More than half of teens and young adults who say they are affiliated with an organized religion also say they have little or no trust in organized religion. In other words, they are involved in religious institutions on paper but are disengaged at some level because they don’t trust religious institutions — even the ones they belong to.
And that’s just the roughly 6 in 10 who are still affiliated.
That lack of trust among religiously affiliated teens and young adults is one of many surprises in the “State of Religion and Young People” study released by Springtide Research Institute, which was founded in August 2019. The study surveyed more than 10,000 Americans ages 13 to 25 — the so-called Gen Z generation — about their involvement in, and feelings about, religion.
“They’re checking the box that says they are Jewish or Catholic or whatever, but over half of them are saying, ‘even though I checked the box, I don’t trust organized religion,’” said Josh Packard, a sociologist of religion who is the executive director of Springtide. “This is sort of stunning and not what you would expect from somebody who checked the box.”
He thinks the study’s findings should complicate, if not make obsolete, the notion that we can use “affiliated” as an easy shorthand for “religious” in America. Other findings in the study bear this out, including that about 1 in 5 Gen Z members who are affiliated with an organized religion also say they are not personally religious.
“The categories that used to be really effective indicators of their faith and spirituality are just not anymore,” Packard said. “You can’t rely on the old metrics like we might have once been able to.”
If the category of “affiliated” no longer lines up perfectly with “active believers,” the category of “unaffiliated” is complicated too.
For example, 60% of teens and young adults who are not involved with an organized religion described themselves as spiritual, and 19% said they attend religious gatherings at least once a month.
There are some other surprises in the study’s 119-page report, which is available for free. One is about gender. In the past, it’s been clear that men and boys have been more likely to leave organized religion than women and girls. The gender imbalance among religiously unaffiliated Americans has skewed male for years.
In this study of Gen Z, however, the edge among the unaffiliated goes to girls and women, 40% of whom are not involved with an organized religion.
They are interested in religious questions but express their beliefs in non-institutional ways, including everyday moral matters like what they buy. “They’re asking, ‘How am I taking care of the planet with this purchase? Who am I buying it from? Does that company support fair wages? Do they support the causes that I care about?’” Packard said. “These are more than just social justice concerns. Young people talk about these questions in religious language.”
They also respond to “relational authority,” which means authority that is not based on hierarchy or titles so much as a genuine interest in young people as individuals. Four in 5 Gen Z members surveyed said they were likely to take guidance from adults who care about them.
Religion outside the box of programs and buildings is a fresh challenge for many religious leaders and teachers, Packard acknowledges. It’s also harder for sociologists to track. “The local chapter of your National Association for Loosely Affiliated People Interested in Vaguely Religious Questions doesn’t meet at Starbucks on a Wednesday,” he joked. But he stresses it’s important to resist the temptation to label teens and young adults.
“This is the most diverse and complex generation that has ever existed,” he said. “Their religious lives are no different.”
I continue to believe that evangelicals, far right Catholics and white Christian nationalists will be the death of Christianity in America.