How American Youth Lost Their Religion in the 1990s

Perhaps the most often repeated statistic in American religion is the increase in the number of people unaffiliated with religion from just 5% of the population in the early 1970s to about 30% of adults in 2022. In a field where change typically moves at a glacial pace, this demographic factoid may represent the most abrupt and consequential shift in American society in the postwar era.

But there was such a more recent phase change, when American religion changed incredibly rapidly, the consequences of which we still feel today.

Using data from the General Social Surveywhich was fielded consistently from 1972 to 2021, and by restricting the sample to adults aged 18 to 35, only one decade is highlighted: the 1990s. Americans seemed to lose their religion virtually overnight.

In 1991, 87% of young adults indicated that their faith was Christian, mainly Catholic and Protestant. Only 8% of this age group reported having no religious affiliation.

In 1998, just seven years later, the share of 18-35 year olds who said they were Christians fell by 14 percentage points to 73%, while the percentage of those who answered “none” jumped to 20%, or an increase of 12%. percentage points. A ratio that had not changed at all between 1972 and 1991 had grown by double-digit percentages in seven years.

What brought about this change at this precise moment in American history? It’s hard to identify just one thing, but there are possible culprits.

The End of the Soviet Union: On Christmas Day 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as President of the Soviet Union and Boris Yeltsin assumed power over Russia.

Described by historian Kevin Kruse and others as a conflict between the virtuous Christian capitalists of the United States and the godless Communists of the Soviet Union, the Cold War was a time when “In God We Trust” first appeared on American coinage and “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.

By the mid-1990s, being non-religious no longer meant being un-American, allowing many uninitiated people to begin expressing their true feelings in inquiries.

Backlash against the religious right: As I describe in my book “None“, evangelical Christians made up about 17% of the American population in 1972; by 1993, this figure had risen to 30%. As Ruth Braunstein argued in The Guardian earlier this year, “backlash against a radical form of religious expression is leading people to distance themselves from all religion, including more moderate religious groups that are seen as guilty by association with radicals.”

In the face of strident rhetoric from Revs. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the rest of the religious right leaders, many moderates headed out of the church and never came back.

Political Polarization: In his excellent 2018 book, Red and blue: the 1990s and the birth of political tribalismSteve Kornacki points out that in 1994 Newt Gingrich led a Republican takeover of the House by refusing to compromise with those across the aisle. Gingrich’s bomb-throwing approach appealed to conservative Christians by portraying Democrats as morally inferior and ungodly. Many young Americans have chosen ungodliness.

Internet: Demographers ignore the impact of the World Wide Web at their peril. It would make sense that as young people were exposed to other religions on new technology – and saw the flaws in their own – some would abandon the faith altogether. But the data does not fully support it. According to the census bureauonly 20% of US households had Internet access in 1997. While many young Americans had Web access at school before they had a home connection, the effect likely only accelerated the cited trends above.

The echo of that fall is what we are experiencing today. Many of those who fled religion in large numbers during this time also chose to raise their children without religion. Today, nearly half of those kids — Millennials and Gen Z — say they have no religious affiliation.

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