(RNS) — More than half of teens and young adults who say they are affiliated with an organized religion also say they have little or no trust in organized religion. In other words, they are involved in religious institutions on paper but are disengaged at some level because they don’t trust religious institutions — even the ones they belong to.
And that’s just the roughly 6 in 10 who are still affiliated.
That lack of trust among religiously affiliated teens and young adults is one of many surprises in the “State of Religion and Young People” study released by Springtide Research Institute, which was founded in August 2019. The study surveyed more than 10,000 Americans ages 13 to 25 — the so-called Gen Z generation — about their involvement in, and feelings about, religion.
“They’re checking the box that says they are Jewish or Catholic or whatever, but over half of them are saying, ‘even though I checked the box, I don’t trust organized religion,’” said Josh Packard, a sociologist of religion who is the executive director of Springtide. “This is sort of stunning and not what you would expect from somebody who checked the box.”
He thinks the study’s findings should complicate, if not make obsolete, the notion that we can use “affiliated” as an easy shorthand for “religious” in America. Other findings in the study bear this out, including that about 1 in 5 Gen Z members who are affiliated with an organized religion also say they are not personally religious.
“The categories that used to be really effective indicators of their faith and spirituality are just not anymore,” Packard said. “You can’t rely on the old metrics like we might have once been able to.”
If the category of “affiliated” no longer lines up perfectly with “active believers,” the category of “unaffiliated” is complicated too.
For example, 60 percent of teens and young adults who are not involved with an organized religion described themselves as spiritual, and 19 percent said they attend religious gatherings at least once a month.
There are some other surprises in the study’s 119-page report, which is available for free. One is about gender. In the past, it’s been clear that men and boys have been more likely to leave organized religion than women and girls. The gender imbalance among religiously unaffiliated Americans has skewed male for years.
In this study of Gen Z, however, the edge among the unaffiliated goes to girls and women, 40 percent of whom are not involved with an organized religion. This was true of 36 percent of those who identify as male.
Packard was reluctant to draw definitive conclusions without more data, but he pinpointed many religions’ historical lack of gender equality as a likely factor.