Is the U.S. becoming more secular, at least so far as organized religion is concerned?

This recent study by Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (also using data from General Social Surveys) would say that it is.  Or, more accurately, perhaps, Millennial-age people seem to have less of a strong affiliation with a particular religious group.

Though this is an interesting study to be sure, there are at least 2 sets of variables that I feel the research should have been isolated to a more precise degree:

  • Stage of Life trends vs. Generational trends: In surveying young people about religion, it’s always hard to differentiate religious identification levels that are tied to a particular life stage (ie-people between the ages of 18-29 are less likely to be affiliated with a mosque, synagogue, church or other faith community, even if they are likely to self-identify as religious later in life) from affiliation levels that are tied to genuine generational differences, shaped by the particular zeitgeist of a formative period and persistent throughout the lifetime of an individual who is part of the Millennial cohort.
  • Religious vs. Spiritual Self-Identification: this proverbial distinction is quite obvious, but measuring degrees of spirituality in the Millennial group could prove instructive.  How many find meaning in supernatural experiences of some sort?

The general reaction to this research has been to seize on the secularizing trend among Millennials and to ask whether the U.S. is on an accelerating path to secularization.  This is an important question to ask.

However, we don’t have a true picture of the degree of secularization until we’ve looked at the big picture–how many find sacred experiences in nature?  How many might say they experience God, or the transcendent or Nirvana outside of a traditional religious context?

To get a more robust picture of Faith in the Future (at least a more robust picture of it as it finds expression in the slice of the world called the United States) we must look to nuanced questions.