Boomers Had That Old-Time Religion

On a recent trip to the supermarket, Mister Boomer noticed a neighborhood church had their services listed on a sign out front. This, of course, is hardly unusual. What struck Mister B was that there was only one service listed for Sunday. It stood in stark contrast to what Mister B had grown up with, where his family’s church had three services scheduled on each Sunday alone. The difference between then and now is one of cultural demographics and a shift in philosophical thinking.

In the prime boomer era between the 1950s and 1970s, at least 90 percent of the U.S. population listed themselves as belonging to a particular religion, and Christian was the overwhelming preference. Today, according to Pew Research, that number has dropped to 63 percent. Though boomers have held their religious affiliation for a longer period of time than other generations, there was still an approximate 30 percent shift in boomer religious affiliation in the past 40 years. Pertinent to our topic today, is the precipitous rise in the number of people who wish to remain religiously unaffiliated. In the 1970s, approximately five percent of the population listed no religious affiliation; today that number has risen to nearly 30 percent. However, that same survey indicates that approximately 65 percent of older Americans (i.e., boomers) are more likely to have retained the religious affiliation of their youth. Though there has been a drop in boomer-age people professing a religious preference, the larger gap exists in the generations that followed the boomers.

Social scientists, theologians and philosophers are all attempting to understand the dramatic shifts that are reshaping the religion landscape that began in the boomer era and continues to the present. Many possible theories have emerged, from boomers raising their children with more openness to other religions or non-affiliated preferences due to monumental changes in major religious thought in the 1960s (the influence of a “hippie” philosophy, man?), to a self-inflicted push away from organized religion brought about by numerous scandals across multiple denominations. Others point to the questions that are being asked by government census takers and pollsters themselves: certainly it is now much more socially acceptable to list oneself as religiously unaffiliated than it was in, say, the 1970s. Others mention how boomers moved to various places across the U.S. for employment, no longer living in the same area or even the same state as their families. Moving from one part of the country to another was facilitated by the building of the interstate highway system and popularization of air travel. Dozens of other explanations have been proffered.

Mister Boomer’s family was, in retrospect, a tad more “religious” than the people in his neighborhood. His family went to services weekly, and religious holidays and observances were practiced in the home. Mister B and his siblings all attended parochial schools. Yet Mister Boomer recalls that neither of his grandfathers attended services regularly, though his grandmothers did.

By the time Mister Boomer was in high school, Brother Boomer had already stopped attending weekly services, paving the way for Mister B to follow suit. Whether it was the times, or personal family thinking, the boys were not forced or coerced in any way to return to attending services. In later years, his father mentioned that they felt it important for their children to make their own decisions about religion, though they clearly would have preferred the boomer brothers chose a different path. Was this a prevailing thought for boomer families, or was Mister B’s family on the cusp of the shift in the wind?

In Mister Boomer’s experience, the war in Vietnam had a tremendous influence on how the males around him felt about organized religion. The old saying goes there are no atheists in fox holes, yet young men grappling with questions of morality as conscription into the military loomed, were not necessarily finding solace in the religions of their upbringing.

How about you, boomers? Does your family’s trajectory mimic the national trend toward the unaffiliated, or have you retained the religion of your youth? How are your children and grandchildren thinking about religious affiliation?

An additional note from Mister Boomer: This blog in general is meant for entertainment purposes to wonder at the life and times of the boomer generation. Mister B is an observer on the road, and is in no way stating one religion or philosophy is better than another.