Losing Their Religion - And So . . .?

March 13, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Kids, I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today,” sang Paul Lynde in “Bye-Bye Birdie.” That was 54 years ago.

Paul Lynde is gone, but we now have N. Bradley Wilcox (here) fretting about the Millenials.  Kids . . .
[their]ties to the core human institutions that have sustained the American experiment — work, marriage, and civil society — are worryingly weak.
Not as tuneful, but it’s the thought that counts.

Wilcox is professor of Sociology and the University of Virginia, also, according to the bio on the NRO article, director of the Home Economics Project at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, so he ought to know.  He looks at data from the Pew Survey and the General Social Survey and concludes that the Millenials unless they change their ways as they grow older, will lead the country to political and economic disaster.*

Philip Cohen, on his Family Inequality blog (here), has already pointed some of the problems with Wilcox’s interpretation of the data on work and trust. Philip also provids a link to his earlier criticisms of Wilcox’s assertions about family.

It’s the “civil society” part that interests me. But how to measure engagement in civil society? Voter turnout among the young?  That was slightly higher in 2012 than it was a quarter-century earlier.  Wilcox does not use that. Nor does he use rates of volunteering. Instead he uses a measure of how religious a person is. Here is the graph he borrows from the Pew Survey.


Wilcox puts faith on a par with work and family.  But what benefits does personal religious conviction bring to the society?  Wilcox suggests that a willingness to trust others is a general social good.  And among younger people, the very religious are more trusting, though even among the Very Religious, those distrustful outnumber the trusting by more than two to one.

(Click on a graph for a slightly larger view.)

Interestingly, the Not Religious are more trusting than are the two middle categories, Moderate and Slight.  (The differences, with 900 people in the sample, are not quite statistically significant at the .05 level. The differences between Very Religious and Not Religious do not come close to significance.)

The religious dimension produces its largest difference in rates of marriage.


The Very Religious are the most likely to be married, the Not Religious the least. Wilcox and other conservatives see marriage as good for society and for the individual (married people are more likely to say that they’re happy).

But on other measures, like work, education and income, being religious seems to lose its advantage. 

Work: Wilcox says “full-time work remains the best way to avoid poverty and to chart a path into the middle class.” It also brings “an important sense of dignity and meaning.”  But according to GSS data, religiousness is unrelated to full-time work.



Education: Wilcox says almost nothing about education. Most Americans assume that it’s a good thing for both the individual and the society. School is also one of the important institutions of our society, so presumably staying in school indicates a commitment to civil society.  But it is the Not Religious who get higher degrees, while the Very Religious are more likely to drop out.


Income: Money is obviously a good thing for the individual. But it also matters for civil society.  Most measures of civic engagement (voting, participation in organizations) rise with income. Again, the Not Religious come out on the positive end of the scale.


The Not Religious are more than twice as likely as the Very Religious to have incomes of $80,000 or more. Or as Sen. Marco Rubio might interpret the data, losing your religion increases your chances of being rich by 116%.

In sum, except for being married, religiousness is either not related to the “core human institutions that have sustained the American experiment,”or the direction of the relation contradicts the way Wilcox would like the variables to align.

My point is not that Wilcox is wrong about a lack of civic engagement among the young. When my questions in class about current front-page political issues or important events in US history meet blank stares, I too have my Paul Lynde moments. I wonder: did students a generation or two ago know more about such things? I don’t trust my memory on that.

But whatever civic engagement is, and whether the Millenials have less of it, I don’t think we find that out by asking people about their religious convictions.

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* “a generation of young adults ‘unmoored’ from the institutions of work, family, and civil society, and distrustful of their fellow citizens, can end up succumbing to the siren song of demagogues, especially if the economy dips into a depression.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I left the same comment but without any data, since I am not a Sociologist, I left the same comment about who decided that the definition of Civil Engagement was measured by how religious you are.

You wrote a really good article that I am bookmarking for future reference. You just can't trust that Wilcox.

What we need is MORE Public Sociology, the only ones who seem to be getting press coverage are the Catholic Sociologists.
StraightGrandmother