Young Women Are Leaving Church in Unprecedented Numbers 

Daniel A. Cox, Kelsey Eyre Hammond April 4, 2024

Woman, back turned, in a wheat field

Over the last two decades, which witnessed an explosion of religious disaffiliation, it was men more than women who were abandoning their faith commitments. In fact, for as long as we’ve conducted polls on religion, men have consistently demonstrated lower levels of religious engagement. But something has changed. A new survey reveals that the pattern has now reversed.  

Older Americans who left their childhood religion included a greater share of men than women. In the Baby Boom generation, 57 percent of people who disaffiliated were men, while only 43 percent were women. Gen Z adults have seen this pattern flip. Fifty-four percent of Gen Z adults who left their formative religion are women; 46 percent are men.  

Feminism, Gender, and a Cultural Mismatch 

Even as rates of religious disaffiliation have risen, conservative churches have been able to hold on to their members, but they are facing more of an uphill battle keeping this current generation of young women in the pews. Sixty-one percent of Gen Z women identify as feminist, far greater than women from previous generations. Younger women are more concerned about the unequal treatment of women in American society and are more suspicious of institutions that uphold traditional social arrangements. In a poll we conducted, nearly two-thirds of (65 percent) young women said they do not believe that churches treat men and women equally. 

Young women are more educated than their men their age and report greater professional ambition and concern with personal success and growth. Religion and family life are more distant or lower priorities. A recent Pew poll found that it was young men more than women who most aspire to become parents. 

Many conservative denominations do not allow women to serve in leadership positions and offer little formal authority. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., affirms an unambiguous gender hierarchy, requiring women to submit to male leadership. For girls and young women raised to believe they can do anything men can do, this message is becoming more difficult to digest. 

In an interview with the Associated Press, Cheryl Summers, a former Southern Baptist, argues that these ideas are out of step with the experiences and ambitions of young women. “There’s tremendous cognitive dissonance for a woman of faith who is leading professionally or through volunteer efforts when she experiences the glass ceiling and walls in her place of worship,” she said. 

It’s not only about gender roles. There is a cultural misalignment between more traditional churches and places of worship and young women who have grown increasingly liberal. Since 2015, the number of young women who identify as liberal has rapidly increased. I speculated in a previous post about whether the abortion issue might be driving young women away from church. They are unequivocally pro-choice—54 percent of young women believe abortion should be available without any restriction in the 2022 General Social Survey.  

This has also coincided with the rise in LGBTQ identity among young women—nearly three in ten womenunder the age of 30 now identify as something other than straight. It may explain why more Americans cite this as a reason for leaving. A new PRRI poll found that 60 percent of young people who left their childhood religion said that “negative treatment of gay and lesbian people” was an important reason. 

For most young women who leave it’s not about any one issue. Most Americans who leave their formative faith say there was no single reason or catalyzing event that pushed them out. Rather it was a steady accumulation of negative experiences and dissonant teachings that made it difficult or impossible to stay. 

Much of this dissonance stems from growing up in a culture that has become more diverse and accepting of people with distinctive lifestyles and identities. Even among young women who are straight most have a close friend who is not. And although only about five percent of Americans are atheists, most young people have at least one in their friend group. My own research has shown these relationships have a profound effect on religious behavior and beliefs. 

Sarah McCammon examines this phenomenon in her new book, “The Exvangelicals: Loving, Living, and Leaving the Evangelical Church:”  

The Gen Xers, Millenials, and Zoomers, who grew up in the shadow of the “Moral Majority” only to come of age in a far more pluralistic and interconnected world, these years have been a time of confusion and disillusionment. People born into evangelical families of that era have reached adulthood at a time when the country is more diverse than ever, and information is more readily available than ever, making alternative points of view impossible to ignore. It’s also a time when Americans are rapidly becoming less religious, a shift that’s most pronounced among younger generations. 

A New Pattern 

The result is that young women today, at least on some measures, are less religious than young men. In our 2023 survey, we found nearly four in ten (39 percent) Z women identifying as religiously unaffiliated compared to 34 percent of Gen Z men.  

What’s remarkable is how much larger the generational differences are among women than men. Gen Z men are only 11-points more religiously unaffiliated than Baby Boomer men, but the gap among women is almost two and a half times as large. Thirty-nine percent of Gen Z women are unaffiliated compared to only 14 percent of Baby Boomer women. 

The waning religious involvement among young women represents a unique challenge to churches and congregations. Studies show that women tend to contribute much more time and energy to community building and volunteer efforts in places of worship. Without this dedicated source of volunteer labor, many congregations will be unable to serve their membership and their communities. What’s more, research finds that mothers play an instrumental role in passing on religious values and beliefs to their children. Americans who were raised in religious households credit their mothers more so than their fathers for leading in their religious upbringing, and children who are raised in mixed-faith households are more likely to adopt their mother’s faith in adulthood.  

None of this is good news for America’s places of worship. Many of these young women are gone for good. Studies consistently show that people who leave religion rarely come back, even if they hold on to some of their formative beliefs and practices. The decline in religious participation and membership has provoked a good deal of concern and consternation, but these latest trends represent a four-alarm warning. I’m not sure there will be any answer.

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