New Stats on Why Young People Leave the Church

In my book, RETURN: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church, I pore through all the data about why young people leave the Church, where they go, and what they believe. Most of the analysis stemmed from surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, CARA, the Barna Group, and Dr. Christian Smith’s team at Notre Dame.

However, a new survey was just released by PRRI entitled “Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back”. The survey was conducted in August 2016, in partnership with Religion News Service (RNS), and involved a random sample of 2,201 adults in the United States. It’s not as comprehensive as Pew’s regular national religious landscape surveys, which sample more than 30,000 Americans, but it’s still helpful in many ways.

If nothing else, it reinforces the same dire picture as previous studies: young people are leaving religion in droves and the so-called “nones” are on the rise (these are people who don’t identify with any specific religion.) The PRRI study also affirms that young Catholics are leaving their faith at rates higher than almost any other religious group.

Below, I’ve pulled together key insights from the new PRRI study alongside data from the previous reports. I encourage all Catholics to study these numbers—especially if you’re a parent, priest, or Church leader.

Reflect on these stats. Paint a picture in your mind. If your goal is to help slow the surge of people fleeing the Church, and to help draw back those who have already left, it’s crucial to know as much as we can about them.

WHO are the Former Catholics and the “Nones”?

  • 10% of American adults are now former Catholics
  • When Catholics leave the Church, they become:
    • 49% – “None” (aka “unaffiliated” or “no religion”)
    • 25% – Evangelical Protestant
    • 13% – Mainline Protestant
    • 13% – Other (Mormon, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jewish, Muslim)
  • 25% of Americans identify today as “none” (i.e., no religion)
    • Highest percentage ever recorded: hovered from 4-6% (1970s-1980s), then rose during 90s to 14% (1999), 20% (2012), and today it’s surged to 25% (2016).
    • Now the single largest religious group in America
    • Interestingly, 21% of “nones” were raised unaffiliated while 28% were raised Catholic
  • 39% of young adults (18-29) are “none” (more than 3x the rate of “none” seniors aged 65+)
    • Today’s young adults are 4x more likely to be “none” than young adults in the previous generation
  • Young Adults today
    • 39% = “none”
    • 15% = Catholic
    • 9% = white Evangelical Protestant
    • 8% = white mainline Protestant
    • 7% = black Protestant
    • 11% = other non-white Protestant
    • 7% = non-Christian religion
  • Large majority (64%) of today’s young adult “nones” were raised religious, but then left it
  • Three types of “Nones”
    • Rejectionists (58%) – Religion is not personally important, and it does more harm than good
    • Apatheists (22%) – Religion is not personally important, but it’s generally helpful to society
    • Unattached Believers (18%) – Religion is personally important, and it’s generally helpful to society

WHEN are They Leaving?

  • 79% of former Catholics leave the Church before age 23 (Pew)
    • 50% of Millennials raised Catholic no longer identify as Catholic today (i.e., half of the babies you’ve seen baptized in the last 30 years, half of the kids you’ve seen confirmed, half of the Catholic young people you’ve seen get married)
      • Only 7% of Millennials raised Catholic still actively practice their faith today (weekly Mass, pray a few times each week, say their faith is “extremely” or “very” important)
  • 90% of American “nones” who left religion did so before age 29 (PRRI)
    • 62% leave before 18
    • 28% leave from 18-29
    • 5% leave from 30-49
    • 5% leave from 50+

WHY are They Leaving?

  • PRRI Survey (2016) percentage of “nones” who said reason(s) below was an important reason they left religion
    • 60% – I stopped believing in the religion’s teachings
    • 32% – My family was never that religious growing up
    • 29% – Negative religious teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people
      • 40% for women, 20% for men
      • 39% for Millennials, 12% for seniors
      • 39% raised Catholic, 29% raised anything else
    • 19% – Clergy sex-abuse scandal
      • Interestingly, this was 26% for women and 13% for men
    • 18% – Traumatic event in my life
    • 16% – My church or congregation became too focused on politics.
  • Pew Survey – “Faith in Flux” (2009)  percentage of former Catholics who said reason(s) below played a role in their departure
    • 71% – Just gradually drifted away from the religion
    • 65% – Stopped believing in the religion’s teachings
    • 43% – Spiritual needs not being met
    • 29% – Unhappy with teachings about the Bible
    • 26% – Dissatisfaction with atmosphere at worship services
    • 18% – Dissatisfaction with clergy at congregation
    • 10% – Found a religion they liked more
  • Diocese of Springfield Exit Surveys (2014) – percentage of former Catholics who said reason(s) below played a role in their departure
    • 68% – Spiritual needs not met
    • 67% – Lost interest over time
    • 56% – Too many money requests
    • 48% – No longer believe
    • 47% – Dissatisfaction with atmosphere
    • 38% – Too ritualistic
    • 36% – Too formal
    • 36% – Music not enjoyable

Other Stats

  • 66% of “nones” agree that “religion causes more problems than it solves”
  • 60% of “nones” believe in God, either as a person with whom they can have a relationship (theism, 22%) or an impersonal force (deism, 37%)


If you want a more detailed picture about why young people leave the Church and, more importantly, how to draw them back, click below to get your copy of my bestselling book, RETURN.

"RETURN" by Brandon Vogt