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By several measures, young adults tend to be less religious than their elders.
In the United States, religious congregations have been graying for decades, and young adults are now much less religious than their elders. Recent surveys have found that younger adults are far less likely than older generations to identify with a religion, believe in God or engage in a variety of religious practices.
But this is not solely an American phenomenon: Lower religious observance among younger adults is common around the world, according to a new analysis of Pew Research Center surveys conducted in more than 100 countries and territories over the last decade.
Although the age gap in religious commitment is larger in some nations than in others, it occurs in many different economic and social contexts – in developing countries as well as advanced industrial economies, in Muslim-majority nations as well as predominantly Christian states, and in societies that are, overall, highly religious as well as those that are comparatively secular.
For example, adults younger than 40 are less likely than older adults to say religion is “very important” in their lives not only in wealthy and relatively secular countries such as Canada, Japan and Switzerland, but also in countries that are less affluent and more religious, such as Iran, Poland and Nigeria.
While this pattern is widespread, it is not universal. In many countries, there is no statistically significant difference in levels of religious observance between younger and older adults. In the places where there is a difference, however, it is almost always in the direction of younger adults being less religious than their elders.
Same pattern seen over multiple measures of religious commitment
Overall, adults ages 18 to 39 are less likely than those ages 40 and older to say religion is very important to them in 46 out of 106 countries surveyed by Pew Research Center over the last decade. In 58 countries, there are no significant differences between younger and older adults on this question. And just two countries – the former Soviet republic of Georgia and the West African country of Ghana – have younger adults who are, on average, more religious than their elders.
Similar patterns also are found using three other standard measures of religious identification and commitment: affiliation with a religious group, daily prayer and weekly worship attendance.
In 41 countries, adults under 40 are significantly less likely than their elders to have a religious affiliation, while in only two countries (Chad and Ghana) are younger adults more likely to identify with a religious group. In 63 countries, there is no statistically significant difference in affiliation rates.
Younger adults are less likely to say they pray daily in 71 of 105 countries and territories for which Pew Research Center survey data are available, while they are more likely to pray daily in two countries (Chad and Liberia). And adults under 40 are less likely to attend religious services on a weekly basis in 53 of 102 countries; the opposite is true in just three countries (Armenia, Liberia and Rwanda).
While the number of countries with a significant age gap shows how widespread this pattern is, it does not give a sense of the magnitude of the differences between older and younger adults on these measures.
In many countries, the gaps are relatively small. Indeed, the average gap between younger adults and older adults across all the countries surveyed is 5 percentage points for affiliation, 6 points for importance of religion, 6 points for worship attendance and 9 points for prayer.
But a substantial number of countries have much bigger differences. There are gulfs of at least 10 percentage points between the shares of older and younger adults who identify with a religious group in more than two dozen countries – mostly with predominantly Christian populations in Europe and the Americas. For example, the share of U.S. adults under age 40 who identify with a religious group is 17 percentage points lower than the share of older adults who are religiously affiliated. The gap is even larger in neighboring Canada (28 points). And there are double-digit age gaps in affiliation in countries as far flung as South Korea (24 points), Uruguay (18 points) and Finland (17 points).
Differences among regions, religions
Age gaps are more common in some geographic regions than others. For instance, in 14 out of 19 countries and territories surveyed in Latin America and the Caribbean, adults under age 40 are significantly less likely than their elders to say religion is very important in their lives. This is also the case in about half of the European countries surveyed (18 out of 35), and in both countries in North America (the U.S. and Canada; Mexico is included in the figures for Latin America).
On the other hand, in sub-Saharan Africa, where overall levels of religious commitment are among the highest in the world, there is no significant difference between older and younger adults in terms of the importance of religion in 17 out of 21 countries surveyed.
Age gaps are also more common within some religious groups than in others. For example, religion is less important to younger Christian adults in nearly half of all the countries around the world where sample sizes are large enough to allow age comparisons among Christians (37 out of 78). For Muslims, this is the case in about one-quarter of countries surveyed (10 out of 42). Among Buddhists, younger adults are significantly less religious in just one country (the United States) out of five countries for which data are available. There is no age gap by this measure among Jews in the U.S. or Israel, or among Hindus in the U.S. or India.1
Do age gaps mean the world is becoming less religious?
The widespread pattern in which younger adults tend to be less religious than older adults may have multiple potential causes. Some scholars argue that people naturally become more religious as they age; to others, the age gap is a sign that parts of the world are secularizing (i.e., becoming less religious over time).
But even if parts of the world are secularizing, it is not necessarily the case that the world’s population, overall, is becoming less religious. On the contrary, the most religious areas of the world are experiencing the fastest population growth because they have high fertility rates and relatively young populations.
Previously published projections show that if current trends continue, countries with high levels of religious affiliation will grow fastest. The same is true for levels of religious commitment: The fastest population growth appears to be occurring in countries where many people say religion is very important in their lives.
These are among the key findings of a new Pew Research Center analysis of surveys collected over the last decade in 106 countries. The data analyzed in this report come from 13 different Pew Research Center studies, including annual Global Attitudes Surveys as well as major studies on religion in sub-Saharan Africa; the Middle East and other countries with large Muslim populations; Latin America; the United States; Central and Eastern Europe; and Western Europe.
