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Will boomers return to religion?comment (0)

December 12, 2013

Many baby boomers, like their parents, will attend religious services later in life. But unlike their parents, baby boomers are more likely to describe a deep, intense spiritual connection from a personal experience than a religious one from an institutional practice.

Vern Bengtson is the author of the recently published “Families and Faith.’’ He based his findings and predictions on a study of 350 Southern California families and interviews with a subset of 156 families. The study’s scope spanned six generations from 1909 to 1988. 

Bengtson is a professor emeritus of gerontology and sociology at the University of Southern California. He discussed boomers, the rebellious group born between 1946 and 1964, and religion with Religion News Service.

Q: Which part of the study made you think many boomers will end up attending religious services when they currently do not?

A: We now know that the oldest generations had an uptick in attending religious services after retirement. ... I’m willing to predict this will happen to [boomers] based on what we’ve observed in older generations and from what we heard in the interviews with boomers.

Q: You list examples in your book of young boomers saying they reject religion. How then do you make the jump that they will eventually go to a church ... when they’re older?

A: When people get older, they ... have more time to think about moral, religious and spiritual things. Our study shows this. ... They will also face a serious illness or lose a loved one for the first time. The religious education of their grandchildren becomes a concern for some grandparents. ... They might have skipped a generation by not educating their own children, but they got older and discovered one of the most wonderful things in life and won’t want to miss an opportunity with their grandchildren.

Q: How do the religious and spiritual views of baby boomers set them apart from the other generations?

A: The oldest groups (1909–1931) were religious and went to church until a certain age set in when they found it physically too difficult to go anymore. When asked if they were spiritual, they said “What’s spirituality?’’ They were more likely to link spirituality and religion to institutional practice.

Boomers were the first generation to clearly differentiate between spirituality and religion. ... They are the first to associate spirituality with an emotion, an intense feeling of connection with God.

Millennials (early 1980s to early 2000s) said, “Religion — what’s that?” ... They have much less of an awareness of religious ... traditions.

Q:  The number of “nones”  — those who claim no traditional religious affiliation — has doubled to 20 percent of the U.S. population in one decade. Does your research support or dispute that finding?

A: First of all, this is a varied group. ... Some of the nones are still looking to find a religion to meet their needs. Some are spiritual but not religious. Some attend religious services. And some are anti-religious.

Q: What brought about the development of the “nones”?

A: There’s no single answer. We have seen a high degree of intergenerational similarity in nonreligion today, and the transmission of nonreligion from parents to their children can be seen to a far greater degree than in the past. Some of this is rooted in the 1960s and 1970s, a time of great social upheaval.

Q: Is there any sign the nones will ... move toward stronger religious affiliations?

A: I can speak from a personal experience. I came from a conservative religious family. ... I started to question my faith during college. ... I was an atheist for 35 years. But when I retired, I walked into a progressive church on Easter Sunday, heard the choir singing and was utterly surprised by joy. I haven’t stopped going to church.


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