Fewer Americans Believe in God — Yet They Still Believe in Afterlife

Fewer Americans say they believe in God or pray regularly — yet more people believe in an afterlife nonetheless, a new study finds.

It’s a generational thing, with millennials the least likely generation to say they’re religious or to take the Bible literally, the team at San Diego State University, Florida Atlantic University and Case Western Reserve University found.

“In recent years, fewer Americans prayed, believed in God, took the Bible literally, attended religious services, identified as religious, affiliated with a religion, or had confidence in religious institutions,” the team wrote in the journal Sage Open.

"The large declines in religious practice among young adults are also further evidence that millennials are the least religious generation in memory, and possibly in American history,” said psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, who led the study.

The team looked at the General Social Survey, in which up to 58,000 people are interviewed annually about a variety of factors, including religion.

They answered questions such as: “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion” and “Do you believe there is a life after death?”

They found big changes since the 1970s and 1980s.

“In the late 1980s, only 13 percent of U.S. adults expressed serious doubts about the existence of God (choosing one of the less certain response choices such as ‘I don’t believe in God,’ ‘I don’t know whether there is a God and I don’t believe there is any way to find out,’ or ‘I don’t believe in a personal God, but do believe in a Higher Power of some kind,’” the team wrote.

“Among 18- to 29-year-olds, 30 percent had serious doubts by 2014, more than twice as many as in the late 1980s (12 percent).”

Fewer also believe the Bible is the actual word of God.

“In 1984, 14 percent of Americans believed the Bible ‘is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men’ rather than the word of God; by 2014, 22 percent of Americans believed this, a 57 percent increase,” they wrote.

In 1998, 49 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds said they were moderately or very religious in 1998. By 2014 this had dropped to 38 percent.

And while 15 percent of adults said they were “not religious at all” in 1998, 20 percent did in 2014.

Yet 80 percent of Americans said they believe in an afterlife in 2014, up from 73 percent in 1972-74.

"It was interesting that fewer people participated in religion or prayed but more believed in an afterlife," Twenge said. "It might be part of a growing entitlement mentality - thinking you can get something for nothing."