The number of countries analyzed varies by measure and type of comparison. While data are available for as many as 106 countries depending on the measure, the number of countries with reliable data on a particular religious group depends on the size of that group in each country’s sample. For example, there are sufficient data to gauge the importance of religion among Christians in 84 countries, and the sample sizes are large enough to compare responses among older and younger Christians in 78 of those 84 countries.
Another limitation is that the measures of religious observance contained in many surveys around the world and analyzed in this report may not be equally suitable for all religious groups. In particular, rates of prayer and attendance at worship services are generally seen as reliable indicators of religious observance within Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Islam and Judaism), but they may not be as applicable for Buddhism, Hinduism and other Eastern religions. Because of these disparities, this report does not seek to compare levels of religious commitment between the world’s major religions (e.g., to compare Christians with Buddhists or Muslims). Rather, the primary focus is on age differences withinreligious groups and within countries or geographic regions (e.g., comparing younger Christians with older Christians, or younger Indonesians with older Indonesians).
This study, produced with funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation, is part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project, a broader effort to understand religious change, including the demographic patterns shaping religion around the world. Previous reports have focused on gender and religion, religion and education and population growth projections for major world religions.
The rest of this report looks in more detail at both age gaps in religious commitment and overall levels of religious commitment around the world, by four standard measures: religious affiliation, importance of religion, attendance and prayer. But, first, we examine theories about why levels of religious observance vary so markedly across different age groups and different parts of the world.
1. Why do levels of religious observance vary by age and country?
Social scientists have proposed various explanations for age gaps in religious commitment around the world. One common explanation is that new generations become less religious in tandem with economic development – as collective worries about day-to-day survival become less pervasive and tragic events become less frequent. According to this line of thinking, each generation in a steadily developing society would be less religious than the last, which would explain why young adults are less religious than their elders at any given time.
Rising education levels are often closely tied to economic development. Some theorists suggest education could reduce religious identity and practice, although empirical findings about the relationship between education and religion are complex.2 In societies where access to education is spreading and the average number of years of schooling is rising, younger generations tend to receive more education than their parents and grandparents did. Directly or indirectly, this increase in education could be part of why younger adults are less religious.
Another theory is that differences in religious commitment reflect change during the life course. Although young adults often start out less religious than their elders, they tend to become more devout as they age, have children and begin to face their own mortality (or so the theory suggests).
These explanations are not mutually exclusive – it is possible that young people will become more religious as they age, but will still be less religious than previous generations if their countries become more affluent and stable. Pew Research Center surveys and other international data provide some evidence for both societal and life-course influences on religious commitment.
The ‘existential insecurity’ explanation for variation in religion
Variations in religious commitment also can be attributed to differences in the way countries – and often whole regions – developed historically, and how each society practices religion. Even though these differences do not directly explain the existence of age gaps, they affect how successive generations experience religion and respond to questions about observance.
As the map above shows, the countries with the highest shares of people who say religion is very important in their lives are in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America, while those with the lowest shares are in Europe, North America, East Asia and Australia.
This has led many researchers to observe that people in poorer parts of the world are, on average, more religious than those in societies with advanced economies.3 Other indicators of economic development – such as education, life expectancy and income equality – also tend to align with measures of religious commitment.
Pew Research Center data show, for example, a clear correlation between life expectancy at birth in a country and the percentage of its people who attend religious services weekly. That is, the higher the life expectancy in a country, the less likely people are to attend services frequently.
Political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, examining findings from the World Values Survey, attribute the pattern of higher religious commitment in poor places to stark differences in existential insecurity – that is, the degree of safety and security people feel as they go about their daily lives.4
As their theory goes, in places where people face a constant threat of premature death due to hunger, war or disease, feelings of vulnerability tend to drive people to religion, which in turn provides hope and reduces anxiety. In countries with advanced economies, meanwhile, people are more likely to feel safe – in part because technology and infrastructure investments in these societies have helped people overcome many common health problems, cope with severe weather, and deal with other types of emergencies that can cause existential anxiety. Norris and Inglehart contend that people in these countries rely less on religion for emotional support or for explanations of the unknown.
When new cohorts of adults grow up in societies with greater existential security than their parents had – as may be the case in a country with improving economic conditions – young adults may drift away from religion, producing the age differences described in this report. By the same token, a decline in existential security within a country that falls into civil war or some other calamity could help to explain some of the exceptions – places where younger adults are more religious than their elders.
Can tragedies increase religious commitment levels?
Do large-scale catastrophes such as famines, wars and earthquakes spur increases in religious behavior? It’s hard to tell, because researchers usually lack comparative data from before and after a disaster. An exception, though, is a February 2011 earthquake in New Zealand that resulted in 185 deaths and thousands of injuries.
The earthquake and its aftershocks struck between the 2009 and 2011 phases of the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study, a national longitudinal survey. This allowed researchers to compare levels of religious affiliation before and after the quake, and they discovered that people living in the Canterbury region, where the earthquake hit, seemed to become more religious.5
From 2009 to 2011, the Canterbury region showed a net gain in religious affiliation of 3.4%. That compares with a 1.6% net drop in religious affiliation across the rest of New Zealand during that same period.
