Gen Z and Religion in 2022

by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

For the last nine months straight, the most read post on Religion in Public is: Gen Z and Religion in 2021. Well, the Cooperative Election Study just released the raw data from their 2022 collection wave which happened in October and November of last year. That means that we can see just how much religious affiliation has shifted between 2021 and 2022. 

What’s nice about the 2022 Cooperative Election Study is its consistency. Same questions. Same response options. Same survey mode. This last collection included 60,000 survey respondents  –  more than enough to do this type of fine-grained analysis. 

Here’s a fun little tidbit. Generation Z is often seen as those born in 1996 or later. When the oldest members of this generation reached adulthood in 2014 and were included in the CES, they made up just 1.5% of the sample. Now, Generation Z is nearly 15 percent of the sample. The raw number of them surveyed in 2022 was 8,893. 

Let’s get right to it  –  by showing how non-religion has shifted for each generation over the last few years. I am defining no religious affiliation as those who indicate that their present religion is atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. The overall share of nones in the whole 2022 CES was 36%, no change from the prior year. 

The Silent Generation saw no increase in nones since 2020  –  there was a noticeable jump between 2016 and 2020. But, that’s stopped in the last three surveys. That same general pattern is there for Boomers, too  –  a noticeable jump during the Trump years, then really no shift since 2020. Thirty-five percent of Generation X are nones now – that’s up a full ten points since 2008 – but the lion’s share of that happened between 2008 and 2016. Modest shifts since then. 

Millennials have been on a slow and steady march away from religion since 2008. The share who were nones in 2016 was 38%. That’s now jumped to 44%. But Generation Z already started at a much higher baseline  –  39%. Now, the share of the youngest adult generation that has no religious affiliation is 48.5%. It seems statistically justifiable to say that by the time the United States has another presidential election, half of Generation Z will identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. 

How does religious tradition break down by generation? For Silents, Christianity clearly dominates. Nearly three quarters of them identify as Protestant or Catholic. Just seven percent are atheist/agnostic and another 10% are nothing in particular. Boomers are significantly different, though. Just 61% are Protestant/Catholic, while 26% are nones. There’s another double digit drop in Christians for Generation X – just half of them say that they are Protestant or Catholic. But, it’s Protestantism that is being chipped away at. Only 33% of Generation X are Protestant. 35% of Gen X are non-religious, for comparison. 

Millennials are an interesting group, because over the last few years the share who identify as Protestant/Catholic has been statistically equivalent to the share who identify as non-religious. It’s noteworthy that these lines haven’t really crossed yet. The gap here is two percentage points. That difference is statistically significant, but it’s not substantively different. 

That’s not the case for Generation Z. Just thirty-five percent of them say that they are Protestant or Catholic. Forty-nine percent say that they are atheist, agnostic, or have no religion in particular. It’s clear here that the nones outnumber the Protestants and Catholics and this gap is likely apparent to anyone who has been around young adults in the last few years. 

A broad look at the religious breakdown of Generation Z reveals that just three groups reach double digits: nothing in particular at 31%, Protestant at 20%, and Catholics at 15%. Atheists and agnostics each stand at 9% of Generation Z. That means that there are still more Protestants in Gen Z than atheists/agnostics. Note that for smaller religious traditions (Muslims, LDS, Buddhists, and Hindus), they still make up a very small portion of the overall population. In other words, we aren’t seeing a huge rise in Gen Z Muslims, for instance. 

However, the Cooperative Election Study reports that the overall level of religious behavior among Generation Z is still better than anticipated, given their religious affiliation. In actuality, the religious attendance of Gen Z may be slightly higher than among the Millennial generation. 

The data indicates that about 55% of Generation Z attends a religious service less than once a year, while 22% are weekly attenders. Compare that to Millennials where 57% attend less than once a year and 22% are weekly attenders. So, there’s not been a significant decline in religiosity using this metric.

But, take note of this  –  60% of Generation X now report attendance at less than once a year and 22% report weekly attendance. That’s easily the least religiously active generation in the United States today. Many of Gen X are reaching their peak in personal income and are being tapped to be leaders in all aspects of society. Yet, they are clearly not filling the churches, synagogues, and mosques each weekend. That could open the door for Millennials and Gen Z to step up sooner for leadership roles. 

Taken together, this data is more of the same overall trend. Generation Z is the least religious generation in American history. And, they are becoming less religiously identified as each year passes. Every day in the United States, thousands of members of the Silent and Boomer generation are dying off. Every day in the United States, thousands of members of Generation Z are celebrating their 18th birthday and becoming official adults. That simple fact is changing American religion and society in ways that we can only begin to understand now. 

Ryan Burge is an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, the research director for Faith Counts, and a pastor in the American Baptist Church. He has written a number of books, including The Nones and 20 Myths about Religion and Politics in America. You can contact him on Twitter or his personal website. The syntax for this post is available here

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