For all the attention paid to religious zealots from America to the Middle East, there's another religious trend that should perk our ears up: More young people than ever don't identify with religion at all.
A major new Pew Research study, meant to track voting trends among generations, found that 26 percent of people ages 18-30 said they were unaffiliated with a religious tradition. That still leaves a lot of pious Millennials, but the percentage is the biggest number in history—and the biggest of any generation. An increasing number of young people are no longer banking on church to help our country through the recession, either. Forty-six percent of Millennials see religion as the "key to the nation's success," as opposed to 64 percent of Generation X, 69 percent of Boomers, and 78 percent of the Silent generation (ages 66-83).
This is a big deal, one that could fundamentally change who we elect and how we govern. There are periodic news stories about how many Americans think President Obama is a Muslim, and countless surveys about whether Mitt Romney's Mormon faith will get in the way of his chances to become president. But only about 40 percent of Americans can identify Romney's religion. Among the younger generation, the question may be whether we care about a candidate's faith at all.
I'm part of the 26 percent who isn't religious, and for me, how religious candidates are matters more than to what religion they subscribe. Do they use their faith to prop up bigoted views about gay marriage or reproductive rights? Will they use government funds to favor one religion over the other? The less religious they are, the more likely I am to vote for them. When the Christian right was squawking about Obama's less-than-showy commitment to Christianity, I was ticking it off as a plus, and I wasn't alone. As younger generations become progressively less devout, we may tilt back to a timeworn but often-ignored core American value: the separation between church and state.
The original headline was changed from "atheists" to "secularists" to include agnostics and people of faith who reject organized religion.