We know that atheists and agnostics are increasing in numbers in America and we know that atheists and agnostics are more numerous among the youth. The consequence is that the percentage of atheists and agnostics is increasing with every successive generation in America. Surveys indicate that while atheists and agnostics are as few as 6% among those over 60, they are nearly 20% among those aged 18-22. What will this mean for the future?
Barna has conducted a number of surveys on this (January 2005 through January 2007) and brought the data together to reveal the growth of atheism and agnosticism from one generation to the next (margin of error +/- 3.2%):
Elders (61+): 6% Boomers (42-60): 9% Busters (23-41): 14% Mosaics (18-22): 19%
A Gallup survey conducted May 5-8, 2011, asked "Do you believe in God" and "Do you believe in God or a Universal Spirit" and the combined results of those answering "yes" produced the following numbers (margin of error: +/- 4%):
National Average: 92%
18-29: 84% 30-49: 94% 59-64: 94% 65+: 94%
The age ranges aren't exactly the same, but on the whole the results are pretty comparable. Belief in God is highest among the oldest Americans where rates of atheism are lowest, well under 10% Belief in God is still high among the youngest Americans — higher than in other industrialized societies — but it's also the lowest of any age group in America. It's here that rates of atheism and agnosticism are highest, approaching 20%.
Persistence of Secularism Over the Years
One thing that these numbers don't reveal is that there is apparently relatively little change within each generation. According to Barna, whatever "secular fervor" an age group starts out adulthood with is what they typically retain through the years, neither gaining nor losing much. This contradicts the popular assumption that older generations are more religious because people become more religious as they age.
This also suggests that the only way for atheism and agnosticism to grow very much in America is to influence young people before they reach adulthood. Some adults will be convinced to leave behind religion and theism, but others will be converted to some religion. It appears that the numbers will always be small and will probably offset each other.
Increasing Atheism & Agnosticism in the Future
This would also mean that secularism will advance most through instilling secular values and respect for secularism in young people. If they develop enough appreciation for secularism and secular government, then most will retain this and America as whole can become more secular. If they do not, then it is unlikely that enough ever will develop such an appreciation on their own and America will be more theocratic in perspective.
Thus the primary issue facing anyone who wants to see secularism and atheism grow over time, and the influence of religion to drop, must figure out how to best reach the youngest people in America. It's not clear when the critical cut-off line is, but it's probably no later than mid-to-late college years (assuming a person goes to college).
Influencing Younger Generations
What do you think the best way might be to influence these developments over time? How can we ensure that the numbers of atheist and agnostics increase in each successive generation? How can we ensure that an appreciation for secularism and secular government also increase in each successive generation?