To anyone reading the headlines, it’s no surprise that young adults in America are under duress: Rates of depression and anxiety are growing, and happiness levels are declining.
There’s no shortage of guesses about why: social media and cellphones, a shaky economy and reverberating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are popular hypotheses. Husker sociologist Philip Schwadel suspects another factor is at play: the increasing number of young Americans who report they have no religion — and consequently may lack the robust social networks found in many religious communities.
In his virtual Nebraska Lecture on March 30, Schwadel synthesized two decades of his research on religion in America for an audience of 175, discussing the causes and consequences of growing nonreligion in the United States. Schwadel described how the turn toward nonreligion is impacting young Americans across various domains — health, marriage, family, friendships and politics, among others — and how those trends are affecting the country on a larger scale.
Until the end of the 20th century, the United States was one of the most religious of the advanced industrialized nations, Schwadel said. In 1990, just 8% of Americans reported having no religion. By 2000, it was 14%, and by 2023, it ballooned to 28%, according to the General Social Survey. Other social surveys back up these figures.
“This is a monumental change. A fundamental change in American religion, and in American culture more broadly,” said Schwadel, Carl A. Happold Professor of sociology. “Nonreligion is increasing dramatically, and it’s being driven by young Americans.”
He outlined the myriad factors driving the shift: demographics, geography, and family and educational background all play a role. But his lecture’s major focus was on the consequences of the trend: how nonreligious young adults differ from their religious counterparts, and what this means for the nation’s vitality.
Research consistently shows that religious people tend to be happier, healthier and less likely to participate in detrimental health behaviors such as drinking and illicit drug use. Nonreligious young adults, by contrast, report higher levels of mental health problems and more frequent use of alcohol and drugs.
On the national level, this may help explain the higher numbers of alcohol- and drug-related deaths and decreasing life expectancy, Schwadel said. But it’s important to dig deeper into why, exactly, nonreligious young adults are suffering — and how to use that information to turn the tide.
“To be clear, I’m not blaming nonreligious young adults,” Schwadel said. “In fact, the rest of the country has some of the blame. Part of the reason for their worse mental health is because they’re stigmatized. Because we as a nation tend to look down on them.”
To combat this, Schwadel suggested launching more initiatives like the international Seeds of Peace program, which brings together youth from different backgrounds to engage across lines of conflict or difference.
As it stands, youth and young adults in America are increasingly building friendship and social networks with people of similar religious beliefs. Schwadel chronicled his research showing that when adolescents select new friends, they choose friends who are religiously similar to them. And over time, they become more and more religiously aligned with their friends.
This leads to homogenous social groups whose morals and values diverge in significant ways. These groups don’t often interact with each other, fueling the United States’ political polarization and increasingly fraught culture wars.
“Having connections across segmented or segregated social networks is beneficial,” Schwadel said. “These kinds of connections are pivotal because they provide information, resources and access to knowledge that people wouldn’t otherwise have. We’re increasingly lacking this in our country, and religious divisions appear to be affecting this.”
Religious differences are also potentially fueling the declining rates of marriage and birth rate in the United States. Nonreligious young adults are less likely to marry and less likely to have children. And when they do have children, they typically have fewer than their religious counterparts. Schwadel said these patterns have social consequences at the national level, such as more single-parent households and family instability more generally.
The economic effects are also significant: Right now, holding migration steady, the U.S. birth rate falls well below replacement level. This could hinder economic growth and ability to compete in the international marketplace, Schwadel said.
His research also links nonreligion to lower rates of political participation. Nonreligious young Americans are less likely to vote or participate in electoral politics, which is potentially problematic to maintaining a healthy democracy.
Schwadel acknowledged the “doom and gloom” nature of his findings but emphasized it’s possible to counteract these trends. One strategy, already adopted in Western Europe, is creating secular congregations that mirror the practices of traditional religious groups. They gather once a week as a large group and have smaller group meetings throughout the week.
They’re successful because they produce the same pro-social benefits as religion. Often, the advantages enjoyed by religious people derive from the broader community they belong to rather than the theology itself. Tight-knit religious communities frequently step up to provide financial support, babysitting, job connections and other vital supports for their members, Schwadel said.
Following the lecture, Chancellor Ronnie Green moderated a Q&A session with Schwadel covering a range of topics, including whether the U.S. is likely to see a return to religion, agnosticism versus nonreligion and the political homogeneity of congregations.
Nebraska Lectures: The Chancellor’s Distinguished Speaker Series are offered once a semester, sponsored by the Office of Research and Economic Development, the Office of the Chancellor and the Research Council, in collaboration with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. The Nebraska Lectures bring together the university community with the greater community in Lincoln and beyond to celebrate the intellectual life of the university and showcase faculty excellence in research and creative activity.