Walking with Generation Z: Distrust of Institutions and Organized Religion

Why have over half of the Gen Z youths lost faith and confidence in organized religion? Societal upbringing is one cause, but there are several other causes.

(Image: Devin Avery/Unsplash.com)

America’s trust in organized religion has reached another all-time low. In fact, people were more than twice as likely to have a robust confidence in organized religion in the 1970s than they are today. According to Gallup, 65% of adults (ages 18 and up) in the 1970s said that they had a “great deal of trust” in organized religion, while this number has fallen to just 31% today.1

But organized religion is not the only institution where trust has eroded significantly. Gallup has been surveying people’s trust in other institutions for over forty years. Over that period of time, the percentage of Americans who have “a great deal” of trust in the medical system has fallen from 80% to 38%. Similarly, trust in the presidency has fallen from 52% to 23%, and high confidence in the public school system has fallen from 58% to 28%.2

3

Many may attribute this loss of confidence in institutions to recent events. However, this increasing trend of distrust predated the pandemic and has been happening for decades. One of the few exceptions was a slight boost in confidence in 2020. Yet despite these small variations, the percentage of U.S. citizens who say that they have a great deal of confidence in all major U.S. institutions has fallen from 48% in 1979 to 27% in 2022.4

Growing Up with Gen Z

So how does this loss of confidence in institutions impact Gen Z? Well, like the rest of the population, their trust in institutions is just as low, if not lower, and part of this distrust comes from their social upbringing. When we look at the average confidence in major U.S. institutions over the past forty years, we see a sharp decline in trust from 2003 to 2008, which occurred during the early years and childhood of Gen Z. While it is difficult to pinpoint which specific factors led to this distrust, there were some notable events that certainly contributed to this loss of confidence: the 2003 crash of the spaceship Columbia, the CIA’s abuse of the Abu Ghraib prisoners in 2004, the 2005 Terri Schiavo case, the botched response to hurricane Katrina in 2005, and finally the dawning of the Great Recession and the 2008 stock market plunge.

During this time, there was also growing disillusion with the government and the Church. While there was initially strong support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, this support started to wane over the mid- to late 2000s, especially when no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq.5 The high approval rating President Bush initially held after 9/11 also gradually declined in the ensuing years.6 Moreover, the Church herself was rocked with a series of priest scandals in the mid- to late 2000s as the Holy See examined many accounts of clerical abuse. These scandals also involved some members of the hierarchy who either ignored or actively covered up abuse.

While Gen Z may not remember these events explicitly, this loss of confidence in our institutions certainly affected the adults around them and the social climate in which Gen Z was raised. Moreover, the overall trust in institutions has never rebounded since 2003. Instead, it continues to go downhill.

The Institutional Skepticism of Gen Z and the Rise of Political Action and Fandoms

The loss of confidence in our institutions has greatly affected Gen Z in many ways, but this article focuses on three significant consequences.

First, like the adults that raised them, Gen Z has an equal (if not greater) distrust in institutions. In 2020, Springtide Research Center surveyed 10,000 Gen Z youth and asked them to rate their trust in institutions on a scale of one to ten, with ten being complete trust. In the end, the median over all institutions was just 5.5.7 While Catholic youths were slightly more trusting of these institutions, the findings unsurprisingly confirmed that the youth have little trust in institutions.

8

Second, because they can no longer trust institutions, Gen Z youth are becoming more politically active. Many of them believe that the systems and institutions have failed them personally, and thus they feel that it is just, and even necessary, to advocate for social change. Indeed, 59% of Gen Z youths and 69% of Catholic youths say that their personal experiences make them passionate about political issues.9 Moreover, 45% of Gen Z and 57% of Catholic youths wish that adults would discuss politics with them more.10 While many adults tend to dismiss political conversations with Gen Z, these discussions are of immense importance. We need to have political conversations with members of Gen Z, not just because each of them has innate dignity and deserves the respect of having their views heard, but also because Gen Z will be voting in greater numbers as they approach adulthood.

