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
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.
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
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.
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.
6 “Bush and Public Opinion: Reviewing the Bush Years and the Public’s Final Verdict,” Pew Research December 18, 2008.
7 Springtide Research Institute, Relational Authority, p. 33.
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.
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.
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