In one of the largest studies ever conducted on Americans’ religious involvement, researchers from Case Western Reserve University and the University of Georgia collaborated with Twenge and her colleagues in California to analyze data from four national surveys of U.S. adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18. The surveys were taken between 1966 and 2014, and include responses from some 11.2 million people.
According to Twenge and her cohorts, today’s adolescents view religion as less important, report less “approval” of religious organizations, and spend less time on prayer than did their similarly-aged predecessors. Some 75 percent of American 12th graders, the paper finds, believe that religion is “not important at all” in their lives.
Twenge cites a surge of individualism as the force behind atheism’s relative appeal to a young, self-centric generation. She’s literally written the book on the subject: “Generation Me.” In it, Twenge provides academic rationale to support the allegation that children born in the 1980’s and 1990’s form an “Entitlement Generation,” which she describes as being “tolerant, confident, open-minded, and ambitious but also disengaged, narcissistic, distrustful, and anxious.”
“These trends are part of a larger cultural context, a context that is often missing in polls about religion,” Twenge says. “One context is rising individualism in U.S. culture. Individualism puts the self first, which doesn’t always fit well with the commitment to the institution and other people that religion often requires. As Americans become more individualistic, it makes sense that fewer would commit to religion.”
The study also notes an “increasing acknowledgment that religion is not consistent with scientific understanding” could be driving adolescents away from religion. It is possible that “debates about teaching creationism or intelligent design in U.S. schools, such as those in Kansas in 2005, pushed some young people away from religion,” Twenge and her colleagues write in the study.