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How Gen Z'ers Are Remaking Religion to Suit Their Values

Many are no longer passing on the old sacred teachings, but they are imparting a new one: that everyone has not just a right but a duty to choose their own worldview.

In the 2000s, when I was carrying out research among evangelicals and Pentecostals in North Carolina and the north of England, I came to dread the inescapable question: "Are you born again?" Even more uncomfortable was being asked for my "personal testimony" of conversion.

Since the people I was studying had been kind enough to let me join their meetings, I felt I couldn't politely refuse to answer. I would begin by saying, "Well, like a lot of people in England, I'm Church of England." Silence. Digging my grave deeper, I'd explain in a semi-joking fashion that I had given my life to Christ when I was two weeks old, because that's when I'd been baptized in a little village church in Devon, and in my tradition it was believed that the Holy Spirit was at work in the sacraments of water and oil. Silence.

"It's a sort of ethnic religion," I tried to explain. "In that sense, it's a bit like being Jewish. You don't get much choice. My parents were C of E, and my grandparents, and theirs before them—yea unto the Tudor Period. Even my local school was C of E." More silence. I tried to reassure my listeners: "It's important to me; it's a central part of who I am."

No matter how I tried to explain that I was really a Christian, just a different sort, it wouldn't compute. To my born-again audience, these protestations meant only one thing: My soul still needed saving.

In my lifetime (I'm early Gen X), religion in many countries—including England—has shifted decisively from being something you inherited to something you choose. A symptom is the swiftly growing number of people who say they have no religion. This number is highest among young Millennials. In the United Kingdom, well over half identify as having "no religion"; in the United States, it's over a third.

Saying you have "no religion" is not the same as identifying as secular or atheist. My surveys and those of Pew Research show that only a minority of "nones" are atheists. In the U.S. in particular, a large proportion still believe in God, or say they are open to spirituality. They just don't identify with a particular religious group or institution.

Our data from Stanford University's iGen Project is shedding new light on the reasons for all this.

One important aspect of Gen Z's response to religion is the values this generation associates with organized worship. Some mention intolerance or dogmatism; others raise sexism and homophobia. Their own values have a hugely important role for young people today. They are a compass in a world in which many of the old frameworks no longer work. If an institution or community clashes with those values, Gen Z'ers might tend to stay away. They're much less likely than previous generations to say, "I disagree with most of what my church does, but I still belong."

Another common remark in interviews and focus groups with Generation Z is that although spirituality—a word they often use in preference to "religion"—interests them, they haven't had time to consider it seriously. It's as though they file it away in what another researcher, Tim Clydesdale, calls an "identity lockbox." They regard spirituality as a useful resource they might look into one day, but not now.

Then there is the minority of our informants who are actively religious. They often speak with passion about their religious group and how much it means to them. Most have been raised in that religion, but many have shopped around to find a congregation that fits their values. All say they have made a personal commitment, and not just relied on what was bequeathed to them.

Critics may say that this new emphasis on choice in religion turns it into a consumer commodity, where you can pick and mix whatever elements feel best. That doesn't seem quite accurate. For one thing, this generation is highly critical of cultural or religious appropriation. They decry the idea that you can pick and choose heedlessly from any culture you like, citing the way that Native American rituals, beliefs, and dress have been pilfered as a particularly distasteful example. What's more, they take their choices and commitments extremely seriously; the fact that something is chosen doesn't necessarily make it consumerist or trivial.

These responses from Gen Z'ers seem in keeping with a process that sociologists and psychologists have noticed for many generations: they call it a shift from "ascribed" to "elective" identities. For young Millennials, as for no generation before, there is no escape from the imperative of choice. A recent study by Christel Manning of Sacred Heart University on how non-religious parents raise their children helps explain this shift. Many are no longer passing on the old sacred teachings, but they are imparting a new one: That everyone has not just a right but a duty to choose their own worldview.

The older evangelicals in North Carolina and northern England who couldn't accept that I was a real Christian felt a bit that way too, but they believed there was only one right choice, which was to surrender yourself to the God of Christ and become "born again." What's different for this generation is that they have a vast menu to choose from, thanks in part to the Internet. They browse what's on offer and sometimes listen in on different groups before they get involved and make their commitments, online or off-. They are looking for something meaningful, something that fits. If it doesn't work out, they can move on. The accident of birth and location and the "ways of the fathers" no longer carry the weight they once did.

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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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