Sunday at the range with pigeons

Young adults fill the Sabbath with other activities. Does that mean they’re done with religion?

Mike Wilhelm’s Sundays are spent at the range. Young adults increasingly reject church while considering themselves “spiritual.”

Mike Wilhelm’s Sundays are spent at the range. Young adults increasingly reject church while considering themselves “spiritual.”

Photo By mike wilhelm

Mike Wilhelm is your typical 20-something-year-old Sacramento-area guy: He attends Sacramento State. He lifts weights. He enjoys lazy weekend mornings.

“Sunday mornings I usually get caught up on sleep and homework,” said Wilhelm.

He does, however, play an atypical Sunday sport: Throwing on a thin white T-shirt over his muscular frame, he grabs his rifle and heads outdoors.

“My favorite Sunday activity is going out to the trapshooting range,” Wilhelm told SN&R.

Sure, blasting clay pigeons to dust ranks a bit higher on the intensity scale than, say, whacking golf balls at the driving range or cursing at The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle. But, in another way, his Sunday pastime makes him pretty typical: Like a lot of American young adults, Wilhelm doesn’t spend his Sundays in church.

His absence from the pews is partly due to a secular upbringing. Wilhelm’s mother and father—from Catholic and Jewish backgrounds, respectively—didn’t create a religious environment at home while he grew up.

“We have never been to a church and, as far as I remember, never talked about anything religious,” recalled Wilhelm. “It’s not a topic [we] avoided, but it just hasn’t come up. My father is interested in science and technology, and that was a big influence on me.”

Wilhelm isn’t alone. Increasing numbers of young adults self-identify as nonreligious. Recent nationwide surveys published by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reveal surprising numbers when it comes to young Americans and faith.

The “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” published in February 2008 reported that among Americans under age 29, about three in 10 (31 percent) do not affiliate with any religion in particular.

That’s not to say that they’re necessarily atheist or agnostic. Thirty percent of young, religiously unaffiliated adults say that religion is “somewhat important” or “very important” in their lives. For them, it seems their religious path is more “none of the above” than anything else. But the religiously unaffiliated category is the largest religious demographic among young adults.

Wake Forest University sociology professor David Yamane explained that youth typically reject religious institutions—before later embracing them.

“I think youth historically have had some kind of resistance to adult institutions, church being one of the central adult institutions of all time,” suggested Yamane. “And I think that what may be happening in recent history is that it’s just a lot easier to be unaffiliated.”

By easier, he means that church plays a smaller societal role than it did in the past. “It’s less stigmatized not to be affiliated with any particular church,” he added.

Yamane, who edits the quarterly academic journal Sociology of Religion, sees a connection with today’s youth sidestepping religious traditions and the postponement of marriage and child raising; Americans tend to find a religious tradition after they’ve married and had children.

“Men and women are typically getting married at between 25 to 28 [years old] on average, and that would certainly make the period of being unaffiliated longer,” Yamane explained. He is interested in whether today’s young adults will find religion after they find their mates, or whether there’s been a fundamental cultural shift where religious affiliation no longer plays a central role in raising a family. “I don’t know if anybody could safely predict the way things are going to go,” Yamane said.

Most of Wilhelm’s friends are nonreligious, and he says that while religion isn’t important to them individually, its influence on society at large is a regular topic of conversation, especially in light of the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war.

“I think religion is becoming a real issue for my generation,” he said.