Faith still important to young people, research shows


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Here’s a bit of good news about religion for a change: Not all young people are giving up their faith.

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Here’s a bit of good news about religion for a change: Not all young people are giving up their faith.

That’s the finding of new research by Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme titled “Religion, Spirituality and Secularity among Millennials: The Generation Shaping American and Canadian Trends.”

“When we hear about religious decline, we assume that’s all young people,” said the professor of sociology at the University of Waterloo.

“There’s still a decent sized group engaged with faith.”

Her research, published in August, found that 24 per cent of Canadian millennials — people born between 1981 and 1996 — say they are religious. These are people who are most likely to be religiously affiliated, attend religious services, pray and believe in God according to the teachings of their religion.

One possible reason for this is because many are from immigrant families, where religion is still highly valued. “This group of Canadians is the most religiously diverse, ever,” she said.

An additional 20 per cent of millennials were categorized as “spiritual seekers.”

These are people who “have a foot in both worlds,” said Wilkins-Laflamme, herself a millennial.

They may attend services occasionally and believe in God in their own ways, she said, adding they might also participate in spiritual activities such as yoga, meditation, mindfulness and being outdoors in nature.

A third group is what she calls “cultural believers.” These are people who identify with a religion — who say they are Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or part of another group, if asked — but are not involved in it. About 20 per cent of Canadian millennials fit that category.

They would be like the person who told her: “I’m Catholic because I was born Catholic. And I wouldn’t want to be anything more than Catholic. But nothing more than that.”

The largest group are the non-religious millennials, at 36 per cent. These are people who don’t identify with any religion and don’t participate in religious activities.

There’s a good chance they are this way because of their parents.

“If parents are non-religious, the kids will tend to be non-religious too,” she said, adding “once habits are formed, like not going to worship services, they are hard to break.”

Not all had that experience; some millennials grew up in religious homes but decided against it as they grew older, she said.

For some, distrust in organized religion is the result of sexual-abuse scandals and residential school history. Some can’t reconcile science with the faith they were brought up in.

Others find it hard to fit religious services and observances into their busy lives if they are going to school and working two jobs.

For them, “there’s not a lot of time for other things like going to services,” Wilkins-Laflamme said.

Altogether, the trends point in one direction: less engagement with organized religion.

“More and more Canadians are moving away from religion,” she said, adding this includes millennials. “The slope is down, but that’s not the whole story.”

What researchers like Wilkins-Laflamme don’t know is what millennials will do when they hit middle age, have children and confront the realities of aging and mortality.

Based on what’s happened with their parents’ generation, where so many have left religion behind, Wilkins-Laflamme thinks the chance of them becoming religious as they get older isn’t great.

This portends poorly for religion in general, she observed; if millennials don’t bring up their children to be religious, they won’t be religious when they grow older, either — each generation will be less religious than the one before.

“If parents aren’t religious, children won’t pick it up on their own,” she said.

One group that is doing a better job of seeing families remain faithful and keep attending services are conservative Christian churches. But even they are experiencing challenges. “They are declining slower than mainline churches,” she said.

All religious groups, however, are facing challenges over moral questions due to the changing attitudes by millennials towards issues like abortion and LGBTTQ+ inclusion.

Studies in the U.S. show that religious millennials are more progressive than older generations when it comes to legal access to abortion and support for same-sex marriage, while Canadian millennials are even more progressive on these issues than their American counterparts, Wilkins-Laflamme said.

While Wilkins-Laflamme’s research was done in 2019 before the pandemic, she doesn’t expect things to be different today because of it — except maybe accelerating the changing religious landscape.

“We have been seeing these changes for many years now,” she said.

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John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

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