For 1 of 4 Millennials The Old Time Religion is Not for Me

I recently finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s best selling book, Eat Pray Love. The book chronicles Gilbert’s literal and figurative spiritual journey toward a deeper relationship with God, but never actually reveals which if any religion speaks to her yearning.  Gilbert, a Gen X’er, seems to have a lot in common with Gen Y.

New data released this week from Pew Research on Millennials and religion quoted in USA Today, Denver Post and elsewhere, says one in four Millennials (25%) do not identify with any one faith, instead describing their religion as “atheist,” “agnostic” or “nothing in particular.”  This level of non-affiliation is much than was seen for other generations at the same age.

At the same time, the Pew study reveals that spirituality among young adults is undiminished. Members of today’s Millennial generation, ages 18 to 29, are as likely to pray and believe in God as their elders were when they were young.” This leads them to conclude in their headline: “Young Adults ‘Less Religious,’ Not Necessarily ‘More Secular‘.”

There is other evidence to support the conclusion that the issue is more one of lack of affiliation than a lack of faith in God. A survey of Millennials reported in New Yorker magazine last year found that 43% of Gen Y believes they are ‘as religious’ or ‘more religious’ than their parents.  A Marist Institute poll shows over three in ten Millennials define their primary long-term life goal in religious terms (“To be spiritual and close to God”). That figure was higher than for any other age group.

What makes this lack of affiliation especially intriguing to me is that in many other areas of their lives, Millennials are inclined to go along with their parents’ choices.

Within the 25% who are unaffiliated, nearly three quarters were raised in a religious faith tradition and dropped away. This makes faith the outlier as far as decisions that break with their parents.  Recall that this is the first generation that as a rule likes their parents and even thinks of their parents as their ‘best friend’.

  • 86% say they share their parents political views.
  • Every single student in my Principles of Marketing class raised their hand last week when I asked who banks where their parents bank.
  • According to an AARP survey, 41% of Millennials with cars drive the same brand of car their parents drive or have driven.
  • The American Savings Council found 71% of Gen X’ers and Gen Y’ers turn to their parents for financial advice.

So why make the break here, over something as important as faith?

I think has to do with the strength of the Millennial subculture and its strong, shared ethical values than a fundamental change in their belief in God.

The Gen Y subculture is astonishingly ethical, both in values and in practice. ‘Bad behavior’ on a variety of  social dimensions from pregnancy to crime to drugs are all down among young adults.  Socially, Millennials prize tolerance as a result of their inherent diversity. They are significantly more socially liberal than their parents on issues of marriage, abortion, interracial dating.  Millennials are less inclined to believe that church affiliation is necessary to be a ‘good person’. According to a Marist Institute poll, 56% have donated money to a charity in the past six months and 67% have volunteered their time.

I’ll go out on a limb here and speculate that some of the lack of affiliation is due to a desire for ‘authenticity.’  The Gen Y subculture is unusually sensitive to phoniness. It’s unlikely they will go through the motions of attending church just because it is ‘the thing to do’  if they have questions about their own sincerity.

In the final analysis, reaching Millennials and getting them to re-affiliate with any one ‘religion’ may be unrealistic as a ‘marketing objective’.

Gen Y is accustomed to choices, and there is some evidence they may feel confined by a denominational label.  In December I noted that Millennials are ‘auditioning’ faiths the same way they would look for a college, a spouse or other major decision (“For Millennials Belief Is A Choice“). This represents a huge generational shift and as with so many other Gen Y trends, may start to migrate into  the thinking of other age groups. The Pew research shows that like Millennials, most Americans are embracing ‘multiple faiths’, with beliefs that do not ‘ fit conventional categories’.