Perspective: Young adults are losing their religion. Are their parents to blame?
Research suggests that religious faith originates in the home, and fathers play a major role in whether it lasts.
Reports of the death of the American church, like that of Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated. Plenty of congregations are vibrant and even growing. But in those that are not, there’s a sense that there’s someone to blame, and it’s not uninspiring preachers or organists. It’s the young adults, colloquially known as Generation Z.
Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 aren’t going to church in numbers like their grandparents and great-grandparents did, and the numbers seem to decline every year. A recent survey by Deseret News and Marist Poll found that only 21% of young adults report going to church once or twice a month. And for all that generation’s talk about being spiritual, these young adults aren’t even inclined to pray. Slightly more than a quarter say they pray daily, compared to nearly 70% of Americans who are 60 or older.
Looking at these numbers and others, it’s easy to conclude that Generation Z will be responsible for the death of the church. Over the past decade, the conversation about faith in America has taken a decidedly morbid turn. An article in the The Guardian that looked at pastors who are selling church-owned real estate spoke of the “death tsunami of the church” and quoted one person who said the church could be extinct within a decade. Prominent pastors such as the Rev. Tim Keller in New York City are talking openly about post-Christian America.
However, older Americans who understand the importance of religious communities as a failsafe for a wide range of trouble — to include economic hardship, loneliness and existential despair — are too quick to use the “Kids today!” trope when confronting headlines such as “Gen Z is the least religious generation” and “Gen Z is spiritually illiterate.”
While these things are true, it’s not Gen Z, but their parents who are to blame. This is a hard truth for the older generations, who earnestly wanted to do right by their kids, even while doing things that would ultimately turn their children away from an institution that offers them companionship, hope and support.
For evidence, first look to the March report from the Survey Center on American Life. Daniel A. Cox pointed out in his analysis of data that the irreligion of the Zoomers isn’t a “Kids today!” moment, wherein every generation of parents thinks their kids are messing up, but instead is a sea change unlikely to be reversed.
Cox notes that most young adults who give up on religion do so before they turn 18. In other words, it isn’t that they went to college and were infected with a secular worldview. Their own families did not plant and grow in these young people “a deeply rooted commitment to a set of religious beliefs and practices.”
Wrote Cox: “For as long as we have been able to measure religious commitments, childhood religious experiences have strongly predicted adult religiosity. They still do. If someone had robust religious experiences growing up, they are likely to maintain those beliefs and practices into adulthood. Without robust religious experiences to draw on, Americans feel less connected to the traditions and beliefs of their parents’ faith.”
Proverbs 22:6 put that even more succinctly: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
So, why did the parents of Generation Z put less emphasis on going to religious services, praying before meals and other rituals of faith?
In a Bloomberg series on Gen Z, writers Matthew Boyle and Matthew Townsend argued that marketers who are trying to understand the generation in order to sell products should look to the young adults’ parents.
“Without even realizing it, Generation Z’s viewpoints ... have been shaped by their Generation X parents, who came of age amid a series of crises: Watergate, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Challenger explosion, Rodney King,” Boyle and Townsend wrote.
They continued: “Often, the strife was closer to home: Divorce rates spiked in the 1970s, giving rise to neighborhoods full of tough-skinned ‘latchkey kids’ who craved security but rarely found it either at home or, as they grew up, in a more globalized, less-forgiving workplace.”
In this passage, the Bloomberg report offers a clue to the origin of Generation Z’s lack of faith: broken families and autonomous latchkey kids who grew up fast and cynical. There are other factors at play, of course, to include the pressure of extracurricular activities and Sunday sports, increasingly seen as necessary in order to be accepted to prestigious universities.
But research on religiosity in family units has clearly shown a strong correlation between strong families and religious faith.
As Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, has said, “Because regular church attendance is less common for fathers than mothers, in some ways his religiosity is more important because it’s more unusual. So kids who see both mothers and fathers regularly attending church are more likely to take their faith seriously compared to kids who see just their mother attend church.”
When two religiously observant parents get divorced, however, their children are less likely to be observant themselves, according to research by sociologists Jeremy Uecker of Baylor University and Christopher Ellison at the University of Texas at San Antonio. According to their study, “Adults from single-parent families are more likely to disaffiliate from religion altogether and more likely to make a major switch in their religious affiliation. They are also less likely to attend religious services regularly.”
However, the effects vary with circumstance, Uecker told me. For example, parental divorce has little impact on those whose parents weren’t religiously involved to begin with, and a religiously observant stepparent can compensate for the lack of religious influence by a biological parent.
“But there is solid evidence that losing regular access to a religious parent has some religious consequences when the void is unfilled by a stepparent,” the study said.
Some studies have found that when parents split up, fathers are less likely to do religious activities when their children are with them. That’s not surprising. Women are generally more religious than men, and a mother is more likely to influence a household’s religiosity. But a father’s influence is significant and, as we are now seeing, there may be societal and generational implications when his religious influence is diminished or removed.
As Kelsey Dallas has reported for the Deseret News, “[F]athers who have a close relationship with their children are more likely than distant dads to see their kids carry on the family’s religious practices. Fifty-six percent of fathers and kids with close relationships share the same level of religious participation, compared to 36 percent of fathers and kids with a weaker connection.”
And research by Vern Bengtson has found that when it comes to the continuity of religious faith, the closeness of the father and child matters even more than the closeness of the child and the mother.
Given that more mothers than fathers have primary custody after a divorce, it logically follows that you can’t be the country with the world’s highest rate of children living in single-parent households without at least a modest decline in religiosity among those children.
This is not to say that latchkey children of divorce can’t emerge as adults with strong religious faith; I did, thanks to a mother and grandmother who made sure I had a robust religious upbringing that was disciplined but also full of joy, soaring music and meaningful rituals. (I’m sure a lot of prayer was also involved, particularly when I was in my 20s.)
But any discussion of the decline of religious faith — and the attendant societal problems such as loneliness, anxiety and deaths of despair — is incomplete without acknowledging that the young adults of Generation Z didn’t lose faith all on their own.
Losing one’s religion in America, it seems, is a family affair, just as becoming religious is, too.