Monday, July 07, 2008

Review of UnChristian: Age vs. cohort effects

(Part 11 in a series)

Today's topic isn't so much a critique as a clarification of issues. It seems that a common source of panic among Christians is the idea that we're losing the young people, with the implication being that soon there will be no church.

Other writing by Christians have put a lot more emphasis on this issue (for example), though it is a subtext of UnChristian--if young, outsiders think ill of Christians, and they are growing in number, what then is to become of the church? For example, on p. 18, UnChristian presents a table indicating that there are more "outsiders" to the church in the younger generations.

A worthwhile distinction here is between the effects of age, generations, and history. Maybe some things happen as people get older, regardless of when in history. There's other things that happen to particular generations. A historical effect is something that affects everyone at that time. For example, getting taller is an age effect--happens in all generations. The depression deeply affected people who grew up at that time, and this marked them for the rest of their lives. Global warming would be a history effect--something that affects us all.

Here's the question. If we observe that young people today are less religious than old people, is this an age effect (i.e., happens every generation) or a generation effect (i.e., we've lost today's youth) or a history effect (everyone is less religious).

Various studies have looked at this more in depth, and I'll probably be posting on them in the future, but for now I ran some quick analyses using the GSS, and the answer seems to be both aging and history. Young people less religious than older people, and people are, in general, becoming less religious.

As shown below, in every decade, older people are more likely to define themselves as Christian than younger people. However, as shown below, the percentage of people affiliating with Christianity is dropping.

To explore these patterns among young people, I distinguished between those who did not define themselves as Christians, those who did but did not attend church often, and those who did and attended church often (e.g., 2x or 3x a month).

As shown below, over time there are fewer young people who infrequently attend church, and this is where most the loss has come from. There's been less change in the percentage of those who regularly attend church.

Not sure what to make of this, but it's kind of interesting.

Part 12 in the series


Jim King said...

I think its interesting that it would appear that people in general are becoming less religious. I wonder though if it is really that they are becoming less religious or is the idea of Christianity becoming so diluted that it may or may not even be considered religion anymore as some of the recent Pew Research data would have you believe ( If 57% of evangelicals believe that many religions can lead to eternal life it would seem people becoming less religious is not nearly as big a problem as determining what those that claim to be religious actually believe.

Brad Wright said...

Well, the GSS asks people how they define themselves, so even if it's a diluted understanding of theology, as long as they describe themselves as Christians the data would count them.