The researchers cautioned that explanations for conversion can be complicated; they did not directly link their findings to a quest for comfort by the earthquake’s survivors, and they noted that some people in the affected area turned away from religion. Still, the researchers described the “significant overall increase in religious faith” among those affected by the earthquake as “remarkable.”
In a separate study, the economist Jeanet Sinding Bentzen found that people living in places where earthquakes and other unpredictable natural disasters, such as tsunamis and floods, recently occurred are more religious than people living elsewhere.6 Likewise, among victims of Hurricane Katrina, which battered the Gulf Coast of the United States in 2005, 67% reported becoming more religious as a result of the trauma.7 Survivors whose religious commitment increased also had lower rates of mental illness and suicidal thoughts following the hurricane than others.
This effect is not limited to natural disasters. Some survivors who were inside or in the immediate vicinity of the World Trade Center buildings during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, reported having stronger religious faith after the attacks.8 There was also a short-lived increase in worship service attendance among the U.S. general public immediately after the attacks.9
Religious commitment is lower in countries with higher education, higher GDP and greater income equality
Several measures besides life expectancy at birth can be used to measure existential security within countries. For example, education is a common proxy for prosperity and development. Plotting the average number of years of formal schooling adults have completed in each country alongside the share of adults who attend religious services at least weekly shows that more education is associated with less frequent religious service attendance. Indeed, most countries in sub-Saharan Africa have high percentages of adults attending religious services weekly and relatively few years of completed schooling, on average. Conversely, European countries tend to have lower rates of weekly attendance and more years of schooling.
In a similar way, a country’s wealth – as measured by per capita gross domestic product (GDP) –is associated with its average rate of daily prayer. Countries with higher levels of wealth typically have lower levels of prayer, and vice versa. In every surveyed country with a GDP of more than $30,000 per person, fewer than 40% of adults say they pray every day – except in the United States. On this measure, the U.S. (where 55% of adults pray daily) is a major outlier; of 102 countries studied, it is the only one with higher-than-average levels of both prayer and wealth.10
Regional clustering is apparent on this measure, too. Nearly every country in sub-Saharan Africa has a per-person GDP under $10,000 and above-average rates of daily prayer. European countries are scattered across the full range in terms of GDP, but the only one with a rate of daily prayer at or above the global average is Moldova, which has Europe’s lowest GDP per capita. Similarly, the only country in the Middle East-North Africa region where fewer than 50% of adults pray every day is Israel, which also has a markedly higher GDP than the other countries in the region for which survey data are available.
Finally, it also appears that economic inequality is correlated with higher levels of religious commitment. Societies with very unequal distribution of income tend to be more religious, while those who live in relatively egalitarian societies say religion is less important, on average. (This is measured by a country’s Gini coefficient, the most common measure of income inequality.11)
Overall, regardless of how religious commitment or prosperity are measured, the general pattern holds: Religious commitment is lower in places where life is easier. And in places where life is steadily becoming easier, the theory goes, younger adults generally are less religious than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
Does aging itself make people more religious?
Many scholars also point to the aging process itself as an explanation for why young people are less religious than their elders. In a sense, this dovetails with the “existential insecurity” argument: Growing older and nearing the end of one’s life could produce a sense of existential worry in an individual, regardless of how comfortable the conditions are in their country. Data gathered in Western countries in particular indicate that religious identity and commitment often change throughout the course of people’s lives, as they leave their parents’ homes, start families, advance in their careers and age through retirement.
Research has shown that religious attachments tend to peak during adolescence, decline through young and middle adulthood, and then increasethrough most of late adulthood. For instance, Pew Research Center’s analysis of Gallup poll data suggests that U.S. adults born in the 1930s attended worship more frequently once they reached their 60s. Other longitudinal studies (which surveyed the same people at intervals over decades) find a “retirement surge” in religiosity among older people. While not ruling out the influence of other factors – such as when and where people live – one research team argued that “life course trajectories may trump generational placement as predictors of religious behaviors and orientations.”12
Economists have applied profit motive – the idea that most decisions are inspired by the quest for financial gain – to this question.13 One research team concluded, based on survey data and church-membership records, that people in early adulthood focus more on making money than on religion, and that religiosity tends to decline during this peak earning phase. In their later years, this team posits, most people decide to build up the “religious capital” they believe will help them after death.
Another theory, drawn from psychology, is that people actually develop new values during life’s later decades, distinct from the values of midlife, leading to greater spirituality and satisfaction. 14 This theory of “gerotranscendence” is based on survey research showing that many older people report being less self-centered than they were previously, as well as feeling more connected to others and institutions beyond themselves.
The United States as a case study
While there is ample recent evidence to suggest that younger adults tend to be less religious than their elders, it would be a mistake to assume that this tendency alwaysholds true. The global data analyzed in this report come from surveys conducted over the past decade, capturing only a brief snapshot of religious commitment and shedding little light on how peoples’ religious habits change over time.
This limitation is largely unavoidable because there is a dearth of longitudinal data on this topic in many countries. In the U.S., however, researchers have collected data on religious commitment for decades, and an in-depth look at the results suggests that younger Americans have not always been less religious than their elders, challenging the notion that older people are naturally more religious.
