Walking with Generation Z: Religiously Complex 

When compared to those who are affiliated with religion in general, Gen Z Catholics are even more likely to say that they are not religious people and do not try to live their religious beliefs in their daily lives.

(Image: Terren Hurst/Unsplash.com)

Given Gen Z’s distrust of organized religion, it may seem incongruous to call Gen Z “religiously complex.” How can someone be religious at all when they don’t trust religion? Yet even with their great distrust in organized religion, 71% of Gen Z still consider themselves at least slightly religious.1 This interest in religion does not mean that most Gen Z youths have conducted a comprehensive and in-depth investigation of various religious beliefs and institutions. Instead, Gen Z is religiously complex because they often hold confused and even contradictory beliefs about religion. This complexity makes it hard to categorize Gen Z and even harder to meaningfully engage with these youths.

In previous articles, we discussed the lack of adult figures and the growing distrust in institutions, both of which contribute to the bewilderment of this generation. But instead of looking for more causes in this article, we will simply observe the confused and complex mix of religious identities, affiliations, and curiosities of Gen Z. This information is meant to help parents, mentors, teachers, and pastors gain a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of this generation. This knowledge is necessary if we are to walk with the youth and guide them out of the darkness and toward the light of Christ.

God and the Scriptures

In 2021, Springtide Research Institute asked 10,000 Gen Z youth “which statement comes closest to expressing what you believe about a higher power—whether it be God, gods, or some other divine source of universal energy?” The results were fascinating: A full 54% of these youths expressed greater doubt or disbelief in God’s existence than belief in His existence, and just 23% said that they believed in a higher power and had no doubts.2

This data becomes even more shocking when it is compared to a similar study done by Pew Research. They reported that 24% of older Millennials expressed greater doubt or disbelief in God’s existence than belief in His existence, while 54% of older Millennials believed in God with absolute certainty.3 Then, when surveying Gen X, Pew found that 16% of Gen X expressed greater doubt or disbelief in God’s existence than belief in His existence and 64% said their belief in God was absolutely certain.4

Therefore, compared to Gen X and Millennials, Gen Z is more than twice as likely to doubt or disbelieve in God’s existence and half as likely to believe in God with absolute certainty.
5

Interestingly, this year the American Bible Society found that 76% of Gen Z had at least some curiosity about the Bible and Jesus. Even more surprisingly, they noted that 52% of Gen Z youths said that they were extremely or very curious about the Bible and Jesus. By comparison, only 35% of Millennials and 39% of Gen X were extremely or very interested.6 Consequently, even though Gen Z is less likely to believe in God’s existence than previous generations, their interest in Christ and the Bible is much greater than both Millennials and Gen X.

And this is not the only anomaly because Gen Z youths are more likely than Millennials to say that the Bible is the inspired word of God and has no errors.7 Yet, Gen Z is less likely than previous generations to say that reading the Bible is an important component of a child’s character development.8 So, why do Gen Z youth read the Bible? Well, only 1% of Gen Z say that they read the Bible to help them discern God’s will for their lives, but 24% say that they read it because they need comfort and 38% say because it brings them closer to God.9 When compared to Millennials, Gen Z is more likely to believe that the Scriptures are inspired, but less likely to see the Scripture’s practical import, except in so far as it can comfort them or bring them closer to God.

These data points reveal a very confused and complex generation. On the one hand, it is concerning that Gen Z is much less likely to believe in God’s existence and see the importance of Scriptures when forming one’s character or discerning one’s path in life. But it is hopeful that they are more curious about the Scriptures and Jesus and more likely to believe that the Scriptures are the inspired word of God.

Religious identity

The religious confusion and complexity of Gen Z becomes even more evident when examining their religious affiliation. There are many studies on the religious affiliation of Gen Z, but Springtide Research Institute offers one of the most in-depth and credible because they provide further distinctions and follow-up questions. Their chart on the breakdown of religious affiliations reveals four key points about this generation.10

1) Over a third of Gen Z is unaffiliated with religion. Only 61% of these youths are affiliated, and 39% say that they are unaffiliated. Furthermore, the largest group of Gen Z (28%) say that they are “nothing in particular.” Gen Z youths are more likely to say that they are nothing than to say that they are Catholic.

2) The second largest affiliation among Gen Z youth is Roman Catholic (21%). This percentage is even more significant when we see that only 28% of Gen Z youth say that they are Christian in some other regard. Collectively, Christians and Catholics only make up 49% of Gen Z. This means that only half of this generation are affiliated with Christianity in some form, but almost half of those are Catholics. Consequently, young Catholics are a central and influential part of this generation.

