Gen Z Is the Least Religious Generation. Here's Why That Could Be a Good Thing.

The trend toward non-religiousness in this generation is probably here to stay. The upsides include increasing levels of tolerance.
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Members of Generation Z are losing their religion, for better and for worse. My 17-year-old daughter, Sheila, does not believe in God. She attended church twice when we were trying to decide whether to raise her with religion (we decided against it). She's been at synagogue a few times, attending friends' bat mitzvahs, but those friends don't believe in God either. Her circle of close friends is diverse in many ways: white, black, Latina, Jewish, Indian; three identify as bi or gay. They are less diverse when it comes to religion: Except for one girl, who's an Evangelical Christian, religion is not important to these kids.

Sheila and her friends are typical of a growing trend in her generation. I say this not only as a parent. I teach at a Catholic university where increasing numbers of my students lack even basic knowledge of the tradition they were supposedly raised in. And I'm a sociologist of religion who has spent 15 years studying those who leave it.

Generation Z is the least religious generation. About one third have no religion—about the same proportion as among Millennials—compared with 23 percent, 17 percent, and 11 percent among, respectively, Generation X, Baby Boomers, and the Silent Generation, according to Pew research. But Gen Z's ties to religion seem even weaker than Millennials': They are more likely to identify as atheist or agnostic (21 percent vs. 15 percent), and most think church attendance is unimportant, according to research by the Barna Group. (Barna is a firm that provides data to Christian organizations who are evidently concerned about these trends.)

Non-religious does not mean atheist. Some young people maintain a nominal, often cultural affiliation to religion (e.g., they are Jewish or Catholic and enjoy celebrating the holidays but don't believe or go to services). Some are eclectic, creating their own spirituality from elements of various religious or spiritual traditions: yoga, angels, or Native American dreamcatchers, or even secular culture like Harry Potter. My own experience suggests that far more young people are simply indifferent to faith. They don't ever think or talk about religion unless it's a topic at school or bad news about religious zealotry in the Middle East or Florida.

The trend toward non-religiousness in this generation is probably here to stay. One reason is demographic. Past studies suggested childhood religious socialization was the single biggest factor predicting adult affiliation. But the decline in religious affiliation that began with the Baby Boomers means that a smaller proportion of each subsequent generation is raising kids in religious homes. And those who do retain religion will often use a kind of "religion-lite" approach, attending services sporadically and celebrating holidays as cultural events devoid of much of their original meaning.

Other reasons for non-religiosity are cultural. Religious commitment tends to be more intense when communities are homogeneous because they can avoid being challenged by conflicting beliefs or value systems (think of the Amish or Hasidic Jews). Exposure to diverse perspectives challenges the claims of any particular worldview, which is why people in multicultural, cosmopolitan societies tend to be less religious. Gen Z is the most ethnically, racially, and religiously diverse generation in the United States, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

More than any other generation, young people today have access to information about alternative views. All you ever wanted to know about Buddhism or Islam is only a click away, and there's evidence the Internet has helped young atheists who live in religiously conservative communities find like-minded youth. It doesn't help when traditionalists dig in their heels. Too often young people see organized religion connected to intolerance and abuse: images of Islamic jihadists attacking concertgoers in Paris, or conservative Christians at home waving Confederate flags and opposing the rights of gay couples to marry. For young people with minimal religious commitment, these sights can be a turn-off.

Post-Millennials live in a culture of choice, self-actualization, and freedom of expression. Young people today, as never before, feel free to express their sexual orientation and gender identity. Significantly, many in Gen Z reject the traditionally available choices—identifying as gender-fluid is one example—and this fluidity can extend to religion: When young people respond to a survey about religion by saying they have "none," it can be a way of opting out of existing religious categories.

Some observers see young America's turn from religion as a problem—and not without reason: A significant body of literature suggests that youth with high religious commitment do better on a variety of social measures (use of drugs and alcohol, promiscuity, depression, grades in school) than those with weak religious ties. But these effects are strongly tied to regular participation in a religious congregation. So it may be the main factor isn't religion per se, but rather the experience of growing up in a community of caring adults. A recent study suggests that young people raised without religion are more resistant to peer pressure and more tolerant of diversity than their religious peers. I see that tolerance in my daughter's friends and in my classrooms at Sacred Heart University. It is a beacon of hope for all of us.

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Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Understanding Gen Z was made possible by Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) and its director, Margaret Levi, who hosted the iGen Project. Further support came from the Knight Foundation.

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