Guest Blog Sam Ludlow-Broback, MTS & Kevin Singer, MA
The question of why religion still matters today is pressing, but perhaps incomplete without also considering how religion matters. Understanding how and why religion matters to today’s young people, Gen Z, reveals a drastic difference in the understanding of religiosity and spirituality among previous generations. Looking at how and why religion matters to today’s young people will help inform the evolution of the impact religion has in the world today.
Many data points suggest young people are continuously dissociating from institutional religion. Our latest research at Springtide Research Institute confirms this, with only 14% of people ages 13-25 saying they trust organized religion completely.
This is not for nothing – there are good reasons for this.
Nearly four in ten members of Gen Z (39%) tell us they’ve been harmed by religion, and 45% tell us they don’t feel safe when it comes to religion. In addition, when it comes to their values, half of the young people don’t think religious institutions care about the things that matter to them. This often leads to discomfort and an inability to be one’s “full self” within particular religious organizations – 55% of young people reported feeling this way.
It is tempting to conclude, then, that those young people are incrementally becoming less religious.
But our data suggests this conclusion isn’t true.
Yes, there is a clear disconnect between young people and religious institutions; but even with this disconnect, our findings do not reveal a loss of interest in spiritual and religious questions among young people, or even a loss of faith.
Instead, we see 71% of young people identifying as religious and 78% identifying as spiritual. Despite over half (52%) of Gen Z saying they attended one or no religious services within the previous year, they are still claiming to be religious and spiritual.
So, religion is still making an impact in their lives. But it is doing so in unique ways.
Our report coins the term “faith unbundled” to describe how religion matters to young people today. If traditional religious practices are to be thought of as a small menu of food for people to pick from, then Gen Z is saying they prefer a potluck of diverse perspectives and spiritual sources.
Rather than being told what to think, Gen Z prefers to explore meaning and religion on their own terms. Gen Z is less interested in a complete and intact system driven by one religious institution and more interested in a complete and intact self, which may rely on and draw from many systems and traditions. They may pull a spiritual practice from Buddhism, a community practice from Islam, practice yoga, find meaning in music, or dive into spiritual questions in the classroom.
If we think being religious doesn’t necessarily mean believing certain things or identifying with a specific tradition, then it also doesn’t mean maintaining a prescribed set of practices. Young people turn to a variety of practices they deem religious (as shown below).
This data has shown us how religion matters in a unique way to young people today. Additionally, our research also has a unique answer to the question: why does religion matter?
The answer is pretty simple. Young people who identify as “religious” are more likely to report that they are flourishing in nearly every category we surveyed. This included work, at home, financially, physical health and mental health, social lives, and relationships.
In some of these categories, young people who identified as religious were more than twice as likely to be flourishing.
So whatever young people are doing in their unbundled approach to faith seems to be working. It is evident that religion matters even when young people are less likely to attend religious services.
These findings point to the power religion continues to have even if young people feel the traditional sense of religiosity is outdated or not relevant to their lives. It shows that religion does in fact still matter and that the potential for religious impact needs to continue to be explored in unbundled ways.
Sam Ludlow-Broback is a Media Relations intern for Springtide Research Institute. He received his Master of Theological Studies with a focus in systematic theology from Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary.
Kevin Singer (M.A., Wheaton College) is Head of Media and Public Relations for Springtide Research Institute, a professor of world religions at two community colleges, and a Ph.D. student in higher education at North Carolina State University.