3) There is a wide range of religious affiliations. However, these categories are not always exclusive. In fact, 47% of young people say that they feel like they could fit in with many different religions.11 This indeterminacy means that this generation often adopts religious beliefs from a variety of sources. For example, some may hold a Buddhist position on one issue and a Catholic position on another.

4) Among Gen Z Christians, there is a difference between those who consider themselves “something else—Christian” and those who are uniquely “Protestant.” Many surveys do not make this distinction, even though it is very important for properly understanding the state of Christianity in this generation. Those who are Protestant are those who are more likely to belong to a particular denomination, whereas those who are “just Christian” simply consider themselves spiritual. They are Christian in a more generic sense and may believe that Jesus is God or possibly just a good person and moral teacher.

Affiliated and unaffiliated

While distinguishing between Gen Z’s religious identities is insightful, the most interesting part of Springtide’s study comes from their follow-up data.

First, when surveying those who were unaffiliated with religion, 60% of these young people said that they are at least slightly spiritual. These youths would most likely identify as “spiritual, but not religious.” But this well-known characterization does not apply to all unaffiliated youth because 38% of those who are not affiliated with religion say that they are religious and 28% of them say that they even try to live their religious beliefs in their daily lives. Thus, there is an openness to religious beliefs and practices even among those who are not affiliated with religion.12

Second, when we look at those who are affiliated with religion, 52% say that they don’t trust organized religion and 20% say that they are not a religious person. More significantly, a third say that they attend a religious service once a year or less, and a fifth say that they do not even try to live out their religious beliefs in their daily lives. These statistics show that just because Gen Z is affiliated with a certain religion does not mean that a large percentage of them actually practice their religion or see the importance of religious belief in their daily lives. 13

 14

A similar pattern of belief and practice is found in Gen Z Catholics. Yet, when compared to those who are affiliated with religion in general, Gen Z Catholics are even more likely to say that they are not religious people and do not try to live their religious beliefs in their daily lives. Unfortunately for many Gen Z Catholics, their affiliation with the Catholic Church does not mean that their faith is alive. They may have received the sacraments, but their faith is lying dormant, and it must be kindled so that they can be set on fire for God.15

In the end, the traditional distinction between affiliated and unaffiliated with religion is not straightforward for Gen Z. Many of those affiliated with religion hold beliefs and act in ways contrary to religion. Yet many who are unaffiliated with religion hold beliefs and act in ways that are seemingly religious.

Confusion and curiosity bring opportunities for dialogue

The review of the recent research done by Springtide, Pew Research, and American Bible Society shows the religious confusion and complexity of this generation. Fortunately, many Gen Z youth recognize this confusion and are curious. While the last article of this series will offer several suggestions on how to best dialogue with this generation, there are two qualities we should put into practice now.

First, we should be prepared for Gen Z’s questions. In the first two articles in this series, we have seen that we must have healthy relationships with the youth and regain their trust. Once these two elements have been established, there will be opportunities for fruitful dialogue. We must learn how to dialogue with them without lecturing them, which often means that we listen to them and wait for their specific questions or an opportunity to share a different perspective. This kind of response requires us to have both knowledge and prudence, neither of which can be gained passively. Instead, we must take the time to study our faith through regular reading and research. Most importantly, this preparation requires time alone with Christ in prayer when we ask for His grace and for opportunities to reach these youths.

Second, we must be humble. As their mentors, we have the grave responsibility and privilege to guide the youth. But this certainly does not mean that we have all the answers. We are still God’s humble instruments and servants to the truth. Therefore, we should be open to learning from Gen Z. Their questions and observations can bring us to a fuller understanding of the truth, and their curiosity can push us to know and practice our faith more deeply. Ultimately, mentors who are prepared, humble, convicted of the truth, and model an integrated life of faith are those who are most capable of changing the hearts and minds of this generation.

Endnotes:

1 Springtide Research Institute, The State Religion & Young People: Relational Authority (Catholic Edition), (Farmington, MN: Springtide Research Institute, 2021), p. 41.

2 Data and diagram from Springtide Research Institute, The State of Religion & Young People: Navigating Uncertainty (Farmington, MN: Springtide Research Institute, 2021), p. 46.

3 Pew Research Institute distinguishes between “older millennials” and “younger millennials” in their surveys. I chose to use the older section, given that they differ in age with Gen Z a bit more than the younger millennials.