Gallup surveys dating back nearly 80 years show that in 1939, 39% of Americans ages 40 and older and 36% of U.S. adults younger than 40 claimed to have attended church in the last week. Both groups saw a rise in attendance in the postwar period – the early years of the Cold War – and by the late 1950s, the modest age gap had closed. Over the next 10 years, as the U.S. experienced rapid economic growth, the two age groups moved apart, and that gap has persisted through several decades. If anything, the gap has grown in recent years as attendance rates among young adults have fallen.
Looking at four age groups (rather than two) reveals even more clearly that religious service attendance and age have not always correlated perfectly in the United States. From the early 1940s through the 1960s, people in their 40s and 50s reported attending at least as frequently as those over 60. And adults in their 30s saw a spike in attendance in the late 1950s, briefly matching or exceeding the other groups. By the mid-1970s, the age groups had split into the pattern seen today: Older adults are more religiously committed than younger adults.
Although these data do not rule out life cycle effects, they show that Americans of all ages experienced a boom in religious attendance in the post-World War II years, and younger Americans in the late 1950s reported attending at least as often as their elders. More recently, younger Americans have reported less frequent religious service attendance than older adults.
Religious trends in the United States may be different from those in the rest of the world. Like many of their peer nations, Americans enjoy a high standard of living, high rates of literacy and education, a developed economy, and a representative democracy. However, compared with other similarly developed countries, the U.S. has relatively high levels of economic inequality, infant mortality and imprisonment rates.15 Americans also are more religious by most measures than others in similarly developed economies.
2. Young adults around the world are less religious by several measures
Adults under 40 are less likely to be religiously affiliated
Perhaps the simplest way to measure attachment to religion among people of all ages is to look at the percentage of people who identify with a religious group. Pew Research Center surveys around the world routinely ask: “What is your present religion, if any?” Respondents are given a country-specific list of potential responses (which generally include several major world religions, as well as “atheist,” “agnostic” or “nothing in particular”).
The vast majority of people around the world claim a religious identity, such as Christian, Muslim or Hindu. But there is a clear age gap: Out of 106 countries surveyed, young adults are significantly less likely to be affiliated with a religious group in 41. In only two countries are young adults more likely to identify with a religion, while there is no significant difference in 63 countries.
Looked at another way, young adults are more likely to be religiously unaffiliated. This is especially true in North America, where in both the U.S. and Canada younger people are less likely to claim a religious identity. (These findings are in line with the rise of the religious “nones” in the U.S., which is being driven largely by high levels of disaffiliation among young generations.) The gap is also prevalent in Europe – in 22 out of 35 countries – and in Latin America, where it applies in 14 out of 19 countries (including Mexico).
However, the pattern is not as pronounced in other parts of the world. In the Middle East-North Africa region and sub-Saharan Africa, where most people identify as either Muslim or Christian, there are no countries where young people are less affiliated. In fact, the only two countries out of a combined 30 in these regions with an affiliation gap are Chad and Ghana, where young adults are more likely than their elders to claim a religious affiliation – making these nations the only exceptions to the prevailing pattern around the world.
In the Asia-Pacific region, a religiously diverse area with a wide variety of religious practices, 17 out of 20 countries show no significant contrasts. However, the three nations in that region that do show differences – South Korea, Australia and Japan – have some of the world’s biggest gaps. In South Korea, 39% of younger adults are affiliated with a religious group, compared with 63% of their elders, a difference of 24 points. In Australia, the gap is 23 points (43% vs. 66%), and in Japan it is 18 points (31% vs. 49%). In many other countries in the region, such as Pakistan, India and Indonesia, affiliation is all but universal across both age groups.
There is a particularly large gap in religious affiliation – 28 percentage points – in Canada (49% of adults under 40 and 77% of older adults are affiliated). The U.S. differential is smaller, though still considerable at 17 points (66% vs. 83%).
In the average country out of 35 in Europe, there is a 10-point difference between the share of younger adults who identify with a religion (75%) and the share of older adults who do (85%), with the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden each showing gaps of 20 points or more. In the Latin America-Caribbean region, the average country has a gap of 6 points (87% vs. 93%), with Uruguay and the Dominican Republic exhibiting large differences.
Averaging the national percentages in each of the 106 countries surveyed yields a global picture that clearly reinforces the regional patterns: The share of younger adults in the average country worldwide who claim a religion is 85%, compared with 90% among people ages 40 or older. 16
Importance of religion: Older adults regard religion as less important in only two countries
Asking people about their affiliation is a basic way to measure a society’s overall attachment to religion. Asking respondents how important religion is in their lives goes one step further, and may be the most direct way to gauge the intensity of that connection. While this question does not directly measure any particular religious practice, it correlates well with more concrete measures – and also has an advantage in that it works equally well across many different religious groups, which is not the case for some specific measures of belief and practice.
Younger adults in many different parts of the world are less likely than their elders to say that religion is “very important” to them. This is a particularly prevalent theme in Latin America, where age gaps appear in 14 out of 19 countries. It is also common in Europe, where 19 out of 35 countries show significant gaps. The United States and Canada also post larger-than-average differences.
