(Daily Caller News Foundation) — Nearly half of Generation Z does not identify as religious, according to a new study, and religious leaders who spoke to the Daily Caller News Foundation said the trend is not surprising because they have substituted church for “a new religion.”
Data published last week by the Cooperative Election Study found that 48.5% of Gen Z identifies as either agnostic, atheist or nonreligious, a 3% increase from the previous year, and another study from last month found that only 31% believe religion is “very important.” While the data did not delve into what has caused the rift between young people and religion, several experts who spoke with the DCNF had similar ideas about what is behind the split.
“[I]t’s not that Gen Z isn’t religious, it’s that they picked a new religion,” Joshua Mercer, co-founder of CatholicVote, told the DCNF. “They have fervent beliefs and rituals, they have their symbols and sacraments, and they definitely purge their ranks of ‘blasphemers’ or anyone insufficiently dedicated to their faith. Look at how every corporation rushes to embrace the rainbow flag every June and look at how people adorn their social media platforms with symbols to show solidarity with Black Lives Matter, Covid vaccination, Ukraine, or climate change. They are definitely evangelizing, it’s just not Christianity.”
Joseph Backholm, senior fellow for Biblical Worldview and Strategic Engagement at the Family Research Council, made similar observations but also pointed out to the DCNF that the withdrawal from the church by younger generations has been happening for a while.
“I think the reality is that those who were identifying as religious were doing so more for cultural reasons than out of theological conviction,” Backholm said. “As the culture becomes more hostile to Christianity, for instance, and it’s not popular, you are seeing people not do so when there is not a social reason because a lot of their identity wasn’t theological in the first place.”
What's happened with American religion over the last 12 months – with a special focus on Generation Z.
The answer: not any real seismic shifts. Just the same incremental changes that have been occurring for years.
— Ryan Burge 📊 (@ryanburge) April 3, 2023
As faith has declined for Gen Z, so has mental health, as recent studies found that Gen Z reports the highest level of mental illness and suicidal ideation compared to other generations. In 2022, a study revealed that 42% of Gen Z reported being diagnosed with a mental illness and 70% said that their mental health has gotten worse since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Joseph Capizzi, executive director at the Institute for Human Ecology, told the DCNF that “loneliness, despair, unhappiness, and declines in worship and belief are connected.”
“This is something people have known for centuries, long before the rise of social science. For instance, Christians have long believed that hope requires more than material progress,” Capizzi said. “Believing in ‘progress’ — which is always ambivalent — cannot be a ground of hope; it will lead to despair. Instead, we must have experiences of great love to give our lives meaning. That can help explain why in an age of unprecedented material affluence we have so much hopelessness.”
Backholm agreed with Capizzi, saying that while mental health is a “complex question,” the two things are “absolutely” related. He explained that in recent years the message “follow your heart” has backfired on Gen Z especially because they have “thrown themselves into that effort more zealously than any generation before them.”
“Gen Z has believed that following your heart will make you happy and they are just proving that it does not,” Backholm said.
The solution to the decline, according to Backholm, is to stop trying to “market Jesus” to young people who are actually “craving authenticity” and “purpose.” Capizzi restated that “belief isn’t going away” but going to a different place and encouraged churches and people of faith to draw Gen Z to faith by giving them the space to encounter the love that they are “seeking.”
“As Pope Francis always reminds us, Christianity is first an encounter with a person, Christ,” Capizzi said. “People have to be drawn to faith by encountering love. Otherwise, our age of despair and loneliness will continue indefinitely.”