An illustration of the church with the word EXIT behind it.
There are countless theories on why young people are moving away from religion. (Illustration by Sophia Clendenen, The University of the Arts)
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An illustration of the church with the word EXIT behind it.

Over the past few decades, there has been an unprecedented growth in young people shifting away from religious beliefs.

Luke Olliff, a 30-year-old resident of Atlanta, says he and his wife gradually started to shed their religious affiliations throughout their marriage. “My family thinks she convinced me to stop going to church and her family thinks I was the one who convinced her,” he said. “But really it was mutual. We moved to a city and talked a lot about how we came to see all of this negativity from people who were highly religious and increasingly didn’t want a part in it.”

Similarly, Mandie, who didn’t want to share her last name, isn’t convinced that she will choose to raise her kids with a religious background. She was raised in a religious household but does not believe that the church is required in order to teach her kids important morals. In fact, she believes that many religious organizations are bad models for moral teachings.

Both individuals have beliefs that are shared by many people across the nation. Olliff’s belief that highly religious people tend to be negative is shared by a shocking 57% of millennials, who believe that religious people are generally less tolerant of other people. According to a Breakpoint article, many share Mandie’s belief that the church and religion are not a vital part of teaching children morality.

Millennials have earned a reputation for completely reshaping society and industries, shaking up workplaces and transforming many parts of pop culture. They also had a huge impact on the “religious” life that Americans once led, but even though millennials are the “symbols of a broader societal shift away from religion,” they did not start this shift on their own.

Being “not religious” has become a major statement and identity. According to Derek Thompson at the Atlantic, nearly nine out of 10 Americans said that they believed in God and belonged to an organized religion in the 20th century. He explained, “That number held steady—through the sexual-revolution ’60s, through the rootless and anxious ’70s, and through the ‘greed is good’ ’80s.”

However, this started to change in the early 1990s when the “historical tether” between the classic American identity and faith was broken. At this point, religious non-affiliation began to rise in popularity. By the time the early 2000s came around, the number of Americans who didn’t associate with any religion had doubled. And by the 2010s, that number had tripled.

So, what is happening? Why are young people leaving the church and not coming back?

Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, has some very insightful theories. In his article, Thompson writes about these theories. The first of these theories is that the rising population of non-religious affiliation was kickstarted by three main historical events. Thompson explained what these events were: “The association of the Republican Party with the Christian right, the end of the Cold War, and 9/11.”

While the Barna Group has found that the religious war against science is the top third reason why young adults leave their religions, Smith believes that religion lost its halo effect, not because science drove God out of the public square but because politics did.

These days, religion is often tied to a person’s political identity. In fact, identifying as non-religious “has become a specific American identity  — one that distinguishes secular, liberal whites from the conservative, evangelical right.”

Smith explained that witnessing an entire decade of the Christian right’s powerful role in conservative politics is what first led to young adults’ aversion to the Christian right. It has even been found that the left has a higher share of people who don’t consider themselves religious than any other time in modern history.

Some could argue that the liberalization of society is what drives people away from their strict and conservative churches. Like Olliff, many choose to move to larger cities to enjoy their young lives. This phenomenon is known as “delayed adulthood” and is believed to be a contributor to the rising percentage of young adults who choose to leave the church.

Delayed adulthood refers to millennials choosing to wait until their thirties to settle down, get married and have children. By doing so, they choose to dedicate their twenties to creating a persona for themselves — establishing a career, dating around and generally enjoying their young years in a large city with plenty of friends and dating apps.

The reason that delayed adulthood pushes younger people away from the church is because, by the time they are ready to settle down, they already have a routine established for themselves; they go to work, meet friends at brunch, go to yoga, have date nights, go out for drinks, watch some football, etc. This routine leaves no room for weekly church visits. Young adults are discovering themselves without religion and don’t feel like they need a church to help them find who they are.

However, another one of Smith’s theories is that young adults are satisfied leaving church because they are redefining religion on their own terms. Millennials start making their worldly lives into their religions, they turn meditation into their search for spirituality, they visit gyms like they’re synagogues and they turn to therapists in exchange for prayer. This generation has chosen to abandon religion, just to look for it in everything else they do.

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Anastasiya Cernei

Missouri State University
Professional Writing

Hey! I’m Anastasiya. I’m a professional writing major at Missouri State University. I’m passionate about writing and hope to one day open my own business.

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