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The Religious Life of Gen Z

The researchers found a majority of teens (58%) never attend services of worship, though this drift from the church doesn’t mean teens are becoming a generation of atheists, or rejecting spirituality.

“Certainly, belief in God is declining among members of the younger generations, but a lot still believe in a higher being or life force, or are just unsure.”

The study found certain spiritual ideas drawn from Asian religious traditions were very popular among teens, with 50 per cent of teens believing in karma, while about a third (29%) believe in reincarnation.

“Most of those teens don’t identify as Buddhists or Hindus, but their interest in those beliefs is evidence of a changing spiritual landscape among teens,” said Andrew Singleton, one of the authors of the report.

“The idea of karma has become a kind of semi-mystical shorthand for ‘what goes around, comes around’ in this life.”

Some Australian teens are also open to other spiritual ideas, believing in ghosts (31%), communicating with the dead (25%), astrology (20%) and UFOs (20%).

It all reminds me of that statement by the actor Sarah Michelle Gellar when she said, “I consider myself a spiritual person. I believe in an idea of God, although it’s my own personal ideal. I find most religions interesting, and I’ve been to every kind of denomination: Catholic, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist. I’ve taken bits from everything and customized it.”

Andrew Singleton from Deakin University writes, “Teens live in a diverse, complicated world, and not that many are willing to shut the door completely on non-material possibilities. Just don’t expect them to be loyal to older ways of doing things.”

GEN Z IS CRITICAL

All that said, teens appear to be very critical of those with strong traditional religious beliefs, with about half of them thinking they are too intolerant of others.

“There is an appreciable proportion who think religion causes more harm than good, are against the construction of Mosques and temples, are concerned about intolerant religious beliefs and think religion has no place in Parliament.”

The researchers also point out that young people’s suspicion toward traditional religions might have been skewed somewhat, given their surveys were completed during Australia’s marriage equality postal vote. The rancor around that issue might have influenced their answers.

But teens today are also aware of the church’s involvement in clergy child sexual assault scandals, and the Stolen Generations policies, as well as Muslim extremism in incidents like 9-11 and Sydney’s Lindt cafe siege.  Little wonder they think meditation, yoga, and karma are good, while religious fundamentalism is bad.

GEN Z CARES

Social commentators have surmised that the brutalizing effects of secularism, consumerism and capitalism would lead not only to a re-flowering of religious interest, but also an era of religious competition and possibly war. It certainly looked like they might have been partially right, given the rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the reemergence of neo-Nazism and Christian fundamentalism.

But Gen Z might be bucking the trend.

Their concerns about the way strongly held belief leads to intolerance and aggression shows how much they care about peaceful coexistence. As we saw earlier, teens have an overwhelmingly positive attitude towards Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. They just don’t want to be one.

Other studies show them to be deeply concerned about addressing climate change, challenging systemic racism, and promoting social justice. In other words, they care about creating a better world. And they want others to care too.

Some religious leaders have expressed deep concern about the hardening secularism of Western culture. But the Worldview of Generation Z reveals a very different challenge, one Lesslie Newbigin described this way:

“The result is not, as we once imagined, a secular society. It is a pagan society, and its paganism, having been born out of the rejection of Christianity, is far more resistant to the gospel than the pre-Christian paganism with which cross-cultural missions have been familiar. Here, surely, is the most challenging missionary frontier of our time.”

The religious life of Gen Z will require a complete game change to church-as-usual approaches to apologetics and evangelism.

This article about Gen Z originally appeared here.

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I’m a 20-year veteran of the academy, but I still don’t call myself an academic. On my immigration forms I write “teacher” in the occupation box. I’ve taught at Morling College in Sydney that whole time and am currently the head of the missiology department there.