New research shows church leaders who work with youth have a real challenge on their hands. A Barna study released this month shows atheism has doubled among Generation Z, those born between 1999 and 2015.
The percentage of teens who identify as atheists is double that of the general population (13 percent vs. 6 percent of all adults). The proportion that identifies as Christian likewise drops from generation to generation. Three out of four Boomers are Protestant or Catholic Christians, while just three in five 13- to 18-year-olds say they are some kind of Christian.
The reasons for their disbelief are similar to older generations with one significant difference; Gen Z nonbelieving teens, along with young adults, are more likely than older Americans to say the problem of evil and suffering is a deal breaker for them. It appears that today’s youth, like so many throughout history, struggle to find a compelling argument for the existence of both evil and a good and loving God.
A Pew study from last year found one of the reasons for the growing number of religiously unaffiliated adults in America was “too many Christians doing un-Christian things.” But Gen Z nonbelievers appear less likely to cite Christians’ hypocrisy as a significant barrier—but just as likely to say they have personally had a bad experience with Christians or a church.
The Barna researchers also found teens overall are somewhat less inclined than adults to strongly agree that “religious people are judgmental” (17 percent vs. 24 percent of all adults).
Truth and relativism are also changing among Gen Z. More than one-third believe it is not possible to know for sure if God is real, compared to 32 percent of all adults. Teens who do believe one can know God exists are less likely than adults to say they are very convinced that is true compared to adults. For many teens, truth seems relative at best and, at worst, altogether unknowable.
Their lack of confidence is on pace with the broader culture’s all-out embrace of relativism. More than half of all Americans, both teens (58 percent) and adults (62 percent), agree with the statement “Many religions can lead to eternal life; there is no ‘one true religion.’”
The findings also suggest that Gen Z is willing to accept something as true if the person espousing the position is sincere. In line with that thinking, they are much less inclined than older adults (especially Boomers, 85 percent) to agree that “a person can be wrong about something that they sincerely believe in” (66 percent).