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The Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs recently released results of their 2012 survey of “millennials.” “Millennials” are young adults between the ages of 18 and 24.

The report contains a number of results of interest; among the most dramatic are the figures relating to change in religious identification.

According to the survey, there has been a net decline of one-third (34 percent) in the proportion of Anglos (“whites”) who identified as Catholic in their childhood and those who identify as Catholic in their millennial years. This decline is even worse than the 28 percent decline for Anglo mainline Protestants.

For Hispanics, there is a net decline of 21 percent in identification as Catholic between youth and young adulthood.

By comparison, the net loss is only 6 percent for Evangelical Protestants. To be sure, the proportion of converts among millennials to Evangelical Protestantism mutes the net loss figure. Nonetheless, the proportion of millennials who exited Evangelical Protestantism is significantly less than the Anglos and Hispanics who exited Catholicism.

While these numbers are not good news for the churches, there is a question of just how bad the news actually is.

The life-cycle hypothesis posits that youth drop out of church during an experimental period in their 20s, but return subsequently when they marry and have children. If correct, then this hypothesis implies that the survey data are not-so-bad news. Others argue, however, that that the current drop-out rate reflects a move away from the church by modern youth – even many of those who were church-goers active during their teen years have dropped-out more or less permanently according to this hypothesis.

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