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Gen Z is moving away from traditional religion, but that doesn't mean they aren't spiritual

By Mark Brodie
Published: Thursday, November 16, 2023 - 12:16pm

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Terry Shoemaker
Arizona State University
Terry Shoemaker

MARK BRODIE: Recent surveys have shown younger Americans say they’re less religiously affiliated than previous generations. Last year, the Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI, found nearly 40% of Americans between the ages of 18-29 were religiously unaffiliated. Among those 30-49 years old, that number was 32%; both are up from the year before.

But my next guest says that doesn’t necessarily mean Gen Z isn’t religious or looking for meaning in the world. Terry Shoemaker is an associate teaching professor in ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies; he also teaches through ASU online.

Today, we’ll take a deep dive into whether Gen Z is in fact losing its religion. I spoke with Shoemaker recently, and we started there — and whether he’s come to a conclusion on the answer to that question.

TERRY SHOEMAKER: To be honest with you, it’s a very complex question for a lot of various reasons. And so just let me give a couple of the things we consider very quickly. First, when we look at the data that has been gathered by organizations like Pew Research or PRRI, we’re really getting a very broad look at it and specifically asking questions like, Do you believe in God? Do you go to a religious service? Or how often? Things like that. And so a lot of the questions are tied to beliefs or institutions. And so when we look at the data, Gen Z definitely isn’t as high in belief of God, isn’t as high of, say, going to church, going to mosque, going to synagogue, going to temple, whatever, than previous generations.

However, if we do see things like are you spiritual? Do you participate in spiritual practices — meditation, reading, sacred texts, things like that? Then we might, actually I think we get different answers for the questions.

BRODIE: Well, it kind of sounds like how one defines “religious” or “religious observance” is key here.

SHOEMAKER: Exactly. And this is something within the field of religious studies we heavily debate. And actually in the courses that I teach at ASU Online and on the ground at Arizona State University, one of the things that we grapple with is what constitutes religion. And then more recently, because now I get to teach spirituality in America. Well, then what constitutes spirituality? And are the two things different, or are they the same? How are they being used and tossed around in everyday walks of life?

BRODIE: One of the things that you’ve spoken about that I think is really interesting is the idea of Gen Z maybe in some measures anyway, being or seeming less religious because of their parents — those of us in Generation X — and how maybe it’s not such a surprise given what we saw from Gen X.

SHOEMAKER: Yeah, that’s exactly right. So if we trace — at least from the data that we have, we actually start to see in the boomer generation people, at least the younger boomers at the time, in the ‘50s and ‘60s are experimenting with different eastern religions and other types of spiritual type things. Although a lot of that generation tended to gravitate back towards specifically to Christian churches.

But with Gen X, we really started to see that dis-identification with religion, and Gen Z in general is known to kind of have a little bit of an angst and anti-institution, at least maybe in the high school-college age. But a lot of the Gen X from the data didn’t return back to a religious community. So if those people are not transmitting religious practices, religious ideas, rituals, etc. to their children, then I think that's right. I think we would expect Gen Z, millennials to be a little bit unfamiliar with religiosity, and it might even seem foreign.

And I'll just tell you one story. One of my students, after taking my class, just decided to visit a few different religious ceremonies across the campus and of different kinds and kind of came back to me and I said, “Well, what did you think?” And his response was, “Yeah, it’s all wonderful. I just don’t understand any of it, and I don’t understand why I need it.”

And so that gets a little bit to the idea that it’s something, you know, this may work for older generation, but it’s quite foreign to [Gen Z], and they kind of don’t know what to do with it.

BRODIE: The idea of not understanding why someone might need it, I would think that if you were somebody who was trying to bring people into a service of some order into a religious observance, that seems like it would be the phrase that would scare me or worry me the most.

SHOEMAKER: Yeah … the way I teach this in my classes is — and this isn't necessarily my idea strictly — but it’s this idea of a religious marketplace that on one end of it you have religious communities who are trying to attract members, new community members. And then on the other end, you have what we would maybe call religious consumers. And so you’re right. It’s a tough position for the religious institutions themselves, because how do I market myself and explain who we are and what we offer, what we can provide? And if we market too hard, then we look like we’re overreaching, and then our goods are — it looks like the product is maybe malicious or something, that someone’s going too hard, like they’re trying to spam you.

And I would think from the, say, the Gen Z, if we want to think about them as religious consumers. One of the things, if we think about religion as part of what I call a cultural marketplace, then I think religious institutions have to argue, well, why should you commit to our religious community when you could be going to a Phoenix Suns basketball game, when you could be going to an Arizona Cardinals football game, when you could be going to a movie, when there's all these other things that are happening?

And at the same time, for Gen Z and millennials, many of them are working a gig economy, working multiple jobs with few benefits. And for them to go to a religious service and say every Sunday at 11:00 or every Friday night, like that’s too much of a commitment for the lives that they’re living, that they're trying to piecemeal, apart from their work and school and everything else, commitments that they have going on.

BRODIE: Well, so I wonder, like a lot of churches and synagogues and other religious institutions started during COVID, for example, to livestream their services or record their services. I wonder if that is in some way for those who have continued to do it, is that a way to maybe mitigate that somewhat and say, “Look, we get that you can't come here every Sunday at 11, but could you turn on your computer for half an hour and watch a service remotely, maybe even while you're doing something else and still kind of be part of this community?”