There are even significant age gaps in four out of nine countries surveyed in the Middle East-North Africa region, where younger and older adults are almost universally affiliated.
In the Asia-Pacific region, there is no significant difference between age groups in 15 out of 20 countries surveyed, although – as on the affiliation question – South Korea and Japan again are among the countries where the young are less religious. And in sub-Saharan Africa, younger and older adults tend to give similar responses when asked about the importance of religion in most of the 21 countries surveyed.
Globally, adults under 40 are less likely to say that religion is very important in their lives in 46 out of 106 nations, while adults who are 40 or older are less likely to say this in only two countries. In 58 countries, there is no significant difference.
When the national percentages are averaged across all of the countries with available data, younger adults are 6 percentage points less likely than their elders to say religion is “very important” in their lives.
In Latin America, the average country has a gap of 10 points. While the average age gap in Europe is somewhat smaller (7 points), the region is home to two of the world’s biggest country-level gaps: Poland, where 16% of adults under 40 and 40% of older people say religion is very important to them, and Greece (41% vs. 63%). There is also a 7-point gap in the average Middle Eastern country, led by Lebanon (20-point gap) and Algeria (12 points).
In a couple of countries (Georgia and Ghana), the age gap goes against the global pattern; in these places, young adults are more religious than their elders by this measure. For example, in Ghana – where young adults are also more likely to be affiliated – 91% of younger adults say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 85% of older adults.
Looking at specific religious groups, half (50%) of younger Christians in the average country – in contrast to 56% of those in the older age group – say religion is very important in their lives. The gap between younger and older Muslims in the average country is 3 percentage points, with 76% of those under 40 and 79% of those ages 40 and older saying that religion is very important.
Viewed another way, in roughly half the countries where data are available on Christians (37 out of 78), young Christian adults are significantly less likely than older Christians to say religion is very important to them.
Muslims’ responses about the importance of religion in their lives show less of a consistent age gap. Young Muslims in 10 countries surveyed are less likely than their elders to ascribe a high level of importance to religion, while in 32 other countries, there is no significant difference.
Weekly religious service attendance: Young adults worship less often in both Christian and Muslim populations
Young adults are, on the whole, less likely than their elders to say they attend religious services every week.
Lower attendance among young adults is especially pervasive in Latin America, where it is seen in 17 out of 19 countries, and in North America, where both the U.S. and Canada show substantial gaps. The pattern also applies to more than half of the countries surveyed in the Middle East-North Africa region and in Europe.
Globally, younger adults are less likely to attend prayer services than their elders in 53 out of 102 countries surveyed, while the opposite is true in just three – Liberia, Rwanda and Armenia. Liberia is a major outlier by this measure; younger Liberians are much morelikely than their older compatriots to say they worship at least weekly (85% vs. 66%). One reason for this could be that recent civil wars in Liberia may have affected levels of religious commitment differently among older and younger Liberians.
Unusual age patterns in religious commitment linked to violent conflict
While the general trend throughout the world is for younger people to enjoy more peace and prosperity than previous generations – forming the basis for one possible explanation for the persistent age gap in religious commitment – this is not always the case. In fact, the few countries where young adults are more religious than their elders all have something in common: a recent history of violent conflicts leading to civilian deaths.17
Any number of possible factors may explain these exceptional cases, and each country has its own set of unique circumstances. But it may be that conditions in these places were at least somewhat more stable when older adults were coming of age, and the existential insecurity experienced by younger adults explains why they are more religious. Indeed, research has found that religious identity is more likely to be influenced by events in early adulthood than later.18
In Liberia, younger adults are more likely than older adults to pray every day and attend weekly religious services. These age groups also differ in their affiliations: Younger Liberians are almost exclusively Christian or Muslim (96%), but a considerable minority of Liberians ages 40 and older (29%) identify with an ancestral, animist, tribal or other traditional African religion.19 Liberia has experienced two civil wars within the lifetimes of younger adults, one from 1989 to 1997 and the other from 1999 to 2003. The survey in Liberia was conducted in 2009; all adults under 40 in the survey would have been born after 1969, with most coming of age during wartime.
In addition, younger adults in Ghana – where clan-based violence over royal succession killed more than 2,000 people in the early 1990s – are more likely to be affiliated and to say that religion is very important. In Rwanda, where government forces and militias killed over 500,000 people and displaced millions in 1994, younger adults attend religious services more frequently than older adults. And in Chad, which has experienced violent conflicts involving the government, rebel groups and neighboring countries for decades, younger adults are more likely to identify with a religion and pray every day.
Not all of the examples are in Africa: Younger adults in Georgia say religion is very important to them more often than older adults do. Georgia has experienced a secessionist war in Abkhazia and a conflict with Russia in the past three decades, although the fall of the Soviet Union may also be a factor in religious differences by age. Older adults in Georgia mostly came of age during the Soviet period, when religion was repressed – including by Georgian-born leader Joseph Stalin.
At the same time, other countries have experienced conflict during the same period and do not show these types of patterns. In Bosnia-Herzegovina and Israel, for example, any differences in which younger adults may appear more religious are not statistically significant. And, in the Palestinian territories and the Democratic Republic of Congo, younger adults have experienced a great deal of armed conflict but still follow the prevailing global pattern of being less religious than their elders.