Third, in addition to political activism, this generation has turned to various groups, hobbies, and fandoms to find a sense of belonging. Previous generations often looked to their Church, their family, and even their country and local government for a sense of community and purpose. But having lost trust in these organizations, many Gen Z youth are turning increasingly to small groups, fandoms, and action groups for their sense of meaning and community.11 To these young people, their identity as a ski enthusiast, miniature hobbyist, environmentalist, or Star Wars fan means more than their identity as a patriot or Christian. Many may even find more meaning in a Marvel movie than in a story about a martyr or soldier at war. Some may get up early to play a sport with their team, but do not get up to pray or go to Mass. Now, these hobbies and fandoms are not entirely bad; personally, I am a huge fan of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. But this generation needs to know that their identity as children of God, Americans, and members of their families means much more than what hobby, action group, or fandom they identify with.

Leaving Organized Religion

Many Gen Z youths do not find community and meaning in organized religion because over half of them do not trust organized religion. Springtide Research Institute reported that 52% of Gen Z have little to no trust in organized religion and only 14% of this generation trusts organized religion completely. Even 49% of Catholic youths have little to no trust in organized religion and only 16% of them say that they trust organized religion completely.12

These statistics become even more shocking when compared to the older generations. In 2021, Gallup conducted a similar poll that showed that 30% adults (18 years and older) said that they had “little to no trust” in organized religion whereas 19% had “a great deal” of trust.13 Therefore, Gen Z’s distrust in organized religion is twenty-two points higher than that older generations.14

So, why have over half of the Gen Z youths lost faith and confidence in organized religion? Certainly, their societal upbringing is one cause, but when we listen to Gen Z, we find that there are several other causes:

  • First, 39% of Gen Z and 38% of Catholic youths say that they have been harmed by religion.15 This harm could stem from a variety of sources. In some cases, it may be physical, sexual, or psychological abuse by religious authorities. In these cases, any abuse should be reported, addressed swiftly, and, if proven, dealt with severely. In other cases, however, Gen Z youth may feel hurt by certain religious beliefs and practices that challenge their accepted cultural values. While we cannot distort the truth or lower standards simply to make them feel more accepted, we should make every reasonable effort to welcome them and speak the truth with charity.
  • Second, 45% of Gen Z and 42% of Catholic youths say that they “do not feel safe within religions or faith institutions.”16 Their sense of safety depends on whether they feel respected, heard, cared for, and taken seriously; they want to be comfortable sharing their ideas and being themselves.17 If we truly want to walk with this generation, we must start by helping them feel safe. This does not mean that we should agree with everything that they say or affirm every decision, but it does require that we be patient with them as we guide them to the truth.
  • Third, Gen Z does not like being told the answer. When it comes to religion specifically, 58% of them say that they do not like being told the answers about faith and would rather discover the answers themselves. However, 54% of Gen Z say that “religious communities try to fix my problems, instead of just being there for me.”18 If we are going to regain the trust of this generation, we need to learn how to listen to them and help them discover the truth instead of talking at them or, even worse, talking down to them.
  • Fourth, religious communities are not there for Gen Z youths. During the pandemic, only 10% of the youth and only 6% of Catholic youths said that a faith leader reached out to them personally. Additionally, even for those Gen Z Catholics who identify as “very religious,” only 31% of Gen Z said that they found connecting with their community helpful.19 To win back trust, we must reach out more actively and authentically to this generation by showing concern for their needs and wellbeing.
  • Fifth, Gen Z receives media and education from an increasingly secular culture. Pew Research reported in 2021 that only 63% of the U.S. population self-identifies as Christian, which is down from 78% merely a decade ago. Conversely, the rise of the non-religious went from 16% to 29% in the same period.20 This increased secularization means that our media and education, which this generation is ravenously consuming, advocate for values that are often antithetical to the traditional Christian worldview. In the next article in this series, we will investigate the religious associations of Gen Z to understand the effects of this secularization more fully. But for now, we as Catholics must realize that to regain the confidence of the youth, we also must fight a culture that is increasingly hostile to Christian values.

