For years, researchers have watched as an increasing number of young American adults chose not to identify with a specific religious tradition. A new report is offering further insight into the beliefs ― and influence ― of this burgeoning group.
The most common religious identity among Americans ages 18 to 29 is “none,” according to a report from the conservative-leaning think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI). More than one-third of young adults (34%) surveyed identified as religiously unaffiliated ― telling researchers they were atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”
There seems to be a generational divide over questions about God, likely influenced by the rise of these young “nones.” As a whole, young adults were much more likely to express uncertainty about God. Only 39% of young adults said they were absolutely certain God exists, compared with 61% of seniors 65 and older, according to an analysis of the data AEI pulled for HuffPost.
Researchers also documented a modest difference between young and older Americans over whether people need God to be good. Thirty-four percent of young adults said it was necessary for a person to believe in God to be moral and have good values, while a higher percentage of seniors, 43%, said the same.
Daniel Cox, a research fellow in polling and public opinion at AEI, told HuffPost that attitudes on this question on God and morality have shifted markedly over the past few years, driven by the increased social connection Americans have with nonreligious people.
“In fact, young people are more likely to know an atheist than an evangelical Christian,” Cox said.
The growth of young “nones” is slowly reshaping America’s religious landscape. America has become less Christian and less religiously observant in recent years. AEI found that, in total, about 26% of all the adults surveyed were religiously unaffiliated.
The report found a divide between young people and seniors over the idea that the U.S. is currently, and has always been, a Christian nation. Over a quarter of young adults (26%) said the U.S. has never been a Christian nation, compared with only 15% of seniors.
The report, published Dec. 15, is AEI’s latest analysis of data collected from 4,067 adults who participated in the American National Social Network Survey this summer. Researchers asked a wide range of questions ― seeking to not only understand respondents’ religious identities and beliefs but also how their social networks affected those beliefs. They gathered this data by asking respondents to provide demographic information on up to seven people with whom they “discussed important matters and concerns.” These seven people were considered to be part of the respondent’s core social network.
The researchers found that Americans are now more likely to have close friends who are “nones.” About 42% said they had a close social connection with someone who was religiously unaffiliated ― a significant increase from 2004, when only 18% of the public said the same.
Religious respondents who counted a “none” within their inner social circles were less certain about the existence of God than those who didn’t associate with “nones.” This was particularly apparent among Catholics. About 65% of Catholics who aren’t closely connected to “nones” say they are absolutely certain about their belief in God. Only 36% of Catholics who had at least one religiously unaffiliated close friend said the same. Religious people who had at least one “none” in their immediate social circle were also more likely to say that people don’t need to believe in God to be moral and have good values.
Previous studies from AEI and other groups have indicated that people who attended worship services regularly are also more likely to be sociable, politically engaged and involved in community groups. But religious respondents didn’t have larger social networks than the unaffiliated. In fact, the researchers reported that the social network size of religiously unaffiliated Americans and white evangelical Protestants ― two groups that typically take polar opposite positions on political and social issues ― was “nearly indistinguishable.”
Cox said the vast majority of unaffiliated Americans have a social tie who is also unaffiliated.
“This is fairly extraordinary since there are few institutional structures to help nonreligious people to develop connections,” he said.
At least in terms of the size of their social networks, it appears that the “nones” are doing just fine.