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Faith in Youth

The victory of Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia, a backlash against gay marriage in the United States, and legislation outlawing headscarves, minarets, or the wearing of burkhas in various parts of Europe might lead you to believe that we are living in an age of moral conservatism and religious revival.

Yet data from the World Values Survey, which has been collecting information about a range of social issues since 1981, shows younger generations are significantly less likely to consider themselves religious than their elders – and in most regions of the world.

It may come as no surprise to learn that in western Europe, less than half of those born since the 1970s consider themselves religious, compared to 75 per cent of those born before World War II. But also in the United States and Latin America, the number of pious among the young is lower. If religious issues like abortion and gay marriage have become salient in these countries, it is because religious conservatives have lost control of the policy agenda.

The biggest surprise, however, lies in the Middle East. A third of the young living in the Arab countries, Turkey and Iran now say they are ‘not religious’ – a surprising number in a region where blasphemy is typically a criminal offense. And while it is possible that people simply become more religious as they approach old age, the absence of such a pattern in Africa and South Asia suggests intergenerational change.

For now, in countries like Egpyt and Tunisia, Islamists may win the democratic contest. But if youth are the future, then the future will look substantially more secular.

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