In the end, the best way to recover the trust of Gen Z youths is actually quite simple: We must establish true, authentic, and charitable relationships with them. Eighty-four percent of Gen Z Catholics agree that “fostering and working on a relationship is an important part of trust.”21

While some are tempted to mock Gen Z, along with their interests, skepticism, and desire to feel safe, such a reaction only exacerbates the problem. Instead of belittling this generation, we need to first make them feel safe, cared for, heard, and respected. It is only once we have built back their trust through our genuine love and concern that we can then challenge them to live courageously, heroically, and even at times perilously for the truth that is greater than themselves.

Previously in this series:
“Walking with Generation Z: Understanding the Loneliest Generation” (August 11, 2022) by Benjamin Eriksen

Endnotes:

1 Jeffery M. Jones, “Confidence in U.S. Institutions Down; Average at New Low,” Gallup Poll, July 5, 2022, and Gallup Poll cited in Springtide Research Institute, The State Religion & Young People: Relational Authority (Catholic Edition), (Farmington, MN: Springtide Research Institute), p. 32.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Jones, “Confidence in U.S. Institutions Down; Average at New Low.”

5 “Iraq,” Gallup Poll. Megan Brenan, “Americans Split on Whether Afghanistan War Was a Mistake,” Gallup Poll, July 26, 2021.

7 Springtide Research Institute, Relational Authority, p. 33.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., p. 114.

10 Ibid. p. 112.

11 Springtide Research reached a similar conclusion. See ibid, p. 34.

12 Ibid., p. 44 and Springtide Research Institute, The State of Religion & Young People: Navigating Uncertainty (Farmington, MN: Springtide Research Institute, 2021), p. 35.

13 Megan Brenan, “Americans’ Confidence in Major U.S. Institutions Dips,” Gallup Poll, July 14, 2021.

14 Note that this difference may even be greater given that some Gen Z were included in the Gallup poll which received input from people ages 18 and up.

15 Springtide Research Institute, Navigating Uncertainty, p. 35.

16 Ibid.

17 See ibid., pp. 32–33.

18 Ibid., p. 14.

19 Ibid., p. 26.

20 Gregor A. Smith, “About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults are Now Religiously Unaffiliated,” Pew Research Center, December 14, 2021.

21 Springtide Research Institute, Relational Authority, p. 71.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Benjamin Eriksen 4 Articles
Benjamin Eriksen, M.A., is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He has taught high school and college students for several years and is a senior catechetical writer for the Word of Life series.

20 Comments

  1. Of the so-called Generation Z: “Some may get up early to play a sport with their team, but do not get up to pray or go to Mass.”

    Instead of “organized religion,” is the REAL QUESTION whether we at any age are willing to suspect that the infinite goodness of God might also (therefore) be so close as to actually talk to people (“revelation”)? And, to do something so alarming as to also walk with us, incarnate (John 1:14)?

    The Incarnation is an actual EVENT, not a mere idea or even an institution.

    The issue of the day is as much our routinized boredom as it is institutions. To offer the challenge of jump-start maturity is not always to “belittle” or “disrespect.” Rather, quite the opposite…So, HOW to sufficiently deprogram Generation Z and all of us from narcissist brain fog, from TV remotes, from institutionalized (!!!) athletics, and from virtual reality, so as once again to discover real questions and the permanent things?

    And, to notice that the not-so-routine Mass is about something, or rather SOMEONE, who is truly worthy of trust, and truly real and truly present, beckoning, the Real Presence?

    Then, maybe to get into the secondary question of “organized religion” and uniquely the (yes, imperfect) Church—always with Christ as its head. The subliminal and flattening effect of surveys… another suspect institution!

  2. Hmm, okay. No mention of divorce culture in this? My children are Gen Z. Yesterday the youngest noted that at his worksite, he is the only one from an intact family. (There are about ten employees at this business, all Gen Z–the manager may be a Millenial).
    .
    If you can’t trust the “leaders” of your very first “institution” to do their job, why believe any other would be better? Then too, Jesus, the founder of one of the biggest institutions out there very plainly called divorce and remarriage adultery…and there is not a Church (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox) that doesn’t allow it.

