What does religious loyalty look like?

Dec 2005, Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney, Australia.

It's always interesting to see what stories reporters jump on and which are ignored. This has actually been a good year for coverage of changes in religious affiliation, thanks to some major studies on the matter. Here's a CNN piece headlined "Study: Young Americans less religious than their parents," for instance. I caught this Reuters story about another study with a somewhat surprising take on denominational affiliation and waited for a few more stories to come in before posting on it. They never came. The Reuters headline? "Young Americans more loyal to religion than Boomers." Both this story and the CNN piece above were based on what appear to be solid data. There is no necessary conflict between the two studies -- young Americans might on average be both less religious and more loyal to religion than their parents.

But for those of us who are involved with our denominations, this is interesting news and I wish it would have gotten more play. This is purely anecdotal but I recently attended my church body's convention (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod). I had also attended the convention six years prior. At the previous convention, if I had to describe the average delegate age, it wouldn't have been "young." At this convention, I actually ran into delegates who I had met at youth events when they were in high school. The pastors were young, the laypeople were young. In many cases, I felt old. And only six years had passed. I wondered if it was just my church body where young people seemed so much more involved in denominational affairs.

OK, on to the story. Here's how it begins:

Younger Americans, between the ages of 36 to 50, are more likely to be loyal to religion than Baby Boomers, according to new research.

In a study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Philip Schwadel, of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said this was true even though they were less likely than previous generations to have been brought up with a religion.

He said the trend "is good news for those who worry about declining religious adherence."

Now, just last week did I make it into that age group and while I would be flattered to think of myself as "young," I'm not sure that's technically accurate. But the upper bound on that is particularly off, no? Apparently different people have different definitions for "Baby Boomer" but by my definition, the youngest are only turning 46 this year, right?. So if this age group includes Baby Boomers, how can we say they're more loyal than Baby Boomers?

Unfortunately the rest of the story is just as confusing. The study itself may have been great -- based on the General Social Survey of more than 37,000 people from 1973 to 2006. But the lack of data in the story made it almost worthless. We learn that non-affiliation with religion grew from 8 percent in the 1970s to 16 percent by 2006. But I never got a good idea of what the study determined with regard to loyalty, per se. The quotes didn't really help much either:

The professor attributed the change to what he described as "a backlash by political liberals against the conservatism of the 1980s and into the 90s."

He suggests that liberal people who had only a tangential connection to religion may have decided to leave their faith because of the conservative emphasis on religion.

"The Boomers' enmity toward organized religion is still evident in the relatively large proportion of their children and grandchildren who are raised with no religious affiliation," he added.

So it would have been nice to see some more coverage. Did this study merely look at loyalty to any religion, loyalty to the same religion or denominational loyalty? I'm still pretty unsure.

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