A few weeks ago, the Pew Research Center For Religion and Public Life released results of a detailed poll in regards to the state of American religion that was received with a great degree of interest from many segments of the public. The last time Pew released a similar poll was in 2007.
What was most striking in the latest results was the fact that the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as believers has fallen by 8 percent. That being said, according to the same survey, the number of Americans who identify themselves as evangelicals has remained basically unchanged over the better part of the last decade.
Just as intriguing was the number of people who stated that they were unaffiliated with any religion -- the so-called "nones" (the term used by Pew). In the latest May 2015 survey, almost 1 out of 4 -- 23 percent of Americans interviewed -- identified themselves in this category. This was a 7 percentage increase from 2007, when only 16 percent of those polled described themselves as not affiliated with any religion. The trend was particularly notable among millennials (those born between 1980 and 1998), known as generation Y to some. More than one-third of individuals in this age demographic declared themselves as religiously independent. In fact, it appears that the fewer birthdays a person has had, the less likely they are to embrace any form of religion. They appear to have abandoned any sort of organized religion, period.
It is probably safe to say that a large number of these unaffiliated millennials (like their brethren in older generations) did not suddenly "turn a corner" so to speak and decide to turn their backs on the church. Rather, it is more likely that a significant number of these young men and women grew up in households, environments and communities where the attitude or commitment to religion or religious worship was weak, tenuous or indifferent at the least. Religion had never inhabited a major influence in their upbringing. Moreover, any interest they had in religion was marginal at best.
Another factor that has been well documented is that many studies have revealed that millennials are the least conservative group of Americans. There a number of people of all age groups, (especially millennials) who harbor a deep degree of ambivalence and skepticism toward religion, in particular organized religion. Even among those millennials who identify as politically conservative, they are still very apprehensive to fully embrace contemporary religion, given the fact that many of them tend to espouse liberal, progressive and or libertarian views on many cultural issues such as gay marriage and drug use. The former issue is still one that has caused deep political rifts within many religious conservative circles, due to the fact that many younger conservatives (like their liberal counterparts) support gay marriage, whereas, on the contrary, the vast majority of their conservative elders (like many older conservative democrats) reject such a notion.
In addition, the staunchly harsh rhetoric that has emerged from some of the more extreme segments of the conservative right, particularly among its evangelical base, has likely contributed to the less than enthusiastic support from young conservatives. Politicians and ministers arguing that rape is a part of God's plan or that Satan is campaigning against you is not exactly the type of inspirational and positive rhetoric that is inclined to endear younger people (or many middle-aged and older ones) toward the message you are championing, regardless of what other potentially feasible ideas you may have.
If the individuals polled by Pew Research are indeed indicative of the larger public, the fact is that it appears that Americans of all age groups -- millennials, Generation Xers, baby boomers, the silent generation -- are walking a fine line these days when it comes to the issue of religion. Such news in and of itself should be of great concern to those in the clergy.
The millennial situation is particularly alarming, given the fact that these are the young men and women whose presence will be crucial in populating houses of worship as time progresses and as elder Americans pass on. The ongoing decline in religious activity and affiliation among the larger populace could have demonstrably massive implications for the future of the nation and should be an issue of great concern to all those for whom religion is the focal point of their livelihoods or at least a crucial part of their existence.
Elwood Watson, Ph.D. is a professor of History, African American Studies and Gender Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the co-author of Beginning A Career in Academia:A Graduate Guide for Students of Color (Routledge Press, 2014)