Millennials and Religion: The rise of the ‘nones’


First in a series.

The wavering of millennials in America’s religious landscape may not only be an issue, but also a question begging an answer. Where is everyone going? And what’s working to bring them back? To find answers, a team of Universe reporters spent a semester talking to religious experts around the country and to millennials themselves. What they found will be presented in upcoming articles.

Part two of this series digs into the “why” behind millennials abandoning religion. We address historical, philosophical and sociological roots. We also describe moral pillars that millennials tend to reject. Part three addresses methods religions use in order to appeal to millennials. Part four reveals the millennials who stay with religion. Part five looks at millennials within the LDS community.

Jefferson Bethke’s YouTube video “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus” has over 30 million views. Bethke is part of a group of millennials that believes in Jesus but not religion. (YouTube)


She’s a teenage Mormon girl dating a hipster-looking, long-haired atheist. Instead of going to the mall or watching movies, she and her boyfriend talk religion, spirituality and nature.

“It wasn’t until church teachers said ‘It’s OK to not know what you believe in’ that I realized it was,” Haley said. “I went on a search to figure out for myself what I believe in.”

Haley grew up in a highly religious circle; all of her family members and several of her friends are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She received church dresses as birthday presents and learned to sit for three hours in church on Sundays.

She says she believes in being good. But she doesn’t believe organized religion is the only correct answer. And she’s only 16.

“My number one belief is spreading love to other humans,” Haley said. “I also believe in God. I know that God will be happy if you live life out of love for others.”

Haley is not the only one in her generation to turn away from organized religion. Actually, she’s one of many. According to the Pew Research Center, 35 percent of millennials, young adults age 18 to 35, now declare themselves unaffiliated with one specific religion.

Within a decade, the percentage of American adults who say they believe in God has dropped from 92 to 89 percent, according to recent data from Pew.

“A growing share of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, including some who self-identify as atheists or agnostics as well as many who describe their religion as ‘nothing in particular.’ Altogether, the religiously unaffiliated (also called the “nones”) now account for 23 percent of the adult population, up from 16 percent in 2007,” the study states.

These millennials mark the “None” box when asked to indicate their religious affiliation. As a result, researchers and sociologists now refer to this sub-group of millennials as the “nones.”

But if you ask “nones” why they reject religion, some will tell you they don’t. Many love God and doing good. They just call it something else. Many of these “nones” believe in personal spirituality rather than formal religion.

In her book “Christianity After Religion,” Diana Butler Bass explains that for many millennials, “spirituality” is often associated with private or highly personal experiences and practices. “Religion,” on the other hand, is linked to formal, ritualistic, institutional structure, and denominational doctrine and rules, which the “nones” tend to reject. For these young adults, she explains, religion is seen as a negative term.

As a result, the “nones” choose to not associate with any one formal religion, but they’re not atheists either. Many of these millennials still believe in God and find ways to relate to a higher being. What makes this group stand out from other generations is they connect to God without pastors and without church buildings.

“I feel God’s hand in my life everyday and I feel close to God,” Haley said. “I try to do things that God would be happy with and I tell him how I feel through prayer.”

She’s not alone in her thinking of spirituality and religion.

(Jessica Olsen/Pew Research Center)

Jefferson Bethke has an urban street style and a history of making creative videos, usually involving a slam poem or persuasive message. He’s a religious activist. He’s thoughtful. He says he loves Jesus.

But he hates religion.

Bethke was born in Tacoma, Washington, and he made his online debut in the YouTube video, “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus,” which now has more than 30 million views. Bethke’s book, “It’s Not What You Think,” explores the meaning behind westernized Christianity and the difference between spirituality and religion.

“It’s no doubt there is a massive cultural shift happening in the way we think, see truth and hold certain cultural values,” he said. Bethke also said people in his generation were hit by the “real world” and realized they couldn’t get anything out of Christianity.

He said many people left Christianity because it “didn’t bring life, breed joy or ground them in any real place.” Bethke says this type of religion wasn’t even Christianity at all, but a “weird form of postmodern thought.”

Michael Hout, a professor of sociology at New York University, studies generational and religious changes in the U.S., and has written several books including “Century of Difference: How America Changed in the Last One Hundred Years.” He told a Pew Research Center staffer that he thinks millennials were taught by their Baby Boomer parents to “find their own moral compass,” rather than relying on an institution to shape their values for them. “As a result, they are more likely to have a ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude about religion.”

He attributes the cultural shift Bethke describes to a lack of trust in major institutions in all facets of society, including the labor market, government and marriage, where millennials have seen reason to be skeptical. He cites a long list of scandals in recent decades, beginning with Watergate and including the widespread sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church, as having “undone the reputations of major institutions the Greatest Generation trusted. Millennials didn’t grow up trusting these institutions.”

“I think many people assume that people who do not belong to an organized religious group reject religion altogether,” Hout said. “But many ‘nones’ believe in God and heaven.”


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