the LGBT community among certain religious groups, support of war, and the desire to have religion present in science classrooms. The Pew Research Center found that Millennials tend to not trust others more so than all other generations. This changing nature of Millennials may be contributing to the decline of religious affiliation.
These changes have impacted the major religions in various ways. Ball Bearings met with four religious leaders in the Muncie community to discuss stereotypes about their faiths, why they think Millennials are leaving religion, and what they think could happen if Millennials continue to leave religion at the rate they currently are. Seth Carrier-Ladd is a minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Muncie, Josh Cooper is a lead teacher of The Bridge Community Church of Muncie, Steve Martin is a senior pastor of Sheridan Six Points Wesleyan Church, and Bibi Bahrami is the community coordinator of The Islamic Center of Muncie.
Ball Bearings: In your opinion, how do outside faiths perceive your religion?
Carrier-Ladd: Many folks perceive us as very liberal and perhaps not even a religion. We came out of Christianity, so it depends on how much people know about us. One of the two big things is that you have freedom of belief. So we have atheists, theists, people who believe we go into the ground. To some folks, that makes us not a religion.
Cooper: I think because we live in this kind of perceived Christian nation, people [are] pretty neutral. There are a lot of people who would call themselves Christian who don’t go to church. But they think they’re Christian because their parents went to church or they’re in America. If they’re not affiliated with religion or they’re atheists, you know, they would have more negative things to say that they see in the church.
Martin: I would say that Wesleyan is pretty well received because of its namesake, because of its university. On any given Sunday we are 500,000 strong but some people perceive us more on the conservative side.
Bahrami: Lately, unfortunately, Islam [is portrayed] in all those things the media [says]. [It] is not helping that it is negative. But we are constantly working on it, especially in the United States, to bring a positive image about who we actually are, not what the media is portraying.
BB: What stereotypes do you think people have about your faith?
Carrier-Ladd: That we sacrifice chickens, that we do hippie things. You know, there are some UU’s [Unitarian Universalists] that are really out there. I think those are the best stereotypes that people think about us; that you can believe whatever you want or they don’t believe in anything, those types of things.
Cooper: I don’t think [stereotypes] differentiate too much between the .
Martin: Stereotypes- judgemental; cliquish. If I [look at] my personal church, I feel like this church is bathed in a spirit of life. There is just something about it when people walk in, they say, ‘Whoa.’
Bahrami: I think the main thing is thinking [that], especially [for] a woman, that they are supposed to be what they are told [to be] and they are not given any choices. And that would be true in some cases, and that would be true in any country and any religion; some people do that. But the religion has given equal rights to men and women. The second is that Muslims are terrorists.
BB: Those unaffiliated with religion have increased by 6.7 percent while many religions have experienced a decline. This is mostly due to the Millennial generation. Why do think this generation is leaving religion?
Carrier-Ladd: Millennials are looking for authenticity and many of them struggle with more traditional Christianity, for example, and other religions, because they don’t always believe the things that they’re being told that they should be believing. That’s probably a big chunk of it, and it’s the most consistent thing that I’ve heard. And I think that’s one of the things we actually offer–we aren’t going to tell people what to believe.
Cooper: I think the Millennials and younger generations would say they’re still open to Jesus—which is the most important part. But when it comes to organized religion, I think Millennials (for lack of a better term) have a BS detector—they know when they’re being sold something or something’s not right. And a lot of times churches are guilty of that. So I think a lot of Millennials have kind of said I don’t want anything to do with that, but I think Millennials are very open toward faith. I just don’t think they like the organized church as much, I don’t think they like the rules-based religion as much—and that’s a good thing. I think Millennials will serve a really important role in the church and help to heal it in a lot of ways.
Martin: The short answer here is there’s a generation gap. [Older generations would say] I don’t like this music, people need to dress like that but Millennials want a casual setting where they can walk in as they are to come worship, or to [not] be judged. That’s really what it is in a nutshell.
Bahrami: One of the things that I’ve heard here locally in the States is that a lot of people are converting to Islam. And some people have a fear. I think the beauty that I see [is] that in Islam we do not have a membership to be a part of the center; everyone is welcome. If the material thing becomes more valued than the faith then some people get turned off.
BB: What do you think will happen if the Millennial generation continues to leave religion at this rapid rate?
Carrier-Ladd: If the Millennials and subsequent generations go to church less and less, then we have a real problem on our hands. And there are some folks in certain circles that are predicting doom and gloom if they don’t stay in the church. I’m not super worried about it, because the Christian church has been around for 2,000 years. I don’t think that it’s going to die out. Same thing with Judaism and Islam. I mean, it boils down to the faith thing. That won’t resonate for many folks who don’t go to church, but it’s meeting-making, right? Everybody talks about their beliefs, whether they go to church or not.
Cooper: I think if they leave structured religion, I think it’s a really good thing, because religion is the man-made rules that goes around the belief system. Now, when we’re talking about Millennials leaving the local church, they may see religion and the local church as hand-in-hand, but I don’t see it that way. I think the more the Millennials can get rid of religion the better, because you can find Jesus without religion. But I think that community is important, so the local church is still important. So I hope that the Millennials will find their place and their voice within the local churches.
Martin: The rising up of a new following that refuses to be labeled religion similar to the disciples. The recent series A.D. on television [was] viewed by 5 million people. They saw that it wasn’t about the temple [the church building itself], the temple is us [our bodies]. It’s coming back to that; I think God is waiting for that to happen.
Bahrami: I am afraid. The strongest thing that humanity needs is faith. Things are already so bad, things would only get worse. I mean, we have so many drug problems, we have so many teenage pregnancies out of marriage; the country is not doing well.
The institution of religion has evolved throughout history, changing stereotypes and public perceptions along with it. Present day stereotypes of many religions can often be negative. Millennials have made it clear that they do not want to affiliate with religion for many reasons, including the fact that many faiths take unfavorable stances on political and social issues in the eyes of many young adults.
However, it is possible that Millennials are rejecting the label but not the message. The millennial generation leaving organized religion behind could provide a much-needed opportunity for various faiths to return to the heart of what their teachings are all about. Millennials could prove to be the force that changes the nature of church from simply a gathering of people to a way of living. This generation has demonstrated that they care deeply about others and want to make change for the better. They have also made it clear that they want a more genuine spiritual experience than what they receive from many churches today. The rapid decline of religion may not be the tragedy it is made out to be, but its saving grace. Working for the good of others is at the core of what most religions preach–Millennials are just changing how it is done.
Ball Bearings has edited statements down for clarity.