Highlights from “Back-Pocket God: Religion and Spirituality in the Lives of Emerging Adults” by Denton and Flory (2020)

Back-Pocket God: Religion and Spirituality in the Lives of Emerging Adults provides a summary of key findings from the last wave of the National Study on Youth and Religion, a large panel study of adolescents and young adults over a ten-year time frame. Survey participants were interviewed at four different times, about 2-3 years apart, from age 13-17 through 23-28.

Some of the highlights from this book include:

Popular narratives about Millennials and GenZers “losing their religion” are largely supported by the evidence. Religious disaffiliation is increasing at higher rates than for previous generations across all religious traditions. At the same time, there is a smaller group of young adults that are maintaining or increasing their religious commitment and participation. The middle is “hollowing out” compared to previous generations.

Today’s young adults tend to think of God as a “back-pocket” god: one that is with them but doesn’t have a strong influence on their day-to-day life but that they can whip out of their back pocket as needed. “God functions, in a sense, like a smartphone app–readily accessible, easy to control, and useful only for limited purposes” (pg 6).

Those that remain religious are increasingly not depending on traditional institutional structures. Instead, they are picking and choosing from a variety of different religious beliefs, practices, etc. even as they might continue to participate in a particular religious tradition or house of worship. (See more about this approach to religion here.)

Contrary to popular narratives, most of those who have become less religious as young adults don’t begrudge their religious upbringing and generally are ambivalent or positive about religious institutions in general. They just don’t see it as terribly relevant for themselves. It’s a lower priority than education, starting a career, family, and friends.

One of the reasons that more adolescents and young adults are becoming less religious is because it’s not as socially expected that a person regularly participate in a religious community. In other words, there’s less peer pressure to go to church. This means, though, that those who are participating are there because they want to be there. As adolescents and young adults aged through the decade of the study, the correlation between their personal religiosity and religious participation increased.

Using data from all four waves of the panel survey, they created six different patterns of religious behavior over the course of the decade:

  1. About 30% were consistently religious from adolescence through young adulthood.
  2. About 25% were not very religious in adolescence and continued to not be very religious into young adulthood.
  3. About 40% were religiously active as adolescents but declined to moderate or low levels of activity in young adulthood.
  4. Only 8% increased levels of religious activity from adolescence through young adulthood. Most were moderately religious as teenagers and become slightly more religious as young adults, while only a few (2% of total sample) were moderately/less religious as adolescents and became actively religious as young adults.

Looking at the first group–those who were consistently religious through adolescence and adulthood. The strongest predictor of being in this category was their home environment–those whose parents regularly talked about religion/spirituality, who regularly took them to religious services, who regularly prayed at home, were much more likely to continue to be religiously active into young adulthood. These folks tended to be, as young adults, college educated, married, and politically conservative. ALSO IMPORTANT: they tended to stay religious, in part, because they got married and started having children while they were still religious. Contrary to popular narratives that young adults become less religious in high school/college then start back up when they get married and have kids, the data in the survey suggested that this is more the exception rather than the rule.

Whatever most religious institutions are doing to try to retain their youth, it’s not working exceptionally well. They will have to confront the question of how much to adapt to a generation of young adults with “Back-Pocket God” theologies who are not terribly interested in the established traditions of religious institutions and who are more comfortable taking a “do it yourself” approach to spirituality.

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