[B]y respecting all democratic tendencies not absolutely contrary to herself … religion sustains a successful struggle with that spirit of individual independence which is her most dangerous opponent.
—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America.
Dr. Ram Cnaan,associate professor in the School of Social Work, was well aware of the historically important role of religion in the United States. He knew that a good 50 percent of American adults belong to a congregation (compared with, say, England, where the rate is less than 20 percent). He had also read de Tocqueville; studied the role of faith-based social services; and, as a foreigner, noticed things that a native might not.
“I’m originally from Israel,” he says. “When I go to Israel, I tell them that Americans are religious, and they don’t believe me. What they see is the Hollywood image—Friends, Beverly Hills 90210, whatever. In our public life, we don’t express ourselves religiously. But in private life, in community life, we do.”
The real question for Cnaan was: will that historic religiosity continue or fall victim to the “secularization theory”—which holds that the allure of modernity and technology make religion more or less obsolete?
“There are lots of claims that teens in America are not as religiously oriented as previous wonderful generations,” he says. “Now teens have television and computer games, and they’re not interested in the things that the previous generation did. So the question was, is the next generation showing signs that they will follow in the footsteps of the previous generations?”
He and Dr. Richard Gelles—the Joanne and Raymond Welsh Chair of Child Welfare and Family Violence (and interim dean) at the School of Social Work, as well as co-director of the Center for the Study of Youth Policy—decided to go right to the source. Aided by Jill Sinha, a Ph.D. candidate in the school, they surveyed 2,004 American youth, ages 11 to 18—what they call the “Millennial” generation.
“We were simply asking teens, ‘How important is religion in your life?’” says Cnaan. The answer was: pretty important. In their paper titled “Youth and Religion: A Nation of Young Believers,” the authors conclude that there is “more continuity than change in youth religious behavior and involvement,” and that the news media’s image of teens as “hedonistic and carefree” is not accurate. Not only do the Millennials “demonstrate religious proclivities that are similar to generations before them,” they write, but it is “safe to assume that with proper adjustment by the organized religious community many Millennials will find themselves adult members of congregations as well.”
Gelles says that he was “surprised by the intensity of religious activity.” In the real world, children and adolescents are “pretty conventional,” he adds. “They still find meaning in the institution of religion. And it’s more than just sitting in pews. It’s an active commitment.”
An overwhelming majority (84 percent) of the youth interviewed said that religion was either “important” (33 percent), “very important” (32 percent), or “extremely important” (19 percent) in their lives. Furthermore, a “surprisingly large number of them attend places of worship and participate in religious groups and/or activities,” the authors note. Only four percent said religion was not important at all, while 13 percent termed it not very important.
Not surprisingly, there were subtle differences among the youth they surveyed. More girls (22 percent) than boys (16 percent) said that religion was extremely important, and with the odd exception of 15-year-olds, the older the teens, the “lower the reported importance of religion in their lives.” (A whopping 89 percent of 11-year-olds said religion was important to them, compared to 79 percent of 18-year-olds.) Nearly twice as many 18-year-olds (44 percent) had attended no services during the previous month as 11-year-olds (23 percent). But since adolescence is an age of “testing one’s identity and experimenting with boundaries,” the authors note, “many young adults have and probably will continue to come back to religion, either in the same or a different faith tradition than that of their parents.”
Forty-six percent of those surveyed had attended three or more services a month; 33 percent had not attended any services in the month before the interview; and 41 percent said they had participated in a religiously organized activity such as a Bible class or youth group. Even the drop-off in religious activity among older teens “wasn’t dramatic,” Gelles points out. “They didn’t stop going the minute they didn’t have to go with their parents.”
Ethnicity plays a powerful role in religion. Nearly twice as many black respondents (32 percent) said religion was extremely important to them as did white (18 percent) and Hispanic (15 percent) respondents. Conversely, 18 percent of white teenagers said religion was “not very important” or “not at all important,” compared to 9.6 percent of black teenagers and 12 percent of Hispanic teenagers.
Another indicator is family income: 29 percent of youth in families with an annual income under $20,000 participated in organized religious activities, compared to 40 percent in families earning between $20,000 and $75,000, and 51 percent in families with an income of more than $75,000.
The authors found a direct correlation between education and religious attendance. Sixty-four percent of youth whose parents had college education or academic degrees attended worship in the previous month, compared to 54 percent of those whose parents had less than a high-school education. But while “educated and well-to-do parents have kids who feel religion is less important in life,” they note, those kids “participate in it more than kids of parents who are less well-to-do.”
For the wealthy and better-educated, suggests Cnaan, a congregation may assume the status of another club—a “nonprofit, voluntary association.”
Furthermore, in American society, “public education by nature cannot teach values,” Cnaan points out, “so many parents struggle how to teach good and bad, immoral and moral behavior. What we found was that educated people send children to congregations and especially to social groups within congregations as a way to educate them and to instill a certain morality—that if a kid would not accept it from parents, he would accept it from other kids.
“We know that people of higher income and education pay lots of attention to school selection,” he adds. “So while educated and well-to-do people may be skeptical about religion, they know it’s good for the children—good for what the children learn, and with whom they associate.”