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Faith isn't declining among millennials — religion is

A boy attends Friday prayers in Larkana on September 3, 2010
A boy attends Friday prayers in Larkana on September 3, 2010
Adek Berry/Getty

It's no secret that religion in America is on a steady decline. According to a recent PEW survey, about 20 percent can be classified as "Nones" — Americans who claim to be unaffiliated with any particular religion, or identify as an atheist or agnostic. That's an increase from 2007, when the religiously unaffiliated numbered just 15 percent of the US population. Seeing these numbers, some religious leaders bemoan what they see as the secularization of America.

But new research from Carnegie Mellon University might add a surprising context to these numbers.

According to CMU's Integrated Innovation Institute, while only 52 percent of Millennials look to religion for guidance, 62 percent of them say they talk privately to God. What this suggests is that rather than giving up their faith, Millennials are actually expressing a "fairly strong sense of faith," according to Peter Boatwright, co-director of the Institute.

So Millennials like to chat with the Big Guy — but why are they skipping the middleman of organized religion?

While conducting research for an upcoming book on Nones, Kaya Oakes, visiting lecturer at UC Berkeley, found that Millennials are turning to "do-it-yourself faith." She said they feel "institutional religions fail to welcome the kinds of questions [they] bring to the table."

Some speculate the Millennial exodus from organized religion has to do with politics. According to this theory, Millennials have become disillusioned with what they see as the increasing politicization of religion. Some surveys have also suggested Millennials are leaving behind organized religion because of what they feel are anti-gay attitudes of congregants.

The Carnegie Mellon survey was delivered to 2,000 men and women between the ages of 18 and 34, and there were notable differences between key demographics. For instance, Africans Americans were the highest demographic of those who both seek guidance from religion (67 percent) and talk to God (78 percent). On the other hand, Hispanic Millennials showed the greatest difference between those looking to religion (54 percent) and those chatting with the Almighty (67 percent).

According to the survey, answers also varied by geographic location: 70 percent of rural Millennials claimed to talk to God, compared with only 60 percent of urban Millennials. But while the frequency of God-conversation varied by location, researchers didn't find a correlation between education level and talking with God, which contradicts some studies suggesting a correlation between faith and a lack of intelligence.