5 This chart compiles data given from Pew Research Center and the American Bible Society. However, Pew Research numbers distinguish between older millennials and younger millennials. The statistics given are for older millennials and are therefore marked with an asterisk.

6 American Bible Society, State of the Bible USA 2022, prepared by Jeffery Fulks, Randy Petersen, and John Farquhar Plake, (July 2022), p. 51.

7 27% of Gen Z and 21% of Millennials say that the Bible is the inspired word of God and has no errors (ibid., p. 13).

8 Ibid., p. 11.

9 Ibid., p. 25.

10 Chart found in Springtide Research Institute, Relational Authority, p. 42.

11 Springtide Research Institute, Navigating Uncertainty, p. 60.

12 Ibid., p. 45.

13 Ibid., p. 44.

14 Charts from Springtide Research Institute, Relational Authority, pp. 44, 45, and 48.

15 Ibid., p. 48.

Previously in this series:
 “Walking with Generation Z: Understanding the Loneliest Generation” (August 11, 2022)
“Walking with Generation Z: Distrust of Institutions and Organized Religion” (August 21, 2022)


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.

32 Comments

  1. #1. I am beginning to loathe polls – even those taken by the Church to support SynodMania.

    #2. This is about Gen Z and their stance toward religion. Since we’re up to Gen Z, does that mean the End is near?

  2. Attended nuptials at an outdoor venue. No prayer, readings or pastor used; I pronounce you …….. by the state of ….. were the terms spoken making them legally wed.

    I guess this is as they say, ‘perfect.’

    • I was at a millennial beach wedding conducted by a chiropractor’s receptionist who was licensed by the state to perform marriages. The ceremony was over in 5-10 minutes. The marriage was over in 2 months.

  3. “Instead, Gen Z is religiously complex because they often hold confused and even contradictory beliefs about religion. This complexity makes it hard to categorize Gen Z and even harder to meaningfully engage with these youths.”

    So here we have the results of ignorance and/or error. Engagement is simple in this case. Either one uses the Socratic method combined with understand of Catholic doctrine or one teaches true religion – the Catholic faith.

    “This information is meant to help parents, mentors, teachers, and pastors gain a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of this generation. This knowledge is necessary if we are to walk with the youth and guide them out of the darkness and toward the light of Christ.”

    Did we try to understand Adolf Hitler? No, we fought against him in a war.

    The proper approach is to preach and teach. In time, ignorance and/or error should resolve itself “naturally.”

    “While the last article of this series will offer several suggestions on how to best dialogue with this generation, there are two qualities we should put into practice now.”

    Dialogue? It is a matter of authoritative teaching.

  4. The author asks, rhetorically, “How can someone be religious at all when they don’t trust religion?” If we understand religion, broadly speaking, as Man’s response to God, the answer comes down to who, or what, is the “god” to which Man is responding? If Gen Z Man is responding to the sights and delights of modern day life, by golly, Gen Z in general is a pretty religious bunch…in the most pagan of ways.

  5. Given all that has happened in the Church over the last few decades, this does not surprise me at all. Frankly, I am surprised that the numbers aren’t worse. I am a practicing, believing Catholic, but I can easily understand how people come to these conclusions.

  6. I think that one of the first questions Springtide Research should present is: “Are you baptized?” I see no indication that such a question was presented. Begs the question what would that response data reveal?

    • True, I concur 100%.

      To be sure, the Church does not have a problem of Generation Z, but of the overall decline in Liturgical Life and Eucharistic Adoration. This is almost solely due to the sexual revolution, the rise in individualism and group rights-identity politics that have been train for the past two generations, a post conciliar problem of faith being severed from Christ.

      I find the problem fascinating, that parents and elders want to disown the problem when the cynical outlook of Generation Z or Youth as we refer in South Africa, was fed by spiritual sloth and outright hypocrisy.

      A case in point was a few years ago, an elder moaned and shouted that Generation Zs are lazy. We had to plant trees. On the day only three out of a parish of 500 availed themselves, including the Priest. On Sunday however, tens queued for pictures with a spade. It is a common problem, the response rate to Church Social Teachings is around 2%, mainly because we – many are not looking to be conformed to Christ as exhorted in Eucharistic Prayers.

      Only overnight Fr. Ron Ronhleiser was saying Parishes are and should be retreat centres rather than “drive through” Churches. Away from the corrosive and imploding culture of self Celebrations- that take cue from parents indeed, The Church is becomes a family in Christ.