In the average country around the world, adults under 40 are 6 percentage points less likely than older people to say they go to worship services weekly (36% vs. 42%).
Again, by this measure, gap sizes vary by region. In sub-Saharan Africa, younger and older adults attend at similarly high rates (averages of 78% and 79%, respectively). But in the average country in the Middle East-North Africa region, just 44% of young adults say they are weekly attenders – well below the 55% average of those ages 40 and older who describe themselves this way. The average country’s age gap in worship attendance in this overwhelmingly Muslim region is similar to the one in the predominantly Christian Latin America region (38% vs. 48%) There also is a 6-point gap in the average country in the religiously diverse Asia-Pacific region (31% vs. 37%).
In Europe, weekly attendance is less common overall, but there is still an age gap (10% vs. 16%). And Poland stands out as having by far the largest gap among all countries surveyed: 26% of Polish adults under 40 say they attend religious services weekly, compared with 55% of their elders. The unusually large age gap in Poland may be due to the Catholic Church’s association with nationalism, Polish identity and resistance to the Soviet Union during Poland’s communist period; younger Poles did not experience this period firsthand, but it may have had a lasting impact among the older generation.20
Adults under 40 in Colombia, another predominantly Catholic country, also are much less likely than their elders to go to church regularly. And there are similar patterns in different religious contexts in the Muslim-majority countries of Iran, Jordan and Tunisia.
Indeed, at the global level, younger Muslims attend mosque less frequently, on average, than older Muslims, just as younger Christians attend church less often than older Christians.
Measuring religious observance by weekly attendance at worship services does not work equally well for all major religious groups. While it is generally a reliable measure of religious norms within Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Islam and Judaism), it may be less well suited for Buddhism, Hinduism and other Eastern religions.21
For Hindus, data are only available from the U.S.; the 11-point gap in weekly attendance between older and younger American Hindus is not necessarily representative of Hindus globally, since the vast majority of the world’s Hindus live in India.
Daily prayer: Large age gaps in the Americas
The generational divide in religious commitment is most apparent when examining daily prayer. Not only is it the measure with the highest number of countries with an age gap, but it is also the measure by which the average country has the biggest gap globally.
Young adults are less likely to pray daily in all 19 countries surveyed in Latin America, in both the U.S. and Canada, and in 27 out of 35 European countries. Gaps also exist in several countries in the Asia-Pacific region, the Middle East-North Africa region and sub-Saharan Africa. Overall, the pattern holds in 71 out of 105 countries surveyed.
In the U.S., 44% of young adults engage in daily prayer, compared with 62% of those ages 40 and older. Canadians in both age groups pray less than their American counterparts, yet they also have a large age gap, with 16% of younger and 30% of older adults praying daily. There also are double-digit differences between the average shares of older and younger adults who pray daily in Latin America, the Middle East and Europe.
In sub-Saharan Africa, again, the average country’s gap is negligible at 3 percentage points, with high rates of daily prayer among both younger and older adults (74% vs. 77%). Similar to religious service attendance, Liberia bucks the global pattern – young Liberians are more likely than older Liberians to pray daily. This is also the case in Chad, where young adults also are more likely to be religiously affiliated.
Despite regional variations, the global pattern is clear: In the average country, across 105 countries surveyed, fewer than half of adults under 40 (44%) say they pray at least once a day, while most people ages 40 and older (54%) do this. 22
Some of the countries with especially large age gaps in daily prayer are highly religious overall, while others are not. For example, in Nicaragua, young adults are 17 percentage points less likely to say they pray daily than older Nicaraguans (67% vs. 83%). Finland has a similarly sized gap of 15 points, even though daily prayer is far less common among Finns in both age groups (8% vs. 23%).
An age gap in daily prayer is also found within multiple religious groups. Overall, young Christian adults are less likely to pray daily in 48 countries – a solid majority of the 77 countries with a sufficient sample of Christians to analyze. In the average country, 42% of young Christians pray daily, compared with 51% of older Christians. For Muslims, there is a significant age gap in daily prayer in 16 of 41 countries with data, with an average gap of 7 percentage points across those countries.
There is a similar age gap among Hindus in India (74% vs. 81%) – where more than 90% of the world’s Hindus live – and an even larger one among Hindus in the U.S. (39% vs. 62%). (India and the U.S. are the only countries with a sufficient number of Hindu respondents to enable comparisons between age groups.)
Among Jews in both the U.S. and Israel, there is no significant age gap in daily prayer, perhaps in part because Orthodox Jews – who tend to have more children – make up a growing share of both Jewish populations, and thus a larger percentage of young Jewish adults.
3. How religious commitment varies by country among people of all ages
The wide collection of cross-national Pew Research Center surveys analyzed in this report on age gaps in religious commitment can also be used to look at the ways religious observance varies among all adults – defined as people ages 18 and older – in different parts of the world.
