Americans Under 30 Don’t Trust Religion — or Anything Else

This is an addendum to a series about Americans moving away from religion. Read part one, part two, part three, part four and part five.

When I wrote my series on why Americans are moving away from organized religion, I didn’t focus specifically on those under 30, even though I knew they were the least religiously affiliated. I wanted to tell the full story that included different age groups because in recent decades, all age groups have seen a decline in religious participation. The sociological term for the unaffiliated is “nones,” a catchall for atheists, agnostics and those who say they have no religion in particular.

I also thought that for the youngest adults, the move away from traditional worship was just an extension of the overall trend: a combination of fewer of them being raised by religious parents, a greater social acceptance of not identifying as a person of faith and a cultural association between conservative political beliefs and Christianity that started years before the first Zoomer was born.

But after more reading, rumination and reporting, I think there’s something slightly new happening for Gen Z and the youngest millennials. So I turned again to Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University who is a pastor and the author of “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are and Where They Are Going.” He told me: “The estimates vary on this, but it’s empirically defensible to say that at least 40 percent of Gen Z are nones now.”

He thinks the big story here is that so many younger nones categorize themselves as nothing in particular rather than as atheists or agnostics. If you’re an atheist or an agnostic, you have a defined worldview. Whereas with many young Americans, Burge said, “they look at all the religion options and say, ‘I really don’t want to pick a side.’ And that’s what nothing in particular is. It’s not religious, obviously, but it’s also not secular, either. It’s kind of, ‘No, thank you. I’ll pass on the question of religion.’”

And while some of their disaffiliation is driven by the same reasons we’ve seen for older millennials and Gen X, what distinguishes the under-30 set is a marked level of distrust in a variety of major institutions and leaders — not just religious ones. So it makes a certain kind of sense that they don’t want to associate too closely with any defined group.

A new report from the Survey Center on American Life at the American Enterprise Institute calls this “formative distrust,” noting that older Americans had “greater confidence in political leaders during their childhood years.” If you grew up, as I did, during the relatively stable Clinton years, for example, you probably have a very different view of political institutions than someone turning 25 today, whose political consciousness may have been formed during the Trump era.

I spoke to Daniel Cox, the director of the survey center, who said that for a long time most Americans generally respected society’s institutions and processes and expected that even if people had differing opinions, “the adults would kind of take care of things.” That’s changed. “For both millennials and Gen Z, I think that was not the world they were raised in, where you had people increasingly vociferously complaining, lobbing accusations around election integrity, and people cheating or not abiding by the rules or conventions of the past,” Cox said.

What’s more, some religious institutions have had high-profile ethical failures around cases of sexual abuse — concealing rather than confronting allegations of wrongdoing among their leadership. “Instead of trying to redress these really incredibly painful problems, they made things worse in many instances,” Cox said. “So I think that’s a really different environment to come of age and to learn about how these institutions operate and who they operate for.”

When I talked to several readers under 30 about moving away from the faith traditions they were brought up in, more than one used the metaphor of a Jenga tower: When they lost faith in the religion they were raised in, it was as if load-bearing blocks were being removed and eventually the entire structure collapsed.

Elizabeth Hildreth, 29, grew up Southern Baptist and lives in Georgia. She said that for her, while there were shifts away from the faith tradition that she experienced over time, the first load-bearing block that pulled away represented abortion — she became more open-minded about the issue during the 2020 election. “Once there was a fracture that couldn’t reconcile,” she said, the whole worldview she was raised with “was subject to internal interrogation.”

Hildreth told me that she was brought up with very black-and-white thinking on a lot of issues. Though she still admires and appreciates many of the values that were part of her upbringing, once she started seeing shades of gray, it caused her to question anyone who held outsize power. After 2020, looking at history and looking at the other institutions,” she said, it’s become much easier to be critical.

Jadon George, 20, who lives in Philadelphia, said there were many moments that caused him to question the Christianity he was raised with, but the final straw was the sexual assault accusations against Ravi Zacharias, a now deceased evangelist whom his family used to listen to on the radio. “He knew how to hold an audience in the palm of his hand,” George told me.

Zacharias cautioned male leaders not to be alone with women: “I have long made it my practice not to be alone with a woman other than Margie and our daughters — not in a car, a restaurant or anywhere else,” he reportedly said. But several women alleged that in private he wasn’t just alone with them, he harassed and assaulted them. It particularly bothered George that a witness told independent investigators that Zacharias said she shouldn’t speak out against him, “or she would be responsible for the ‘millions of souls’ whose salvation would be lost if his reputation was damaged.”

George started to question whether his faith was meant to be about connecting with God and doing good for others or if it was, “in the more insidious version of it,” a way for powerful men “to give cover to themselves.”

Several under-30s whom I spoke to said their views on L.G.B.T.Q. acceptance and the role of women in their churches were also factors in their moves away from organized religion. Evan Moss, 29, who lives in Arkansas and was raised in Oklahoma, said that coming out as gay was inextricably tied to his move away from organized religion. While he knows that many churches are L.G.B.T.Q. affirming, he said, “It seems like almost all discrimination against queer people is really tied up in religious belief.” When the congregation he grew up in cut ties with the United Methodist denomination because it was too open to L.G.B.T.Q. rights, Moss said that even though he had moved away from religion at that point, it still felt like “a slap in the face.”

Here’s one more interesting wrinkle: According to Burge, the “long-held trend” of women being more religious than men seems to be flipping for younger generations. His research has shown that “with those born in 2000 or later, women are clearly more likely to be nones than men.” The relationship between Christianity and conservative politics may be related here — as young women increasingly are more liberal than young men, they may be more inclined to move away from religion.

Even though being a none tends to be culturally accepted among younger Americans, that doesn’t mean that distancing oneself from religion is easy. Kevin Miller, who is 29 and lives in Tennessee, also used the Jenga analogy — after one block fell, it all collapsed pretty easily. But he underscored how painful the experience has been for him: “Especially in my faith journey,” he said, “there’s such a heavy emphasis on, it’s like, you and Jesus. And I really felt like Jesus was my very best friend. And so to move beyond that was losing your closest friend.” Building a fulfilling world back up took him years.

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