    • “Fourth, religious communities are not there for Gen Z youths. During the pandemic, only 10% of the youth and only 6% of Catholic youths said that a faith leader reached out to them personally.”
      ****************************
      I think that experience was shared by the majority of Catholics no matter their age. That should be a pastor’s priority at all times & especially so in situations as we had in 2020. In some parishes you could drop dead in the church parking lot & few folks would be able to identify you. We’re that disconnected.

      • My children admittedly attended a “movement” community at the time, one that actually did quite well under the circumstances. They were in the loop. I got phone calls from them as well.
        .
        I regret I did not reach out to members of my parish

      • Yep. One parish repeatedly e-mailed parishioners to ask for volunteers to phone other parishioners to ensure their needs were being met. This, at the time when churches were LOCKED and SHUTTERED and the pastor had OFTEN AND FREQUENTLY QUARANTINED HIMSELF often because of his potential exposure to another person who potentially carried a Covid virus.

        All the folks on my list assured they were perfectly fine, needing no assistance. My list contained no GenZers.

      • I know nothing about Mennonites, and the Amish very little. My understanding is they have a community–a real one, not just a neighborhood. I am guessing they do not have any 501c3’s to do welfare/social work, but members in the community give aide to those in need, and probably not to any slackers who might exist (and who probably aren’t really doing much slacking off.) It is probably highly relevant what goes on in the house next door–since what goes on over there, probably impacts what I (would have) going on.
        .
        Not so in the world we have built. Although my neighbor divorcing does impact me, it is too subtle for me to notice.

        • Mennonites aid slackers & hardworking people alike when a tragedy strikes. They don’t limit assistance to their own communities. But yes, they don’t rely on non-profits or social workers but on their own two hands.

          • Well, I’m thinking more along the lines of folks who spend their money at the casinos and not on any medical needs they have, or materials for a pole barn.

    • I agree with Kathryn that the prevalence of divorce has given the Gen Z a perspective of distrust and cynicism. They don’t want to relive the nightmare that they saw their parents go through. I know this from experience because my two Gen Z children saw my divorce. Please pray for all broken families. Every divorce is different. After my conversion, Jesus led me through 14 months of intense Catholic marital counseling, but my spouse refused to participate. My merciful Lord then led me out of the lifeless and loveless marriage of 27 years and the marriage was annulled. The effect of the separation and divorce on my kids who were in high school and college at the time is without a doubt the greatest sorrow in my life. My kids know I am there for them unconditionally, but it will be Jesus who heals them. I am his disciple and try to do his will each day to the best of my ability.
      I hope the Catholic church is doing a better job of preparing young people to receive the Sacrament of Matrimony. I don’t blame the church for my mistakes, but I had no idea what authentic Catholic marriage was when I got married. I love the Catholic church and I am in love with the Lord. I pray my children grow closer to Jesus so they can enjoy and live the abundant life He has in store for them. Modeling joyful Catholic lives married or not is the best way to attract others to the Catholic church. As JPII said, We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song!

      • Hello Joan. I’m so sorry to hear about your experiences but I’m so glad you are feeling closer to the Lord & His Church.
        I don’t know anything about your circumstances except for what you relate but it is important to distinguish between a sacramental marriage which has become loveless & lifeless & one that was never sacramental to begin with.
        I’m sure you are talking about the latter, but it can be a really confusing concept for some Catholics & other Christians.
        God bless!

    • Yep. One parish repeatedly e-mailed parishioners to ask for volunteers to phone other parishioners to ensure their needs were being met. This, at the time when churches were LOCKED and SHUTTERED and the pastor had OFTEN AND FREQUENTLY QUARANTINED HIMSELF often because of his potential exposure to another person who potentially carried a Covid virus.

      All the folks on my list assured they were perfectly fine, needing no assistance. My list contained no GenZers.

      ADDENDUM: I cemented my transition from this diocesan parish to the ‘personal’ TLM parish at this time. For a few years prior to Covid, I performed many different service ministries for the diocesan parish. No more.

      Hailing originally from western Pennsylvania, I recently learned that a consortium of six parishes in my hometown region, are closing at least four of the six. It was bittersweet to hear that the parish of my youth was one of the two runners-up for keeping with the four others scheduled for de-consecration, de-commissioning, and sale.