      The author has done commendable work that should be heeded by entirety of The Church. He notes:-

      “Ultimately, mentors who are prepared, humble, convicted of the truth, and model an integrated life of faith are those who are most capable of changing the hearts and minds of this generation”.

      This does not go far enough, it may even cause greater harm in evanescent zeal, and or innately violent enthusiasm meted on Young people – Generation Zs that they do not listen- do it it this way, that working in The Gifts of The Holy Spirit.

      Christ taught us through love, precepts of suffering and giving of Himself. He still does so in Adoration.

      The Church needs to restore Her Eucharistic Catholicity, rather than federalization in age, geographical locale or what one group wants and prefers or prescribes for Generation Zs.

  7. Yes, dialogue is an effective teaching approach…the useful adage: “there is nothing more unwelcome than the answer to a question that has not been asked.”

    On the other hand, and to simplify things: IF God is more than a mere idea, and IF God’s freely willed self-disclosure into human history, in the singular Incarnation, is more than a mere idea—but rather, a concrete event (!); THEN, we begin with a personal invitation and obligation to, you know, respond.

    The Incarnation itself happened, before anything was later reduced by witnesses to words in the bible, as a focus for today’s survey questions. In dialogue we might look together for a way to start more at the beginning, with the WORD made flesh, rather than with only secondary and sola Scriptura words about the Word.

    • The Nones will have to begin reproducing themselves a little harder if they want to inherit the future. Demographics are destiny & without replacement level fertility rates, oblivion is just a generation or two away.

      • @mrscracker, no need to reproduce. I was raised Catholic. None is simply what happens when you let go of fear, learn humility and patience, and ask questions which believers can only provide unsatisfactory answer to.

        • Well Andrew, I hope you will continue to ask questions in patience & humility. That’s when we can best hear God’s voice. I’ll say a prayer for you today.
          🙂

          • Leslie, isn’t the belief that “the entire universe was created just for me by someone who obsesses over my every move” the exact opposite of humility? I can’t see how it can be interpreted as anything other than arrogance.

        • Funny, because people have been known to become Catholic when they “let go of fear, learn humility and patience…” As for “unsatisfactory” answers–unsatisfactory to whom and on what grounds?

  8. look at the pie chart above. notice how it resembles a roulette wheel? spin it, and if you guessed the correct religion, you win. since all gods are invisible, there is no better or even other way to figure out which one, if any, exists.

    • Yo, Andrew Williams, on Sept. 7, 11:36 p.m.:

      About your army of invincible “nones”: Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, Secretary of State of pope Pius VII, said to Napoleon who threatened to destroy the Church: “You will not succeed, your majesty. Not even we [priests, bishops and cardinals] have been able to do that in 1,800 years”.

      But, yes, there is this “invincible” thing in moral theology–called invincible ignorance.

      And, as for the roulette wheel (12:45 p.m.), all “invisible” fantasies are not gods. Especially including the one called “none.” Hey none, choose one: “God is dead” (Sartre); “Sartre is dead” (God).

  9. Almost all of the weddings among the Gen Z folk in my family have been secular in a garden or whatever. I would not describe these kids as “religiously complex”. They are non-believers, period. Most of the brides more concerned about elements of the catering facility and perfect photos than they are in making a sacramental commitment.Doubtless their parents were pre-occupied with their careers and what few times they might have attended church, they made no emotional connection.The relentless media pounding over sex abuse cases has done immense damage to the church, and the thin milk water which is mostly left is too thin to appeal. The church needs to convey STANDARDS of Catholic behavior on many levels. Better explain its positions: on how to treat our fellow man, on sexual behavior FOR ALL, and the reasons it opposes abortion. Belonging to a church has to MEAN something, meeting a standard, and it does NOT mean “anything goes”. Its sadly hard to imagine what, short of direct diving intervention, will re-energize the church. Surely it will not be an ongoing compromising of standards of belief in the name of the tyranny of “niceness”.

