SDSU Study: Religion Down, Afterlife Belief Up Among Millennials; Reason? Feeling “Entitled” to get “Something for Nothing”

A recent San Diego State University poll led by psychology professor Jean Twenge shows that Americans are five times less likely to pray as compared to the early 1980’s, and twice as many said they do not believe in God.  The biggest decline is among 18-29 year olds, the so-called millennials.  The study also shows that despite the decline in religious affiliation or practice, belief in the afterlife has increased.  How does Professor Twenge explain this?

“It was interesting that fewer people participated in religion or prayed but more believed in an afterlife,” Twenge said. “It might be part of a growing entitlement mentality – thinking you can get something for nothing.” –source

 You can read the full white paper here as published in the journal Sage Open.

Beyond the rather arrogant assumption that one must ‘participate in religion’ or ‘pray’ in order to ‘earn’ a belief in the afterlife (which I will get into later), the study had some other interesting surprises when I dug a little deeper.

Professor Twenge’s study is called “Declines in American adults’ religious participation and beliefs, 1972-2014” and it clearly shows a real decline in religiosity, but what about spirituality?  Professor Twenge claims that general spirituality has not replaced organized religion and is declining, proving that young people are simply becoming more secular.

But is that really true?  Professor Twenge’s paper states:

“Despite popular conceptions that public religious involvement has decreased while private expressions of religion and spirituality have stayed about the same, stark distinctions between religion and spirituality may be more theoretical than practical. Although religion and spirituality are known to be distinct constructs (i.e., religion is comprised of social and ritualized aspects of personal belief, whereas spirituality includes the search for meaning or transcendence in daily life; Pargament, 1999),  these two constructs often overlap, and highly religious individuals often identify as being highly spiritual as well (for a review, see Hill & Pargament, 2003). Moreover, although some individuals certainly do identify as spiritual but not religious (e.g., Saucier & Skrzypinska, 2006), a much larger proportion of individuals identify as both religious and spiritual (Pargament, 1999), and many people have difficulty substantively differentiating between the two on an individual level (Hill et al., 2000; Zinnbauer et al., 1997). Therefore, as religious commitment has decreased, one may also expect decreases in private religious practice and individual spirituality.”

Professor Twenge predicts a decrease in spirituality along with the decline in religious practice.  This suggests that spirituality not distinct from religious affiliation is a small and not statistically significant proportion, and “private spiritual practice” and “individual spirituality” are largely dependent upon “religious commitment.”

The results, however indicate that In fact, spirituality remained statistically high over time: according to Professor Twenge’s study, in 1996, 62% considered themselves strongly or moderately spiritual.  In 2014, the figure rises to 65%.  That’s a small increase in spirituality despite the decline in religious participation.

When looking a millennials in particular, “There is some suggestion that young people were less spiritual in 2014 vs. 1998, though the decline was not statistically significant” because “the percentage of 18-to-29-year-olds identifying as moderately or strongly spiritual declined 6%, from 50% in 1998 to 47% in 2014”  (I’m not sure how 50% to 47% represents a 6% decline?)  Therefore while young people may be becoming less religious, they are not becoming less spiritual.

One of the questions asked in the survey is about the certainty of the existence of God.  The respondents were asked to choose between the following:

  1. I don’t believe in God
  2. I don’t know whether there is a God and I don’t believe there is any way to find out
  3. I don’t believe in a personal God but I do believe in a higher power of some kind

Professor Twenge counted all three choices as “Do not believe in God.”

In order to understand why this is a problem, look at the third choice: “I don’t believe in a personal God but I do believe in a higher power of some kind.”

Belief in a personal God (one that personally intercedes in all aspects of human life) is endemic to the three major Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism), but belief in a non-personal ‘higher power’ tends to relate to a more spiritual viewpoint such as pantheism or deism.  Clearly, this is bias against non-religious spirituality in general if belief in a non-personal God is considered not believing in God at all.  It’s a biased approach in favor of the Abrahamistic view of a personal God as the only acceptable choice.

According to the above definition, Twenge found that 22% “didn’t believe in God”, which includes those who ‘believe in a higher power’.  In key findings from this study from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, they found that a flat 92% of all Americans believe in either God or a ‘higher spirit’ regardless of their view of what ‘God’ means to them.  Belief in a personal god may be declining as a result of the decline in religious affiliation as Professor Twenge suggests, but belief in a “higher power” may not be.  It’s an important distinction and not addressed in the survey.

The biggest surprise that Professor Twenge found in her study was related to afterlife belief:

“One increase in religious belief did emerge: slightly more Americans believe in life after death (see Tables 1 and 2). Thus, more Americans believe in life after death even as fewer belong to a religion, fewer attend religious services, and fewer pray. In the 1970s, only about 7% of Americans never attended religious services but nevertheless believed in life after death;  13 by 2014, twice as many (15%) showed this disconnect between behavior and belief, and 21% among young people.”

