There is no one number available that tells us how many new faithful are in America today. But there is a growing body of statistics that certifies the existence and growth of this grassroots movement. I quoted many of these statistics in The New Faithful, which was published in 2002. Since then, even more studies have emerged to document this trend.
One of the most recent was released this year by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. Researchers there found that one-fifth of American college students are “highly religious,” a term that describes those who frequently attend religious services and retreats, read sacred texts, and join campus religious organizations. These students, who tend to be morally conservative, closely resemble the young adults I concentrated on in The New Faithful.
But the appeal of religion is not limited only to these highly committed young believers. The UCLA study also found that three in four college students say they pray, discuss religion or spirituality with their friends, and find religion to be personally helpful. The federally financed National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health similarly found that two-thirds of today’s teen-agers describe themselves as “religious” or “very religious.”
That heightened religious sensibility is beginning to attract notice from pollsters because it connects to another counter-intuitive trend among the young – their increasing conservatism on issues of personal morality. As I mentioned earlier, the UCLA study found that students who described themselves as “highly religious” were much more likely than non-religious students to frown on casual sex, oppose legal abortion, and object to the legalization of marijuana.
Other studies have found signs of this shift among the broader youth population. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed that among young adults, support for legal abortion – which has been steadily dropping since the early 1990’s – hit a new low in 2003, with less than four in 10 young Americans supporting it. That’s down from nearly 50 percent who supported abortion rights a decade earlier. Federal statistics also show a significant increase in the number of teen-agers reporting that they abstain from sex. More than half of all male high school students reported in 2001 that they were virgins. In 1990, only 39 percent said the same.
Though many factors may lie behind such trends, data analysts have found a clear relationship between religion and morality in the lives of the young. A report from the National Institutes of Health in 2003 found that teen-agers with strong religious views are less likely to have sex than are less religious teens, largely because their religious beliefs lead them to view the consequences of having sex negatively.
Reporting on the ‘new faithful’ in America