The four standard measures of religious commitment (affiliation, importance of religion, worship attendance and frequency of prayer) used in this report may not be equally suitable for all religious groups. In particular, rates of prayer and attendance at worship services generally are seen as reliable indicators of observance within Abrahamic faiths – Christianity, Islam and Judaism – but they may not be as applicable for Buddhism, Hinduism and other Eastern religions. In fact, religious identity itself is often conceived of differently in East Asia, where observance is more a matter of culture and tradition as opposed to membership in a particular group. (For more on religious affiliation around the world, see the Pew Research Center’s 2015 report “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050.”)
Nevertheless, by these measures, some global patterns are clear: The most religious countries are in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America, while people generally are less religious in Europe, North America, East Asia and Australia.
Religion is very important to most people in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia
Overall, in the average country surveyed, 54% of adults say religion is very important in their lives. However, levels of religious commitment vary widely around the world, as well as between countries within the same geographic area. In the Asia-Pacific region, for instance, the share of those who say religion is very important in their daily lives is highest in Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia and Afghanistan; in these countries, more than 90% say religion is very important. Meanwhile, Japan (10%) and China (3%), where majorities of the population are religiously unaffiliated, have the lowest shares of people who say this.
There is also wide variation in Latin America, with the share of those who say religion is very important ranging from 90% in Honduras to 29% in Uruguay. In general, religion is more important to people in Central America and less important moving south toward Argentina and Chile and north to Mexico.
Further to the north, U.S. respondents (53%) are about twice as likely as Canadians (27%) to say that religion is very important.
The share of adults who consider religion to be very important in their lives is generally low in Europe, where 23% of survey respondents in the average country say this. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia and Romania, where at least half of people say religion is very important, are above the regional average on this measure, while in most countries in the Baltics, Scandinavia and Western Europe, fewer than one-in-five say religion is very important in their lives.
In sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, the share of respondents who consider religion very important in their daily lives is much larger, ranging from a high of 98% in Ethiopia to a low of 71% in Botswana. In all but two countries in the region (South Africa and Botswana), more than 80% of adults say religion is very important to them, yielding a regional average of 89% who say this.
In the Middle East and North Africa, at least 70% of people say religion is very important to them in all countries surveyed except Lebanon (57%) and Israel (36%).
How the importance of religion varies geographically among Christians and Muslims
Christians and Muslims – the two largest religious groups in the world – have substantial populations in several regions, and Pew Research Center data permit analysis of how religious commitment varies among members of these two groups in different parts of the world.
Christians in sub-Saharan Africa are most likely to say religion is very important in their lives, while those in Russia and Western Europe are least likely to say this. Muslims, meanwhile, widely rate religion as very important in their lives in Africa, the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia; religion is less important to Muslims in Europe and the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia. U.S. Muslims fall somewhere in between.
Worship attendance low in Europe
About four-in-ten adults in the average country surveyed say they attend religious services at least weekly. But this figure varies widely in different parts of the world, in part due to geographic differences in religious commitment and in part due to religious norms. For example, unlike those who practice Abrahamic faiths, Buddhists and Hindus do not observe weekly holy days, and weekly communal worship services are not necessarily a part of their religious traditions.
Countries in sub-Saharan Africa with predominantly Christian or Muslim populations tend to have the world’s highest levels of regular worship attendance; in the average country in that region, 79% of adults say they attend services weekly. In 12 sub-Saharan African countries surveyed, eight-in-ten or more adults are weekly attenders; no country surveyed in any other region reaches this level.
Attendance across Europe is at the other end of the spectrum. Aside from Poland, where 42% of respondents attend weekly, every other European country in this analysis has rates of attendance at or below 25%. Several countries in Scandinavia and Western Europe are in the single digits.
The other major regions fall somewhere in between these two extremes, with wide variation within each region. In the Americas, weekly attendance ranges from 75% in Guatemala to 14% in Uruguay. Slightly more than one-third of U.S. adults report attending weekly, compared with 20% of Canadians.
In Asia and the Pacific, weekly attendance is highest in Indonesia (72%) and lowest in Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and China, all of which have rates of weekly attendance in the single digits. (In China, just 1% of adults report attending religious services weekly.) And in the Middle East-North Africa region, most Jordanians (64%) and Egyptians (62%) attend services weekly, while only 30% of Israelis do.
Daily prayer is especially common in Muslim-majority countries
Compared with weekly worship attendance, daily prayer is somewhat more common around the world. In the average country across 105 surveyed, about half of adults (49%) say they pray every day, including majorities in sub-Saharan Africa (75%), the Middle East and North Africa (70%) and Latin America (62%).
Prayer frequency varies widely across Asia. Fully 96% of Afghans and 87% of Iranians – both overwhelmingly Muslim populations – report praying daily, reflecting a global pattern of high levels of prayer in Muslim-majority countries (prayer is one of the Five Pillars of Islam). Daily prayer is also very common in Hindu-majority India, where 75% pray daily, but it is much less common in some other parts of Asia, such as Vietnam (14%) and China (1%).
Low levels of prayer can also be found across Europe, where, in the average country, fewer than one-in-four respondents pray daily. In North America, meanwhile, Canadian respondents are less than half as likely as their U.S. counterparts to pray daily (25% vs. 55%).
