Story Four: Have Millennials Killed Religion?

Can a congregation exist without a deity? Watch the above video to see how one group is trying to prove that it can.


Millennials don’t need a god. Well, not their parents’ gods, anyway.

According to a 2010 Pew Research study, 25 percent of Americans under the age of 30 do not affiliate with a particular religion, and nearly one in five left the religion they were raised in without subsequently adopting a new tradition.

Instead of passively accepting the religious beliefs and practices of previous generations, Millennials are using those traditions as a foundation to redefine their conception of faith.

The changes Boston’s religious communities have seen over the past decade exemplify this trend. According to Nancy Ammerman, a professor of sociology at Boston University, the scandals that have recently rocked the Catholic Church contributed greatly to the number of people who are now distancing themselves from the Church. However, she notes other factors that have added to dwindling attendance and weakened commitment to traditional congregations.

“What we’ve really seen in the Catholic population in the last generation has been a move from people that had sort of been nominal Catholics in their upbringing to people who…still identify as Catholic but…don’t identify as a practicing Catholic,” said Ammerman.

Ammerman credits the way Baby Boomers raised their children as the source of this trend. She pinpoints Boomers as the first generation to move away from religion in a systematic manner and cites that as a reason why their children – many of whom belong to the Millennial generation – are further removed from religion than generations before.

“A lot of Millennials actually were raised with very little in the way of actual religious upbringings,” said Ammerman, “so it’s not that they’re moving away from [traditional religious practices] – it’s something they never had.”

Rev. Dr. Robin Olson agrees that Millennials are less religious than older generations, yet she does not find them any less spiritual.

Olson specializes in campus and young adult ministries, and often in her work she comes across college students who desire a deeper meaning in life but were never exposed to traditional religious practices throughout their childhoods.

Though she acknowledges that lack of experience with religion has kept some students away from it, she faults not their parents but the religious traditions themselves for the continued absence of Millennials in the church.

“In part, traditional religions have failed young adults,” said Olson.

“[Millennials] want space to share their voice and opinions, and space to simply inhabit without judgment. They are interested in ancient practices and canonical texts, but with an interest in appropriating these in ways compelling and relevant.”

She notes that many traditional religious practices lack relevance in Millennials’ everyday lives.

Fred Hewett agrees that traditional religions frequently don’t fit the bill for Millennials. Hewett serves as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Ethical Society of Boston, a secular organization that describes its mission as “deed before creed.” Members of the Ethical Society view the actions people take to improve the world as more important than individual beliefs.

“My impression is that Millennials place less value on religious formalisms and greater value on community and social justice,” said Hewett.

He finds that though Millennials, like previous generations, still long to join social organizations, traditional religions do not offer what these young adults want in a surrounding community.

“There is a marketplace of ideas for those who are seeking a community…[and religion] is losing its appeal in a world in which science has demystified nature and moral codes associated with traditional religion have collided with expanded tolerance of diverse lifestyles and values,” said Hewett.

Pew data supports this perspective, citing Millennials as more likely to accept homosexuality, list evolution as the “best explanation for the development of human life,” and oppose prayer and Bible readings in public schools. Yet, despite their strongly held convictions, many Millennials are not seeking to force their beliefs on others. Instead, they simply want their beliefs to be recognized.

Zachary Bos has been fighting for recognition for secular organizations for years. A member of the Massachusetts chapters of the American Atheists and the Secular Coalition for America, he emphasizes that all these groups want is a “place at the table” of Boston’s religious landscape.

Bos is involved in the development of a Boston chapter of Sunday Assembly, a program that describes itself as a “godless congregation.” Bos is quick to note that Sunday Assembly does not reject religion or require its members to be secularists. Rather, it serves as a safe place for people to enjoy a community, no matter their beliefs.

Ammerman characterizes organizations such as Sunday Assembly as relatively recent developments.

“One of the things that has emerged in the last ten years is people who are actually trying to organize as atheists or secularists or humanists…essentially, atheist congregations,” said Ammerman.

“That’s not something that ten years ago we really would have seen.”

Ammerman admits that sociologists study secular organizations in very similar ways to how they examine traditional religions and notes the similarities between the two.

In fact, though Millennials are less religious than older generations, they are just as likely, and sometimes even more so, to believe in religious articles such as life after death, heaven and hell, miracles, angels, and demons. However, the most striking similarity is that Millennials, though less likely to affiliate with a religious tradition, lay claim to an idea of “faith” just as strongly as their parents and grandparents do.

Both Olson and Ammerman have run across this tendency in their work. Though people may no longer associate it strictly with religion, faith still defies academic or empirical scrutiny.

“[Faith] tends to mean something pretty undefined,” said Ammerman.

“[It’s] not about specific doctrines or specific traditions…Faith seems to be something deeply personal but also something that people are connecting with …beyond themselves.”

“I don’t think we’ve got a very good handle on exactly what people [mean] by it.”

Despite its disassociation with religion, Ammerman remains convinced that faith could not exist without religion, which provided the foundation needed to make talking about faith possible. She also believes that this long established history will save traditional religion from dying out in a society slowly shifting towards secularism.

“American society is so incredibly diverse, across ethnic groups, across generations, that there’s never going to be one kind of religious community,” she said.

“There’s going to be so much diversity that, if you say, is this going to die out? Well, maybe a little less of this, a little more of that, but not necessarily congregating no longer being around.”

She notes that adaptation has fueled the development of religion in America since the country’s inception. Because America operates on a voluntary religious system, people are free to come together and break apart from traditional religions in any manner they choose.

However, the survival of congregations does not necessarily guarantee the survival of traditional religion. While Ammerman would not go as far as to say traditional religions may one day disappear from American society, Olson handed down a much harsher prediction.

Asked if traditional religions need to evolve in order to survive, Olson offered a short, stark response.

“Yes. Evolution required.”

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Want to learn more about the secular organizations in and around Boston? Click on the above map to explore!



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