Perspective: Why even secular people should worry about Gen Z’s lack of faith
It’s not just religion that young adults are shunning. They’re also less likely to volunteer, donate to charity and value pluralism
As Generation Z is aging into adulthood, a plethora of stories have asserted that “Gen Z is the Least Religious Generation,” with some writers suggesting that this could be a net positive for the nation and result in more diversity within friendship networks and increased tolerance levels.
Pew Research repeatedly found that Gen Z is the nation’s least religious generation, with about a third having no religion — about the same proportion as among millennials —compared with 23%, 17% and 11% among, respectively, Generation X, baby boomers and the Silent Generation.
There has been considerable time spent analyzing the spirituality — or lack thereof — of young Americans. What is not being actively discussed is that the decline in faith among America’s youngest cohorts represents a real danger for civil society itself. More research is needed on the consequences of a decline in faith among the youngest Americans, particularly as it affects civility and national cohesion.
Data from a nationally representative survey of nearly 2,000 young adults ages 18 to 25 coordinated by Neighborly Faith reveals a strong relationship between religiosity and community engagement. And while significant numbers of Gen Z are not nearly as religious as those in older cohorts, having a strong commitment to a faith leads to far greater community connectivity and engagement with institutions that provide public goods.
The data show that religious younger Americans are more than twice as likely to do community work as their nonreligious Gen Z counterparts. Half of religious Gen Zers report volunteering in the community often or very often, compared to 30% of slightly religious Gen Zers and just 21% of not religious Gen Zers.
Being involved with community groups — such as sports or social clubs — shows an even bigger difference between the very religious and not religious, with 46% of the very religious regularly being part of community groups, compared to just 16 % of those who are not religious.
As for charitable donations, the same pattern emerges once again, with fully half of very religious Gen Zers contributing often or very often, while 29% of slightly religious and just 17% of nonreligious Gen Zers do the same.
What is powerfully revealing — and deeply concerning — is that when younger Americans are asked about the importance of community service and volunteer work (not if they have done the work), real differences between those with and without faith emerge.
Not even half (39%) of nonreligious Gen Zers state that this work is either very or extremely important, while two-thirds (64%) of religious Gen Zers maintain that this work is critical. On the topic of the value of religious diversity and pluralism, the values diverge again. Over half of very religious Gen Zers (54%) see real value in interacting with people of other faiths, while a little more than a third of nonreligious Gen Zers (37%) feel the same way.
In fact, religiosity does not lead to insularity in networks or social connectivity. More religious members of Gen Z have greater levels of connectivity than those with lower levels of faith. The false narrative that faith can socially isolate an individual is far too common and needs revision.
The data show that not only are religious Gen Zers interested in interacting with other faiths, but they are also focused on learning about their communities. Nearly half (46%) of religious Gen Zers report regularly trying to engage in communal social or political affairs, compared to 23% of their nonreligious counterparts.
An integral part of religion is participating in the local community. Despite narratives of insularity and social disconnect among religious Americans, religious members of Gen Z are anything but living in a bubble; if anything, the unfaithful are those who are isolated and not connecting to others. As politicos and practitioners think about how to improve civil society, they would be well served to turn to religious leaders and work toward restoring the salience of faith among those within Generation Z.
For decades, Americans widely held the belief that religion was a positive force in society. While it is impossible to tell if religiosity improves connectivity and community in the data itself, attitudes and actions toward community and charity are vastly different among those who are religious and those who are not within America’s youngest adults.
It would be foolish to assume that secular thought and informal organizations can replace centuries-old institutions, especially the faith-based, that have lifted up, supported and transmitted positive values to millions around the globe.
Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.