By Bob Smietana
For a few years in the 1950s, younger Americans loved to go to church.
A review of church attendance surveys found that in the late 1950s, half of Americans under 40 said they attended church services weekly.
Church was so popular with young people that at one point they went to church as often as older Americans, according to a recent study by Pew Research.
Today, Americans under 40 are far less likely to go to church or other religious services than those 40 and older, according to Pew’s review of data from Gallup surveys. Americans under 30 are half as likely to say they go to church as those 60 and older.
And the pattern isn’t limited to America. All over the globe, a significant number of younger people care less about religion.
“Overall, adults ages 18 to 39 are less likely than those ages 40 and older to say religion is very important to them in 46 out of 106 countries surveyed by Pew Research Center over the last decade,” according to Pew’s report.
Pew also found young people less likely to pray daily, attend services, or identify with a religious group than older people in many countries.
In 71 countries, those under 40 are less likely to pray than those 40 and older. In 53 countries, they are less likely to attend services. In 41 countries, they are less likely to identify with a religious group.
Still, in many countries there’s no difference between older and younger people when it comes to religion. In 63 countries, the two demographics identify with religious groups at the same rate. In 31 countries, similar rates of older and younger people pray daily. In 46 countries, they attend services at the same rate.
Three countries buck the trend when it comes to attending services. Young people in Armenia, Liberia, and Rwanda go to services more often then older people.
And overall, the gap between younger and older people is relatively small in many countries, says Pew.
“Indeed, the average gap between younger adults and older adults across all the countries surveyed is 5 percentage points for affiliation, 6 points for importance of religion, 6 points for worship attendance, and 9 points for prayer,” according to Pew.
The biggest gaps are in North America and Europe and in countries where the population is predominantly Christian. There’s an 18-point gap, for example, in religious affiliation among older and younger Americans. That jumps to 28 percent for Canadians.
Other countries with large gaps include South Korea (24 points), Uruguay (18 points), and Finland (17 points), according to Pew’s report.
Religion is still growing
Pew’s latest study isn’t all bad news for religion around the world. In countries where the population is growing—especially in sub-Saharan Africa—religion is growing as well.
“The fastest population growth appears to be occurring in countries where many people say religion is very important in their lives,” says Pew.
Pew found little gap (3 percent) between older and younger people in sub-Saharan Africa. Young people in that region also had high rates of prayer (74 percent).
Religious commitment for Christians also varies widely by region, according to Pew.
Most self-identified Christians in Ethiopia (98 percent), Ghana (89 percent), Nigeria (82 percent), and South Africa (79 percent) say religion is very important to them. So do Christians in Honduras (94 percent), Ecuador (80 percent), Colombia (80 percent), Brazil (77 percent), Peru (74 percent), and Bolivia (73 percent).
By contrast, fewer self-identified Christians in places such as Spain (30 percent), Poland (32 percent), the Czech Republic (25 percent), Italy (23 percent), Sweden (16 percent), France (12 percent), Germany (12 percent), and the United Kingdom (11 percent) say religion is very important.
The United States is in the middle, with 68 percent of Americans saying religion is very important to them. Fewer people in Mexico (48 percent) or Canada (39 percent) say religion is very important.
In other findings:
- The shorter the lifespan in a country, the more religion matters.
- The more people in a country to go to school, the less they go to church.
- The higher a country’s Gross Domestic Product, the less likely people are to pray daily. (The United States is an exception.)
- In some countries that have experienced violent conflict—like Liberia, Ghana, and Georgia—younger people are more religious than older people.
Researchers at Pew say they aren’t sure what will happen as young people get older. They say there’s been little long-term study of the differences between how older and younger people view religion and faith.
In the U.S. and Europe, people generally have gotten more religious as they age.
“Research has shown that religious attachments tend to peak during adolescence, decline through young and middle adulthood, and then increase through most of late adulthood,” says Pew.
- What’s Dividing America? Young People Say It’s Not Religion.
- Nones No More: Only Half of Those Raised Irreligious Stay That Way as Adults
- Nones Still Thank God, Ask for Help
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer at Facts & Trends.