  10. Gen Z ranges from a surly youth approaching communion while chewing gum or something at a funeral Mass who I had to reprimand and order he spit out what he was chewing, to an angelic girl who bowed before receiving. “Yet many who are unaffiliated with religion hold beliefs and act in ways that are seemingly religious” (Eriksen). Good statistical research that doesn’t reveal more than how we interpret the findings. Experience with parishioners reveals that religion largely depends on the example of parents. Even there, parents are hard put in these times no need to describe how chaotic and varied.
    My criticism for Benjamin Eriksen is that their [Gen Z] assumption of values is not religion [although Erikson qualifies it as ‘seemingly religious’]. We might stretch interpretation and label it religiosity. Religion has rituals. Social Anthropologists might say a number of behaviors are ritualistic, although are they religious rituals or repetitive social mores?
    Reading over comments to get a better picture of the maze of statistics and conclusions I agree with Beaulieu’s response on reaching Gen Z that it’s better to be direct in speaking about religion, for us Christ, and as Paul adds Christ crucified. We might make an analogous stretch and compare Gen Z to the Gk philosophers at the Areopagus. Paul’s failure to convince jaded philosophers comparable to critical Gen Z required up front stark messaging. Following failure Paul on his way to next stop Corinth resolved to preach non other than Christ and him crucified.

    • Thank you, Fr. Peter. The precondition for dialogue is that both sides are doing the listening… We are reminded that in cartoons strips, the symbol for sleeping is ZZZZZZZZ. Now we have the media-fabricated and market-segment “Generation Z!” Anesthetized and even victimized (willfully?) by a culture gone to hell.

      A useful image might be less about dialogue than about hostage negotiation or even a hostage rescue mission. Generation Z is the “package.” No doubt, the Church’s synodality will get it right, as “facilitator”-bishops simply escalate their dialogue with the deaf up to the diocesan level, then to the continental level, and then into the boardroom and onto Vatican letterhead.

      Following the twin towers disaster and treachery in 2001, the “911 Commission Report” examined why the downfall was not foreseen and averted, and included this curious tidbit in the resulting recommendations: “Imagination is not a gift usually associated with bureaucracies [….] It is therefore crucial to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing the exercise of imagination” (W.W. Norton and Co., c. 2004, p. 344).

      Imagine that!

      How, then, to UN-routinize proclamation of the Gospel–to a somnambulist Generation Z, in a re-paganized world? From his failure in pagan Athens, St. Paul got it right. The Church is more than a therapeutic campus safe-space.

  11. Me again. All these statistics make my eyes glaze over. Sorry.
    Where was Gen Z supposed to get its religion? Children learn what they live, I’ve heard it said.

  12. I remember in the mid-1990’s and early 2000’s triumphant predictions that the future of religion was a return to religious orthodoxy and conservatism (especially among Gen X…my generation…remember “JP2 we love you”…that sure fizzled fast!) . These articles and books were sometimes right but mostly wrong. The reality is that most people follow the culture they are in. When the culture is conservative so are they. When it is liberal they follow the spirit of the age. The small core of actual practicing believers generally stays small; especially in a Church that has traditionally promoted cultural Catholicism and a very low bar for membership.

    • Hello Andrew, please look at some current demographic statistics. ” Small cores of actual practicing believers” don’t stay small if they uphold traditional views on marriage & family. They are the ones who are having larger families. This is the case for Traditional Catholics, the Amish (who double in population every generation), conservatives Mennonites, Hasidic Jews, etc.
      Yes, some people’s faith fizzled fast. That’s been an issue since biblical times & Christ addressed it in the Parable of the Sower. But those who faithfully practice the tenets of their faith are the ones increasing demographically. And if Catholics can learn from the Amish how to retain close to 90% of our young people by providing support & community, we might double in numbers each succeeding generation also.
      God bless!

  13. mrscracker: When you compare the size of the Amish to the raw number of people who claim to be Christians worldwide my point stands. It equally applies to Traditionalists in Catholicism. They are a fraction of a percent when compared to the majority of Catholics. They always will be…or are you arguing that demographically the Amish will one day over take the world? I think not.

    • Hello Andrew, theoretically the Amish could take over the world. Or at least North America.
      🙂
      I can share what’s happening in a county we used to live in as an example. Like many rural areas in America the young people had left, the median age of native residents has risen more than 20 years since the 1980’s and depopulation was a real threat.
      20 years ago there were zero Amish and Mennonites in that county. Today they represent almost 20%. In another 20 years it may well be 40% of the population.
      It’s not just the doubling of the number of Anabaptists, it’s the aging and dying off of the native population.
      If you look at parts of up state New York you see the same phenomenon. And Hasidic Jews are changing demographics in other more developed regions of the NE as well.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Walking with Gen Z: Religiously Complex  | Passionists Missionaries Kenya, Vice Province of St. Charles Lwanga, Fathers & Brothers
  2. Walking with Gen Z: Religiously Complex  – Via Nova Media
  3. Gray Area

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.


*