      In the 1970s wake of VCII, parishes wreckovated. Now we raze the rot. When, O Lord, when will come a resurrection?

  3. The first three reasons listed are actually one: pride. “My feelings are hurt because the Church doesn’t agree with me.” “The Church doesn’t respect me or value my opinions as much as I deserve because I know best.” “Stop telling me anything because I’m so smart I can figure it out myself” with a side serving of a toddler insisting “*Me* do it!” as he wreaks havoc.

    We can probably give a fair amount of the credit to the “self-esteem” movement.

  4. Distrust in institutions is concomitant with institutional failure is concomitant with institutional distrust itself.
    Distrust a form of self inflicted paranoia has affected our entire culture due in essence with the collapse of faith in a concerned God, now a disinterested entity, impersonal and amorphous, if God exists at all. We simply have no conviction that any social mores, principles of behavior have substantive value beyond presumed conventional outcomes. A circular dynamic that reinforces itself.
    Eriksen’s survey, the responses are meaningful. However, the root issue is a growing apostasy formulated simply as distrust in a meaningful God equals ubiquitous distrust. Principles of behavior are reduced to what is effective. That requires conviction that behavior and policies have are in the interests of others. At this stage of the game we require a monumental reversal inspired by renewed trust. Henri Bergson in the Two Sources of Religion and Morality held that history shows a great spiritual leader can effect that renewal.

  5. I tell my teen sons that if they were the only human left on the planet then the ten commandments would be a moot point except for the command to love God. And in the same manner if we were to de-construct all Christian religions, what common denominator and prime factor would be left is that Jesus Christ is God. Then why stay Catholic, go to church and live our vocations they ask? Because man was not meant to be alone and in the Holy Spirit and partaking of the Eucharist we can be in a community of here and now as well as in the company of so many great human beings of the past just like ourselves who loved Jesus Christ with their entire being. My wife and I pray constantly that they will grow to be good Catholic men especially in these days of Noah and Lot.

  6. I appreciate the thoughts and efforts the author put into this article, but I have a few comments.

    Regarding Gen Z, “We must establish true… relationships with them.” With my catholic elementary and high school education in the 1950’s, and university in the early 1960’s, I recall the teachers teaching and me learning, not so much establishing relationships.
    I believe this generation needs to be challenged.

    After an early retirement from the business world, In the mid 1990’s I was teaching high school freshman religion. A student came up to my desk one day during an assignment and said, “I don’t like your class.” I told her I was sorry to hear that, and asked if she liked her 8th grade religion class. She said yes, and I asked her what they did in that class. She answered, “We colored pictures.” So that is what we are dealing with.
    I had students that told me they could not attend Sunday mass because they had soccer practice.

    I read online the results of our diocesan synod listening sessions. Among other things, people said that they want more musical instruments at mass, different music, etc. They want to be entertained, and don’t understand that we are there to give something, not just to get something.

    I think it is fairly well known how poorly catechised catholics are. I just don’t see how establishing relationships is going to fix this.

  7. I wonder why so many people are leaving! Haven’t they heard the “good news”??

    1. you need to apologize for being born
    2. you don’t own your own body
    3. you can be thankful for suffering
    4. you are “free” to do what a totalitarian authority says, or else

    I just cannot for the life of me figure out why someone would want to throw this ideology into the garbage can.

6 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Walking with Generation Z: Distrust of Institutions and Organized Religion – Via Nova Media
  2. Walking with Generation Z: Distrust of Institutions and Organized Religion | Passionists Missionaries Kenya, Vice Province of St. Charles Lwanga, Fathers & Brothers
  3. Walking with Generation Z: Distrust of Institutions and Organized Religion | Franciscan Sisters of St Joseph (FSJ) , Asumbi Sisters Kenya
  4. Mistrust of Establishments and Organized Faith – Catholic World Report - Brideable Finance
  5. MONDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit
  6. Walking with Generation Z: Distrust of Institutions and Organized Religion – Catholic World Report – 88kratom

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*