My generation — Gen Z — is one of the most progressive generations according to a nationwide poll conducted in 2021 by MTV and AP-NORC. Born between 1997 and 2010, we have embraced a new sort of activism in our pursuit for social justice. Over the past three years, I have seen my generation step up to the plate as we look to do our part in changing the world for the better. I have witnessed friends and classmates work to resolve issues of injustice within my own school. Personally, I’ve answered the call to action by working to organize events that bring attention to our most pressing issues like immigration and racial injustice. Through organizing protests, creating different school advocacy clubs, and speaking out in our own lives, Gen Z has been able to break the cycle of complacency. This pushback against complacency concerning justice issues is what Gen Z is most known for.
But there is another thing Gen Z is well known for: detaching from religious institutions. Pew Research conducted a study in 2020 examining teens’ relationship to religion compared to their parents: data from that report showed that while 43 percent of parents claimed religion was “very important to them,” only 24 percent of teens answered similarly. In 2021, Springtide Research Institute, where I am a student ambassador, found that 52 percent of young people believe that religious communities are “rigid” and too “restrictive.”
As our fight for social justice strengthens, our affiliation with religious institutions weakens. Why is this? One major reason: Religious institutions have continuously failed us when taking positions on issues such as the treatment of the LGBTQ+ community, climate change, and the fight for racial justice. Whether these institutions have been neutral or directly opposed to these and other justice issues, the result has been a swath of Gen Zers feeling alienated from religious institutions.
The ongoing pandemic adds to this feeling of alienation. When COVID-19 hit in 2020, our lives were upended as the United States entered an unprecedented age of uncertainty and division. Nearly 7 in 10 young people (67 percent) told Springtide in March 2021 that “the pandemic has really torn people apart.” Many religious people, specifically Christians, sowed division with COVID-19 misinformation. As a result, people from my generation began to move away from their faith or their religious community.
But despite these shifts, Gen Z found reason to hope. As a generation, we were able to use our hunger for change to imagine new ways of thinking about issues like politics, faith, and morality. During the height of the pandemic, I saw how isolation affected my peers’ belief systems. Many Gen Zers, myself included, began to re-evaluate our beliefs as we took a critical look at how religious intuitions responded to cries for justice.
For previous generations, religious institutions offered solace in times of turmoil and uncertainty. But my generation is finding solace through combining and redefining religions. While it is true that Gen Z is skeptical of religious institutions, we remain interested in myriad religious beliefs, the relationships derived from religious spaces, and the questions of morality and justice that are often associated with religion.
Springtide Research Institute discovered that nearly half of young people feel like they can fit in any religion (47 percent), while the majority say they don’t need to be connected to a specific religion (55 percent). Many Gen Zers understand their spirituality as a conglomeration of differing beliefs and morality, a combination of numerous religious and non-religious traditions; different philosophies, morals, and theological teachings end up being combined into a single tapestry. This is why more than half (53 percent) of young people say they agree with “some” but not “all” of what their religion teaches.
An important distinction needs to be made here: While our approach to religion may be drastically different from older generations, our belief in God, our interest in spirituality, and questions regarding morality have not been lost on us. What has been lost is our trust in institutions. Data from Morning Consult, a data intelligence company, continues to track Gen Z’s level of trust in institutions over time, finding that their trust in government, media, Wall Street, big tech, and more is falling across the board.
Our distrust of institutions is partially due to the fact that we have grown up in such troubling times. Whether it was the U.S.’s response to 9/11, the stock market crashing in 2008, the 2016 election, the governments’ failure to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, or the continuous acts of police brutality, Gen Z has reason to distrust institutions.
Adding to this distrust are politicians and religious leaders claiming to understand the will of God yet failing to meet the standard of morality. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a Christian, criticizes China’s treatment of its Islamic minority, the Uyghurs, but has advocated that “Muslim neighborhoods” in the U.S. be patrolled by police. Pope Benedict XVI has faced harsh criticism for his part in the child abuse scandals that happened during his papacy, prompting some to accuse the former pontiff of participating in a cover-up.
Religious and political leaders perpetuating injustice has caused us to distrust religious institutions but it has not made us cynical regarding questions of morality and justice. As we have seen the United States spin out of control due to obsequious citizens who hold an almost religious belief in “law and order,” we have wrestled with questions concerning humanity’s capacity for good and the future of our species. That so many adults can identify as religious while also perpetuating QAnon conspiracies, working to overturn the 2020 election, or embracing climate denial has led Gen Z to doubt the morality of traditional religions.
Growing up in this environment has motivated us to reevaluate what faith outside of religious institutions might look like. Faith is no longer about attending church on Sunday, blindly following tradition, or finding all of our answers in scripture. Faith is about developing a morality that seeks to preserve humanity in a time when those claiming to be leaders are actively working to destroy our world.
With that in mind, faith is no longer beholden to a strict or specific articulation of “God.” For me, faith has more to do with belief in our shared humanity and a belief in our future. For my generation, treating people with kindness, putting life over material items, and embracing generosity is what our new interpretation of faith highlights. Our rallying cry is that we are all people, and we all deserve justice. The beautiful thing about religion is that, at its best, it offers the same affirmation. We see examples of this throughout many of the world’s religions but this passage from the Quran says it perfectly, “Be steadfast in the cause of Allah, bearing witness in equity; and let not a people’s enmity incite you to act otherwise than with justice. Be always just, that is nearer to righteousness” (Al-Ma’diah 5:8).
That need for justice and salvation is what drives many young people. We are yearning for salvation from the gross realities of the world and justice for those who have already succumbed to them. As Gen Z continues to come of age and enter the world as adults, we are hoping to redefine the meaning of faith.
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