- For some major world religions, data are available only in a small number of countries. For example, when it comes to importance of religion, Pew Research Center has large enough sample sizes to distinguish between older and younger Jews only in the United States and Israel, and among Hindus only in the U.S. and India (though there were also enough Hindus surveyed in Bangladesh to include them in statistics about overall religious commitment). But in the survey data that are available for five major world religions (Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews) and the religiously unaffiliated population globally, it is rare for adults under 40 to be more religious than older adults within any religious group.
- For example, among U.S. adults overall, more education is linked with lower levels of religious commitment. But looking solely at U.S. Christians, those who are highly educated are, by some measures, more religious than Christians with less education. See the April 2017 Pew Research Center report “In America, Does More Education Equal Less Religion?”
- Diener, E., L. Tay and D.G. Myers. 2011. “The religion paradox: If religion makes people happy, why are so many dropping out?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
- Norris, Pippa, and Ronald Inglehart. 2014. “Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide.”
- Sibley, Chris, and Joseph Bulbulia, Joseph. 2012. “Faith after an Earthquake: A Longitudinal Study of Religion and Perceived Health before and after the 2011 Christchurch New Zealand Earthquake.” Plos One.
- Bentzen, Jeanet Sinding. 2015. “Acts of God: Religiosity and Natural Disasters Across Subnational World Districts.” Unpublished.
- Kessler, Ronald C., Sandro Galea, Russell T. Jones and Holly A. Parker. 2006. “Mental illness and suicidality after Hurricane Katrina.” Bulletin of the World Health Organization.
- Bonanno, George A., and John T. Jost. 2010. “Conservative Shift Among High-Exposure Survivors of the September 11th Terrorist Attacks.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology.
- Gallup, George, and Frank Newport. Dec. 21, 2001. “Religion in the Aftermath of September 11.” Gallup. Also see and Uecker, Jeremy E. 2008. “Religious and Spiritual Responses to 9/11: Evidence from the Add Health Study.” Sociological Spectrum.
- Pew Research Center has not collected survey data in Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Oil and gas have brought great wealth to these countries, which may also have high levels of religious commitment.
- The Gini index is a measure of how income is distributed in a population. Each country is assigned a Gini coefficient that can range from 0 (absolute equality) to 1 (absolute inequality). For example, if every person in a country earned the same amount, Gini would take a value of 0; inversely, if one person in a country earned all of that country’s income, Gini would take a value near 1.
- Bengtson, Vern L., Merril Silverstein, Norella M. Putney and Susan C. Harris. 2015.“Does Religiousness Increase with Age? Age Changes and Generational Differences Over 35 Years.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Also see Dillon, Michele, and Paul Wink. 2007. “In the Course of a Lifetime: Tracing Religious Belief, Practice and Change.”
- Azzi, Corry, and Ronald G. Ehrenberg. 1975. “Household Allocation of Time and Church Attendance.” Journal of Political Economy.
- Tornstam, Lars. 2011. “Maturing Into Gerotranscendence.” The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. While Tornstam did not explicitly state that gerotranscendence leads to religiosity, he cited a master’s thesis written by Ling Yu and Hsieh in Taiwan that purports to show a correlation.
- See Alexander, Michelle. 2012. “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” See also Singh, Gopal K., and Michael D. Kogan. 2007. “Persistent Socioeconomic Disparities in Infant, Neonatal, and Post-neonatal Mortality Rates in the United States, 1969–2001.” Pediatrics. Regarding income inequality: In 2015, the United States held the fourth-highest Gini coefficient of income inequality among OECD countries. See the OECD Income Distribution Database for more information.
- To help make sense of an enormous pool of data, this report sometimes cites global averages of country-level data. In calculating the averages, each country is weighted equally, regardless of population size. Global averages, therefore, should be interpreted as the average finding among all countries surveyed, not as population-weighted averages representing all people around the world.
- Sundberg, Ralph, and Erik Melander. 2013. “Introducing the UCDP Georeferenced Event Dataset.” Journal of Peace Research. See also Croicu, Mihai, and Ralph Sundberg. 2017. “UCDP GED Codebook version 17.2.” Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University.
- Kroger, Jane, Monica Martinussen and James E. Marcia. 2010. “Identity status change during adolescence and young adulthood: A meta-analysis.” Journal of adolescence.
- In the 2008 census in Liberia, a very small share of both older and younger adults identified with folk religions. But the Pew Research Center survey, which offered respondents the explicit option to identify with folk religions, found a more substantial share (12% total) in the folk religion category.
- Mandes, Sławomir, and Maria Rogaczewska. 2013. “‘I don’t reject the Catholic Church—the Catholic Church rejects me’: How Twenty- and Thirty-somethings in Poland Re-evaluate their Religion.” Journal of Contemporary Religion.
- Within the Abrahamic faiths, there are gender patterns of religious commitment. Generally speaking, among Christians, women are more likely to worship weekly; among Muslims and Israeli Jews, men are more likely to worship weekly, reflecting gender norms in each religion. See Pew Research Center’s 2016 report “The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World.”
- All percentages are rounded to the nearest integer. However, the gaps are calculated from unrounded figures. For example, an average of 44.4% of younger adults pray daily, compared with 53.6% of older adults, a difference of 9.2 points.