By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University
It’s something that every pastor and denominational leader seems to be fixated on: what is happening with Generation Z? It’s something that we’ve covered here on Religion in Public a bit. In 2020 there was a series of three posts that focused specifically on the religiosity of Generation Z. First, Melissa Deckman reported the results of a poll she conducted in July of 2019 that focused exclusively on Generation Z. Djupe and I then followed that up with a post that looked at some data from the Cooperative Election Study. Finally, Joseph Baker wrote a nice piece that gave ample reasons to believe that Gen Z will continue to disaffiliate at a rapid rate.
But, it’s been about eighteen months since all that flurry of activity about Generation Z and now we have two additional datasets (CES 2019 with 1095 respondents and 2020 with 5960) which contain an even larger sample of this emerging generation. So, this post is going to serve as an update on the religious tradition and attendance among Gen Z, which I define as those born in 1996 or later. All the surveys used here only contact people who are eighteen or older, so we are not capturing the religiosity of this entire generation – just those who are the oldest members of this generation.
According to the most recent data from the Cooperative Election Study, there’s ample reason to believe that Generation Z has secularized in a significant way as they have both grown older and more people have moved into adulthood. In 2016, about 39% of Gen Z were nones. Today, it’s up to 44.4%, with 7% identifying as atheists, 6% as agnostics, and another 31% saying that they are “nothing in particular.” In 2020, 35% of this generation identified as Catholic or Protestant, down from 41% in 2016, which means it is empirically accurate to say that there are more nones in Gen Z than Christians.
I also want to note here that there about as many non-white Catholics in Generation Z as white Catholics, although white evangelicals outnumber non-white evangelicals two to one. Generation Z is clearly much more racially diverse than older generations and this will have profound impacts on the future of American society and religion.
How does the religious affiliation of Gen Z compare to older generations? It appears that millennials (43% nones) are much closer to the religiosity of Gen Z than they are to Generation X. However, there’s also a pretty large religion gap between Boomers (25% are nones) and Gen X (34% nones).
There are also fairly significant differences in the religious traditions of Generation Z when it is broken down by racial group. About 38% of white members of Generation Z are Christians, while 46% are nones. In comparison, just 32% of Black young people are Christians, while a whopping 47% are nones. It’s notable, however, that nearly 90% of Black nones identify as “nothing in particular.” Obviously, they are hesitant to embrace the atheist or agnostic label.
The clear outlier here is Hispanic members of Generation Z – 14% of them identify as Protestants and another 30% identify as Catholics. They are easily the most Christian racial group among Gen Z, and they are the only racial group among whom Christians outnumber the nones.
How much does religious tradition turn on political considerations? I divided the sample into those members of Gen Z who identified as politically liberal, moderate, or conservative to see if the ideological divide is still linked to disaffiliation.
There’s clear evidence that those who identify as politically liberal are much more likely to say that they have no religious affiliation. In fact, in every survey from 2016 through 2020, at least half of liberal members of Gen Z say that they are atheists, agnostics, or nothing in particular. Among conservatives, the percentages are much smaller but they are growing. In both 2016 and 2017, less than 20% of conservatives said they were nones. That has steadily crept up to 29% in 2020.
This is something to keep an eye on going forward. Up to this point, the linkages between liberal politics and religious nones have been incredibly strong. But, with an increasing number of young conservatives indicating that they have no religious affiliation, they will be in a tough spot on election day. The Republican Party is overwhelmingly Christian and most national politicians pander to this base on a consistent basis. How the GOP pivots to attract and retain young nones will be crucial if they want to be a viable national party in the future.
Finally, I wanted to take a look at attendance at religious services among Generation Z. Despite the significant amount of movement away from religious traditions that I’ve just described, the shifts in religious attendance are much more modest from 2016 to 2020. In 2016, about 44% of Gen Z described their church attendance as never or seldom. By 2020, that had only grown about two percentage points. About 29% attended services weekly or more in 2016. That dropped three percentage points by 2020.
Thus, there are a few conclusions to be made when looking at this data in its entirety. Generation Z is clearly the least religious generation we’ve had in American history. (While I don’t have polling data for the Colonial period, I think we can all assume that more than 35% were Christians). At the same time the rate of disaffiliation is continuing. The nones are up about five points in five years. However, Gen Z has a long way to go before they all show up in the data. It will be eight more years until the youngest members of this cohort reach adulthood. Predicting where this final number will end up is a fool’s errand at this point.
Consider this: every day in America, hundreds of people from the Silent Generation (19% nones) and the Boomers (25% nones) die off and are replaced by members of Generation Z (45% nones) having their eighteenth birthday. This, by itself, will make the United States much less religious in 2030 than it was in 2020.