SHOEMAKER: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think using livestreams, some type of virtual Zoom, using the technologies that we have, I think was an attempt for religious communities to keep the membership involved, but to also attract new people that might see it as a kind of an outstretched, “We’re trying to offer you a convenience” so that you can be a part of this.

However, the question is, is that successful? And one of the things that I think we need to consider is I wonder if the younger generation isn’t over Zoom and over screens.

BRODIE: And now, we continue my conversation with Terry Shoemaker of ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and ASU Online on the question of whether Gen Z is losing its religion. He mentioned that members of Gen X were a little less religious than their parents, baby boomers, so I asked if, as the data suggest, millennials and Gen Z are a little less religious still from their parents, would it stand to reason that as we go forward and Gen Z starts having kids, might religion be even less relevant to future generations?

SHOEMAKER: Yeah, that's a great question. So if we look at the longitudinal data, the data seems to suggest exactly what you’re saying, that there does seem to be what we call in my field a secularization occurring. However, I would caution that religion over the thousands of years that humans have employed religion and religious ideas, religion has been very malleable to changes in society. And so, well, what we might see is a decline after the religion that we know of, what we call religion. But we might see an adaptation or an emergence of something new and fresh that maybe an older generation wouldn’t recognize as religion, but that the younger generation and future generations would say, no, this is our religion.

BRODIE: Are there examples of that that you’re seeing now in terms of younger people maybe saying, “This is sort of how we observe, this is how we find meaning, this is how we find spirituality,” that might not seem like religion to older generations?

SHOEMAKER: Yeah. So there’s a couple of really good books that have looked into this. And one of the things — there’s one book that I find really interesting that this scholar, Elizabeth Drescher, interviewed people who had left kind of the religion they inherited, and then she sat down with them and did these qualitative interviews and asked things like, “Well, what is religious to you? Or is there anything sacred that you find in this world?”

And she came up with for the people she interviewed, … four Fs. And if I can remember, I think it was friends, family, food and Fido. And what she meant was friends and family and Fido, so your pets, those close networks, those close friendships are very something young people may call spiritual. And then on top of it, food. So gathering together with their friends.

But then also, some of the work I’ve done is looking at trying to figure out what people categorize as religious or spiritual. And some scholars have said, “Look, a lot for a lot of people, they're abandoning what we might call traditional institutional religion. But if you look at how they enter a sports arena and their sports commitment, man, that sure looks like and mirrors a lot of the things that religion has done in the past.” So we think about fandoms, we think about these kind of new communities that are emerging online and in person. Some of those things may actually evolve into something that’s sacred to this next generation that they may deem as religious or spiritual in the future. That in the past people said, no, those are really vital, important parts of life, but they’re not the supernatural, they’re not something out of this world.

And something I always tell my students is and actually end up telling a lot of religious leaders that come to me and ask the questions is, whereas the previous generations have asked the question — and seem to really emphasize the question — “Is there life after death?” To me, what I see even Gen X starting to ask years ago and really Gen Z and millennials really asking is, “Is there life before death?” And so that’s where that focus is on, is on the everyday and what’s sacred right now.

BRODIE: It's so interesting listening to you talk. I’m reminded of the line in the movie “Bull Durham,” where I forget which character says it, but they say," I belong to the Church of Baseball." Like, it’s kind of what you’re saying. Like, and you’re talking about you can’t commit to something every Sunday at 11. But there are an awful lot of football fans who commit to something every Sunday at 11.

SHOEMAKER: Right, Exactly right. One of my students told me one time that they are off-season Christians. What she meant was they have season tickets for the Arizona Cardinals, and every Sunday they’re committed to that. And as soon as the season is over, they’re back in church.

BRODIE: Interesting.

SHOEMAKER: And I thought that was actually great. So in some ways, they're like a hybrid religious-sports something. And I think that gets to it a little bit.

BRODIE: But also, I would imagine that they probably would think or feel that if they’re going to the game with their family or with particular friends or something, that is like something that is meaningful to them, that is something that might even be spiritual to them.

SHOEMAKER: Exactly right. And, you know, think about the game as involving tailgating. The ride there. The dressing up. Actually watching the game. Talking the game afterwards. Instagramming, social media. This is like an all-inclusive kind of thing. And then at the same time, if this is what their parents did and this is the rituals that their parents gave them, there’s something deeper here than just going to a football game.

BRODIE: Right. Well, it seems like ritual is one of the keys here, right? Like whether it’s inside a house of worship or at a stadium or in your home or in a park or in the woods or something, the ritual is seemingly what is meaningful and important to people.

SHOEMAKER: That’s exactly right. And so this actually brings us full circle to the very first thing I was talking about with the quantitative surveys. When they ask people, “How often do you attend a religious service or ceremony?” That question, at least in my mind, translates to how often are you part of a formal institution or religious gathering. But what we’re talking about doesn’t quite qualify in a lot of people’s minds. So if their church of the Sunday hike and they go out in the mountains in Phoenix every Sunday with their family, that may not qualify in their mind to answer that question. However, if we pose the question, “Are there consistent rituals and practices that your family do that you find sacred and meaningful?” I think a lot of people would say yes, and here’s some of the things we do.

BRODIE: All right. That is Terry Shoemaker, an associate teaching professor at ASU. Terry, thank you so much for the conversation. I appreciate it.

SHOEMAKER: Thank you for having me. This was great.

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