In the United States, fewer young Americans identify as religious or attend regular services than members of any other living generation. People in their 20s and early 30s account for more than a third of the country’s “nones,” an academic nickname for the religiously disaffiliated. Religion is no longer the mode through which many people live their lives, and this relatively new state of affairs affects even those who remain religious: It opens up the possibility of beliefs and practices that are not simply inherited, but actively chosen.
This makes some people nervous—for the future of religion, for the strength of cultural mores, and for the health of American communities. And perhaps these worriers have a point. Religion tends to make people happier, healthier, and more civically engaged. It creates a foundation for communal and social life, provides a common set of behavioral rules for people to abide by, and can be a useful guide for navigating the exhaustion and pain of everyday life. Looking out at a generation full of folks who don’t go to church or synagogue or mosque, some sociologists and commentators can’t help but wonder: What will become of us?
But even as the country is becoming somewhat less religious, it is also becoming more religiously diverse. This is true around the world: People everywhere, especially young people, are changing religions, moving locations, and shifting the way they follow rituals and laws. The United States offers a distinctive case study for this phenomenon: Immigrants are introducing their cultural practices into so-called old-time religion; formerly powerful and monolithic-seeming groups, like white Protestants, are fracturing; long-standing assumptions about everything from the relationship between religion and government to acceptable expressions of sexuality are no longer firm.