AMERICAN RELIGIOUS leaders have been fascinated with the Baby Boom generation -- and with good reason.
First of all, Boomers make up one-third of the whole population. When they were younger, their parents flocked to churches and synagogues to provide religious education for their children.
As the Boomers grew up, however, they left the church in large numbers. They were particularly responsible for the membership declines in mainline Protestant denominations since the '60s.
For more than a decade, religious leaders have been looking to the Boomers to return to church. They've also been looking for clues to the Boomers' unique approach to religion.
Some valuable new information comes from a study conducted by Wade Clark Roof, professor of religion and society at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Roof surveyed 536 Boomers in four states providing a geographic sampling of the country -- California, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Ohio. His report appears in the 1990 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches (Abingdon).
Roof divided Boomers into older Boomers, including those now in their mid-40s, and younger boomers, including those now in their 20s. He found that about two-thirds of all Boomers had dropped out of church for at least two years; 43 percent of the older drop-outs and 38 percent of the younger have returned to active religious involvement.
But Roof found some surprising differences between older and younger Boomers.
"Older baby boomers are returning to organized religion," Roof says, "but they are not necessarily the most religious in other ways. Younger boomers are more religious in matters of faith and practice; they consider themselves more religious and affirm traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and practices more so than do older members."
Older Boomers are more likely to believe in alternative religious beliefs. For example, 30 percent of older Boomers and 25 percent of younger ones believe in reincarnation; 17 percent of older and 11 percent of younger Boomers practice meditation; 51 percent of older and 43 percent of younger Boomers believe "all religions are equally good and true."
A second source of differences in religious views is the family life cycle. It wasn't particularly surprising that Roof found that married people with children were more religiously active and held more traditional religious beliefs than singles or those who are separated and divorced.
But he found an important trend among one particular group of married people -- those without children. Many of these are what has come to be known as "DINKS" -- double income, no kids.
This group was considerably less religious than the other groups -- less religious even than singles. For example, 83 percent of those who are married with children, 82 percent of the divorced and separated, 77 percent of singles and only 64 percent of those married without children say they definitely believe in God.
Fifty-three percent of those who are married with children, 44 percent of the divorced and separated, 34 percent of singles and 29 percent of those who are married without children say that religion is "very important" in their lives.
A third source of important differences was education level. On most issues, the differences among high school graduates, those with some college and college graduates were not dramatic. But there were sharp differences between those groups and those who had done post-graduate study.
For example, while 81 percent of college graduates said they believed in God, only 64 percent of those who had done post-graduate work said they believed in God.
Roof found that "religious individualism" increased with education level for all religious groups. For example, 52 percent of high school graduates, 63 percent of those with some college, 66 percent of college graduates and 69 percent of those with some post-graduate work said they "prefer to explore many teachings than stick to a particular faith."
Not surprisingly, Roof concludes that his findings offer directions for new research on the differences he found -- and on the basic question of why some Boomers return to church and others do not.
Jim Castelli writes on contemporary religion.