From the Pew Forum study,(p. 11) The overall percentage of Americans who believe in life after death is 74%; a staggering number, especially compared with the statistical declines in religiosity and religious affiliation found in Professor Twenge’s paper.

However, Professor Twenge puts forth a somewhat disturbing opinion for this “paradoxical” belief even as she admits that “current data make it difficult to determine the cause of rising belief in the afterlife” (emphasis mine):

“In comparison to those from earlier years and generations, American adults in recent years and generations were slightly more likely to believe in an afterlife. Combined with the decline in religious participation and belief, this might seem paradoxical. One plausible, though speculative, explanation is that this is another example of the rise in entitlement – expecting special privileges without effort (Campbell, Bonacci, Shelton, Exline, & Bushman, 2004; Twenge & Foster, 2010). Entitlement appears in religious and spiritual domains when people see themselves as deserving spiritual rewards or blessings due to their special status (e.g., Grubbs et al., 2014). Entitlement centered on afterlife beliefs could be seen as a modern rendition of Pascal’s wager, in which the individual observes that believing in God and a positive afterlife has few downsides, but not believing has the major possible downside of condemnation to eternal suffering (Hájek, 2003). However, the current data make it difficult to determine the cause of rising belief in the afterlife.”

The biggest offense of this viewpoint is the inherent suggestion that all millennials believe that one must ‘earn’ acceptance to the afterlife and yet feel ‘entitled’ to acceptance without religious affiliation. This accusation presupposes that religious affiliation is somehow required for afterlife belief, and that one must earn their place in it through religious devotion.  Furthermore, Professor Twenge has suggested that young people feel that they deserve “something for nothing” and should receive “special privileges without effort”.

Professor Twenge has failed to recognize the emerging belief that life after death is simply the continuation of consciousness, not a “privilege” bestowed by a judgmental god who determines if we’ve earned it.  Her opinion is an artifact of religious belief systems and should not be attributed to any motive on behalf of an entire group of people.

Professor Twenge’s study also hasn’t taken into account the effect of the internet, which wasn’t available when the survey was first given in 1970.  With a global exchange of ideas and access to information though the internet, young people can now explore a variety of religious and spiritual ideas.  Thousands of near-death experience reports, death bed visions, after-death communications, mediumship and channeling demonstrations, scientific inquests and consciousness studies allow people to look at the evidence and decide for themselves what they believe, which may include the belief of an afterlife for all, no strings attached.

There is a growing movement of secular spiritualism in the western world, one that has been underestimated because it cannot be defined by one single set of tenets or creeds.  Religion is still a viable pathway to spiritual belief for many, but for some they desire an expanded and more interactive brand of spirituality, one that looks at the evidence contained in millions of direct personal experiences instead of relying on the promises and prophecies of ancient texts.  This is why I believe spirituality remains high and religion is declining.  It does a disserve to insult young people who no longer adhere to the religious status quo when they can consider so many other types of philosophies and ideas.

We now have the freedom to create personal belief systems that are individualized, sophisticated, intelligent and evidence-based.  Sadly, our academic studies still lump all of these beliefs into “spiritual”, “non-affiliated” or “other” which discounts the momentum of this undefinable and yet indomitable spiritual movement.


6 thoughts on “SDSU Study: Religion Down, Afterlife Belief Up Among Millennials; Reason? Feeling “Entitled” to get “Something for Nothing”

  1. I am not inclined to have any faith in any of these reported figures, unless they are accompanied by an analysis of the researcher’s own beliefs or belief system. From my own observation, most people who are committed members of an established religion have little or no understanding of the associated spiritual belief. Their adherence seems to be more about the social group- “safety in numbers”. From personal experience, it has been the very process of peeling away the socially cohesive religious indoctrination, that has allowed me the freedom to explore my own spiritual awareness. But then I’m totally biased – so what do I know? Sally.


    1. Very true, Sally. I was tempted to make an assumption of the researcher’s own belief system based on the conclusion she drew, but I held back. You are right about the social aspect of religion, both its strong and weak aspects. Religion does give people a type of security and foundation that they don’t get with a personal belief system, along with all the social benefits of belonging to a group. However, I think everyone has the responsibility to examine their faith in depth and compare it to their own internal barometer. I’m consistently shocked by the number of Christians who have never read the bible, for example.


  2. With you all the way. Brings to mind the well-worn saying, “Faith is the ability to believe in something you know isn’t true.” And that’s fine – as long as you are AWARE that’s what you’re doing and have valid reason for doing so. I must blog something about my theory of God Forms. Sally


  3. […] Dr. Betty cites an interesting study that was done by Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University that shows how this belief in the afterlife is rising amongst millennials, despite their decidedly low participation in religion.  Twenge attributes this fact (most arrogantly, I would add) to the idea that millennials feel ‘entitled’ to get something (in this case, the afterlife) for nothing (no church); something I railed about in my March post SDSU Study: Religion Down, Afterlife Belief Up Among Millennials; Reason? Feeling “Entitled” to … […]


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