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For many years, studies have indicated a slow but steady decline in the number of Americans who say they are religious, especially when it comes to younger adults. And now a new Pew Research Center study shows that the trend is far from unique to the United States, where church congregations have been graying for decades.
In a 10-year study of 106 countries and territories around the world, those under 40 are less likely to describe religion as "very important" to them than are older adults in 46 countries. The opposite is true in only two countries — Ghana and the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where younger adults are, on average, more religious than their elders. In the other 58 countries, there was no marked age gap when it came to the question of faith. The places where the age gap is most significant — with a percentage point difference between the two age groups of 20 or higher — are Chile, Greece, Poland, Portugal and Romania. The United States has a 17-point difference: 43 percent of people under 40 say religion is very important to them, compared with 60 percent of adults 40 and older.
Also in the United States, the study — The Age Gap in Religion Around the World — found that the share of adults under 40 who identify with a religious group is 17 percentage points lower than the share of older adults who are religiously affiliated. In Canada, the gap is even larger at 28 points. And there are also double-digit gaps in this area in countries as far-flung as South Korea (24 points) and Finland (17 points).
Even so, Pew says it would be a mistake to assume that the world overall is becoming less religious just because young people are less devout.
"In fact, many of the world's least religious countries have populations that are either shrinking or growing only slowly, while regions with the highest population growth tend to be very religious," Pew said in a release. "For example, sub-Saharan Africa — which has the world's fastest population growth — also has the smallest age gap on importance of religion and has a high rate of religious commitment overall.
"In the average country in the region, 88 percent of younger adults and 89 percent of older adults say that religion is very important in their lives," the release said.
Pew put forth a number of intriguing explanations as to why so many young people are losing their religion. Education can play a role, as rising educational opportunities are usually — but not always — linked with lower levels of religious faith. Furthermore, as people age, have children and start contemplating their own mortality, they often grow more religious. Another theory is that new generations become less religious in tandem with economic development — as collective worries about day-to-day survival become less pervasive and tragic events become less frequent.
"According to this line of thinking, each generation in a steadily developing society would be less religious than the last, which would explain why young adults are less religious than their elders at any given time," Pew said.
Meanwhile, another recent long-term study out of the University of Southern California found that organized religion is attracting more boomers as they find themselves with more time on their hands. Researchers reported that about 1 in 5 members of the boomer generation say that they have "become more engaged" in religion and more involved in religious activities as they approach the end of life. And there was little difference in the views of men and women, which were about equally distributed in terms of increased interest in religion as they became older.