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What Young Adults in 100 Countries Think of Religion

Despite age gaps, Pew Research uncovers a few places where the next generation is actually more devout than their parents and grandparents.
What Young Adults in 100 Countries Think of Religion
Image: John Moore / Getty Images
By some measures, young adults in Liberia are more faithful than older generations.

Despite concerns about secularization, the world’s population may not be losing its religion quite so fast.

Like in the US, young adults around the globe are generally less devout than their elders, especially in Western Europe and Latin America; however, in other regions, many countries have resisted that trend, welcoming new generations of just-as-eager Christians and Muslim believers, according to a Pew Research Center report released today.

Of the 106 countries in the report, more than half (58 nations) show little or no age gap in religious commitment. In the rest (46 nations), adults under 40 were significantly less likely than their elders to consider religion very important.

Particularly religious countries with higher population growth tend to maintain religious belief and commitment between young and old generations. Pew found that over the past decade these highly religious countries outpaced their less religious counterparts due to high fertility rates and disproportionately young populations, factors often tied to their level of development.

Biggest age gaps

Worldwide, 90 percent of adults over the age of 40 affiliate with a religious tradition, compared to 85 percent of those under 40, Pew reported.

“Although the age gap in religious commitment is larger in some nations than in others, it occurs in many different economic and social contexts,” the researchers wrote, “in developing countries as well as advanced industrial economies, in Muslim-majority nations as well as predominantly Christian states, and in societies that are, overall, highly religious as well as those that are comparatively secular.”

In North America and Western Europe, where secularization has accelerated the most, the difference in religious affiliation between today’s young adults and their elders is pretty stark—two to five times wider than the global age gap.

Canada has the biggest generational religious divide in the world. The difference between Canadian young adults and their elders who affiliate with a particular religion is 28 percentage points.

Other top countries for gaps in religious affiliation include Denmark (26 percentage points), South Korea (24 percentage points), Australia (23 percentage points), and Norway and Sweden (both 20 percentage points).

Though adults in the United States are about twice as likely (53%) as those in Canada (27%) to describe religion as very important in their lives, the US isn’t much further down the list. Its age gap in religious affiliation is 17 percentage points.

More faithful youth

While the Americas and much of Europe showcase the religious contrast between young and old, the Middle East and Africa see little, if any, difference in affiliation across age groups. They’re also the regions where religious commitment is strongest in the first place.

Two majority Christian countries represent the biggest exceptions to the religious age gap seen around the globe. In Ghana, a relatively stable country in West Africa, and Georgia, a former Soviet republic, today’s young people are more likely than older generations to say religion is “very important” in their lives, the report stated.

For example, 91 percent of Ghanaians under 40, compared to 85 percent of older Ghanaians, named religion is very important in their lives.

In three other African nations—Liberia, Rwanda, and Chad—and the Orthodox Christian state of Armenia, young adults claim their religious affiliation, attend services, and commit to daily prayer at higher rates than their parents and grandparents. Liberia, Rwanda, and Armenia are mostly Christian, while Chad is majority-Muslim, with a significant Christian minority of over 40 percent.

Ghana and Chad are the only two countries where young adults are more likely than their elders to identify with their religion.

Liberia and Chad are the only ones where they pray more often, by 12 percent and 6 percent, respectively. (Meanwhile, adults under 40 are around a quarter less likely to pray than their elders in countries such as Japan, Poland, Slovakia, and Portugal.)

Pew suggests one explanation for these handful of countries where young adults are not only as faithful as their elders, but more so: violent conflict.

“The few countries where young adults are more religious than their elders all have something in common: a recent history of violent conflicts leading to civilian deaths,” the report noted. “… it may be that conditions in these places were at least somewhat more stable when older adults were coming of age, and the existential insecurity experienced by younger adults explains why they are more religious.”

Beliefs and behaviors

Countries with Christian majorities and those with Muslim majorities tend toward different kinds of religious gaps between young and old.

In predominantly Christian countries, it’s whether they consider religion a priority; the greatest generational discrepancies emerge over the question of religion’s importance in their lives. In predominantly Muslim countries, it’s a question of mosque attendance. Even in countries where religiosity remains steady across age groups, young people still tend to be less likely to pray daily.

Christian-majority countries face the biggest decrease in religiosity among youths, with about half reporting that religion is less important to younger Christian adults. Muslim-majority countries face a similar dilemma, though not as severe, with about a quarter showing a similar drop in religious commitment among young people.

Especially in the West, these trends may point to a more secular generation of young people, but some analysts hold that people tend to become more religious as they get older.

Religion and development

As noted, the countries with the greatest percentage of people who say religion is “very important” in their lives—mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Central America—are also among the fastest-growing countries in the world.

The Pew report points out a negative correlation between religious commitment and various development factors, such as levels of education, gross domestic product (GDP), and income equality.

That is, countries with widespread education and high wages are typically less religious by traditional measures. Less developed countries—with relatively poorer education and less wealthy populations—generally have more religious populations.

There is, however, one serious outlier in this trend: the United States.

“Of 102 countries, the US is the only one with both above-average GDP per capita and above-average frequency of daily prayer,” stated the Pew researchers. Other measures of religious commitment are considerably higher in the United States than in other developed nations.

Christianity Today has reported on earlier Pew Research examining Americans’ efforts to pass their faith along to their children amid a secularizing culture as well as how Christian and Muslim birth rates will alter the global religious landscape in the coming decades.

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