Nearly half of Gen Z, born after 1996, has no religious affiliation whatsoever
New data from the Cooperative Election Study reveals startling facts about the least religious generation ever
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The youngest Americans are the least likely churchgoers we’ve ever seen, according to new data from the Cooperative Election Study and analyzed by sociologist Ryan P. Burge.
Not only have the shares of non-religious people gone up within each generation, the bars are simply higher for each younger generation.
That graph shows how nearly half of Gen Z (born after 1996) has no religious affiliation whatsoever. It’s an astonishing change that shows how the grip of faith has loosened over time and how organized religion itself is no longer seen as useful for young people whose lives have been upended by conservative beliefs and the loudest voices inside those denominations.
What’s fascinating about those numbers is how, even though there isn’t a huge change when you look at each generation’s snapshots in 2016, 2020, and 2022, Gen Z keeps getting less religious. They began high (non-religious) and yet the numbers are still going up. As others appear to be leveling off, there’s no telling how much higher the Gen Z non-religious numbers will get.
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.
Whether politicians will recognize that and actively try to earn those votes remains to be seen. They’re so used to pandering to people of faith that even Democrats may not realize how much people are longing to hear candidates say their policies will never be dictated by the religious beliefs of certain powerful groups.
Just look at the breakdown of religious labels for Gen Z:
While Protestant and Catholic still have significant numbers, they amount to about a third of the entire group. The combination of “Nothing in particular,” agnostic, atheist, and even “something else” dominate the rest of the chart. This is a generation that doesn’t see faith as synonymous with virtue.
To that point, Burge notes that 38% of Gen Z never attends religious services, while 70% of them attend once a year at most. Millennials (both 1977-1995) have similar numbers. Given that 39% of the Silent Generation attends church weekly or more often, it’s a complete shift in values—or at least how we perceive religious services as indicative of those values.
At a time when churches are trying to pass the torch to a new generation of leaders, there are fewer options than ever, and even then, those younger leaders will have a harder time trying to bring new people into the fold.
So why is all this happening? The survey doesn’t get into that, but it’s not hard to speculate on the reasons.
Many powerful churches—certainly the ones that get mainstream attention—are political in all the wrong ways. They’re anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion, and anti-vaccine. They don’t want women preaching in church and they won’t acknowledge the existence of trans people. They spread lies about sex, work to ban books, oppose racial justice, downplay our climate emergency, demonize public schools, celebrate assault weapons, and endorse right-wing candidates who live out none of their supposed values. Even when confronted with the harm they’re causing, they use their faith as a shield as if that makes them immune to criticism.
Not every church is like this, but non-denominational evangelical megachurches, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Mormon Church, and the Catholic Church all stand behind many of those ideas. Pastors within those groups who disagree often feel powerless to push back.
That means on the most pressing cultural issues of our time, religious organizations have often taken the more thoughtless, more cruel, and least scientific paths imaginable. They have made our country a less safe place to live. They have repeatedly shown that they cannot be trusted on matters of basic human decency. There’s no shortage of articles documenting their hypocrisy.
There are undoubtedly religious leaders who oppose all of this and don’t hold back in their criticism. Church/state separation groups even work with them on legal cases! But at the end of the day, they still believe the truth lies in the same works of fiction as their religious colleagues. Not exactly an appealing pitch to a generation of people who have been inundated with lies every time they go online.
That said, the problem with people leaving organized religion is that they’re not necessarily replacing it with anything else. We’re not changing what our communities look like and believe; we’re just losing communities, period. As much as I’d like to think people who leave church are becoming more politically or socially active, we’re often just choosing isolation and nebulous online communities which don’t have the same benefits.
I’m just speculating, of course. The good news is that we’re rapidly moving away from organized religion. After decades of watching conservatives use their religion as a weapon to harm the most vulnerable people in our society, many young people have decided to ditch faith altogether. Whatever they replace it with can’t possibly be worse than what they’re walking away from.
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Someday, if we're very very lucky, humanity will finally cast off all religious delusion.
A dream, I know. But still I have it.
So, we have religious communities that alienate and vilify benign and vulnerable sections of society being replaced with the nebulous communities that intentionally act to protect and include the most vulnerable. But we lament the change?
I’m not lamenting anything. Finding new ways to solve problems the religious only superficially address is progress. It doesn’t have to look like it did before, and it should not.