Are the younger generations moving away from religion?

Young people are in the relatively earlier periods of their lives. They may seem to be giving a less prominent place to religion in their lives compared to older people. (Photo: Pixabay)

In recent days, on different occasions, there have been several claims about young people’s world views and ideological stances. However, if young people were moving away from a religion-influenced worldview, we would expect the  future’s politics to transform accordingly. As a wave of conservatism is hitting Turkish society’s shores not to withdraw anytime soon, how could the younger generations be moving away from religion? We need long-term studies to answer this question.

Evaluating young people within their age groups

The International Social Survey Program (ISSP), which we have been running with Prof. Ersin Kalaycıoğlu since 2008, only enables us to consider the data from two surveys conducted in 2008 and 2019.¹ The data from these two sample sections obtained 11 years apart from Turkey do not offer a broad enough picture. As a summary, the data of these two surveys show no change in terms of age groups and generations that we can describe as people being either more drawn to religion or moving away from it. As was the case in 2008, in 2019 too, religion-based world views and religious practices have remained widespread and dominant in Turkey. In evaluations based on different variables, the difference remained limited, and the big picture still showed conservatism as dominant.

Young people are in the relatively earlier periods of their lives. For the most part, they have not suffered from a severe illness yet, have not suffered the loss of their loved ones, and are busy trying to establish a family and organize their lives. They may seem to be giving a less prominent place to religion in their lives compared to older people who are going through life experiences that we could say are the opposite of what young people go through. When we look at  religiosity criteria by age groups, we see that  religiosity increases as people get older. Almost all studies have confirmed this observation. The question we need to answer here is not about comparing younger and older age groups over a certain period. It is whether young people today are more or less religious than they were twenty or thirty years ago.

We have at least one study dealing with different representative samples from Turkey obtained at different time sections within the last few decades. Instead of interviews with the same people, these studies focused on different representative cross-sectional samples each time. The World Values Survey (WVS) is a similar study to the ISSP but was conducted six times from 1990 to 2018 by first a team from Boğaziçi University and then in later years by Prof. Yılmaz Esmer. When I saw that the 2018 data, which is the latest wave of this study, was uploaded to the website, I wanted to see what kind of a picture a long-term evaluation revealed.²

Picking the right criteria to evaluate religion

In all of the six studies conducted since 1990, there has been a single question that researchers asked to measure piety. “How often do you go to the mosque these days, except for funerals?” However, this question, directed to men and women alike, is not an ideal measure of piety. The WVS uses this question to compare countries on how often the people frequent places of worship, helping determine the number of practicing people. However, the results are more meaningful when we take into account the Turkish Islamic tradition, where women’s mosque attendance rate is low. In Turkey, women, who make up about half of the sample, traditionally go to the mosque less often than men. Therefore, the average frequency of going to the mosque for the total population sample also drops. The first graphic below shows the rates for men aged 18-27 and 28-37 who reported attending the mosque once a month, week, or more than once a week.

When we look at these rates, we see that even in the youngest age group, the 18-37, where we expect the lowest relative religiosity, 50-65{4a62a0b61d095f9fa64ff0aeb2e5f07472fcd403e64dbe9b2a0b309ae33c1dfd} of men reported they went to the mosque once a month or more frequently at the time of the fieldworks . Approximately 55-65{4a62a0b61d095f9fa64ff0aeb2e5f07472fcd403e64dbe9b2a0b309ae33c1dfd} of this group said that they go to the mosque, probably the Friday prayer, once a week. That is quite a high rate. Moreover, these figures show an interesting continuity when we take it as a reflection of religiosity according to their own  declarations. There is no significant difference between the first observation of 1990 and the last 2018 observation for both age groups. However, when we get a line that measures a trend based on six observations for both age groups, we see that their slope is negative.

Overall, fewer people from younger age groups seemed to be going to mosques once a month/week or more. The main reason for this observation is the decline of about ten points in 2011. The decrease observed in 2011 was an observation against the general trend, but this did not continue.

Do fewer young people go to mosques?

Another noticeable pattern in the same graph is that even the average 10-year age difference between the first and the second age group creates significant differences in terms of becoming more religious. While the frequency of attending a mosque was approximately the same for both age groups in 2007, the older group in all other years stated that they went to the mosque more frequently on average. When we look at other age groups that I have not shown here, we see that the same pattern continues, and the frequency of men going to the mosque increases as men get older. As we expected, the youngest age group has the lowest frequency of going to the mosque. However, even for this group, it is hard to say that the rate of going to the mosque is low.

The second figure shows the rates of males of various generations with ten years of age cohorts who reported going to the mosque once a month, once a week, or more, in 1990 and 2018. In 1990, those born between 1970-1979 were the 18-20 age group. For this  cohort, the rate of men who attend mosques once a month or more was 60{4a62a0b61d095f9fa64ff0aeb2e5f07472fcd403e64dbe9b2a0b309ae33c1dfd} in 1990. In 2018, these men were around 39-48 years old. Although we do not interview the same people, we can follow this cohort in the 2018 study when we keep the date of birth constant.

It seems that the frequency of going to the mosque for the 1970-1979 cohort increased by 10{4a62a0b61d095f9fa64ff0aeb2e5f07472fcd403e64dbe9b2a0b309ae33c1dfd} and reached 70{4a62a0b61d095f9fa64ff0aeb2e5f07472fcd403e64dbe9b2a0b309ae33c1dfd} in 2018. Likewise, we observe a similar increase in the mosque-going rates for both cohorts born in the 1950s and 1960s. There is a decrease in the cohort that is the oldest, born in 1949 and before, compared to 1990. But by 2018, it was very challenging to reach the representatives of this cohort aged 69 and over, and their share in the sample is below what it should be. However, it was still this oldest cohort who said that they attended mosques most frequently in both research years.

Only a marginal change

Of course, in the 1990 cohort analysis, we could not observe those who were born in the post-1980 era, which we considered in the 2018 study. But generations aging over time tend to tell us that they are going to mosques more frequently. We also observe that the youngest age groups have a significant decrease in the frequency of going to mosques over time. However, there has not been a significant decrease in the frequency of young men going to the mosque in approximately thirty years. I also do not expect these men to behave differently in other signs of religiosity (such as praying, fasting, or following beliefs and Islamic teachings) that contradict the indication of going to the mosque than the trends observed here. We expect these indicators to be in a positive relationship with each other. Nor do I expect women, who make up half of society, to show a different tendency to that of their husbands, fathers, siblings, and relatives, and become less religious.

The data available show that there is only a marginal change in young people’s level of religiosity. Perhaps more decisive is the current, high level of religiosity rather than the change it underwent. 35-40{4a62a0b61d095f9fa64ff0aeb2e5f07472fcd403e64dbe9b2a0b309ae33c1dfd} of young men say they go to the mosque once a week. We see that this rate did fluctuate between 1990-2018, but did not change much. We also expect socialization around the mosque to affect their social and political views. Although we cannot clearly observe how this interaction occurs, it is not difficult to predict that it would be supporting a more conservative trend. In short, it does not seem possible, at least from quantitative, long-term data, to conclude that young people are moving away from religion.

 ¹ Here you can access the ISSP data. And here you can access the results of our study.

 ² The WVS data can be viewed here, and here is an early analysis of the data: “Revolution, evolution, status-quo: Social, Political and Economic Values in Turkey”.


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