At the beginning of the 20th century, sociologist Max Weber prophesied that religion-less modernity would become unbearable for secular society. He predicted the emergence of what he called late modernity, a period in which people embraced a kind of polytheism, hybridizing their spirituality by welding together different beliefs and practices in an attempt to find enchantment in the midst of bland secularism.
He might have been right.
Deakin University recently published their Worldviews of Generation Z report, based on research done with Australians aged 13-18.
Up until its release, most social commentators have tended to assume that young people are largely apathetic when it comes to religion. But the Deakin researchers found that some of this had to do with how we’ve been asking teens about religion. When confronted with traditional surveys that ask them to identify themselves as Catholic Christian, Protestant Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc, teens are nonplussed. The Deakin team found that these fixed ideas of religious identity are no longer applicable to young people.
Instead, Deakin used contemporary theories of religious diversity, and asked teens about six different spirituality “types” — this worldly, indifferent, spiritual not religious, seekers, nominally religious, religiously committed. Their results looked like this:
Far from being disinterested, the study found “that young people negotiate their worldview identities in complex, critical and caring ways that are far from ambivalent, and that are characterised by hybridity and questioning.”
If you’re wondering what hybridity looks like, read this quote by international model, Miranda Kerr, as she describes her religious outlook:
“I’m not Buddhist. I’m Christian. I pray every day. I meditate every day and I do yoga. I’m not religious, I’m spiritual. And praying is something my grandmother taught me as well. To pray and be grateful, have gratitude, is a big thing for me. I like to pray and I like to meditate. Doing just three minutes of prayer and a minimum of five minutes meditation twice a day sets the tone – like an arrow so that you’re hitting your target. When I pray I always thank Mother Nature for all the beauty in the world; it’s about having an attitude of gratitude. And then I pray to Christ to say, ‘Thank you for this day and my family and my health,’ and now that I’m older I’ve added, ‘Please illuminate me. Please open my heart chakra. Open my aperture and uplift my consciousness so that I can be the best version of myself’.”
To the specific findings of the Deakin University study, the Worldviews of Generation Z report makes fascinating reading. They found:
Teens were generally very positive about different faith groups:
- 85% of teenagers had a positive attitude towards Christians;
- 80% had a positive view of Buddhists;
- 75% had a positive attitude to Hindus;
- 74% had a positive attitude to Muslims;
- 83% had a positive view of those who have no religion.
Teens affirm and were open to religious diversity in Australia and thought different faiths should have religious freedom:
- 91 % thought that having people of many different faiths made Australia a better place to live;
- 90 % thought that students should be allowed to wear religious clothes or jewellery to school;
- 88% thought that all religious groups in Australia should be free to practise their religion the way they want to.
Opinion was divided when it seemed that religion might impinge on them:
- 44% thought that religion caused more problems in society than it solved;
- 50% thought people with very strong religious beliefs were often too intolerant of others;
- 33% thought religion should have no place in our parliament or official ceremonies;
- 32% thought that local communities should be able to prevent the construction of mosques or temples in their area if they didn’t want them.
What can we say about the emerging face of religious belief in Australia? As the researchers concluded, when it comes to religion, teens are complex, critical and caring.
The religious outlook of teens in Australia is, well, complicated. Far from being apathetic about it, teenagers are in fact hybridizing a kind of bespoke religious life without necessarily any belief in God or involvement in traditional religious communities.
The report states, “For the most part, they don’t believe or belong in the same ways as members of older generations, and the majority of them don’t see themselves as belonging to a religious tradition or organisation.”
The researchers found a majority of teens (58%) never attend services of worship, though this drift from the church doesn’t mean teens are becoming a generation of atheists, or rejecting spirituality.
“Certainly, belief in God is declining among members of the younger generations, but a lot still believe in a higher being or life force, or are just unsure.”
The study found certain spiritual ideas drawn from Asian religious traditions were very popular among teens, with 50 per cent of teens believing in karma, while about a third (29%) believe in reincarnation.
“Most of those teens don’t identify as Buddhists or Hindus, but their interest in those beliefs is evidence of a changing spiritual landscape among teens,” said Andrew Singleton, one of the authors of the report.
“The idea of karma has become a kind of semi-mystical shorthand for ‘what goes around, comes around’ in this life.”
Some Australian teens are also open to other spiritual ideas, believing in ghosts (31%), communicating with the dead (25%), astrology (20%) and UFOs (20%).
It all reminds me of that statement by the actor Sarah Michelle Gellar when she said, “I consider myself a spiritual person. I believe in an idea of God, although it’s my own personal ideal. I find most religions interesting, and I’ve been to every kind of denomination: Catholic, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist. I’ve taken bits from everything and customized it.”
Andrew Singleton from Deakin University writes, “Teens live in a diverse, complicated world, and not that many are willing to shut the door completely on non-material possibilities. Just don’t expect them to be loyal to older ways of doing things.”
All that said, teens appear to be very critical of those with strong traditional religious beliefs, with about half of them thinking they are too intolerant of others.
“There is an appreciable proportion who think religion causes more harm than good, are against the construction of Mosques and temples, are concerned about intolerant religious beliefs and think religion has no place in Parliament.”
The researchers also point out that young people’s suspicion toward traditional religions might have been skewed somewhat, given their surveys were completed during Australia’s marriage equality postal vote. The rancor around that issue might have influenced their answers.
But teens today are also aware of the church’s involvement in clergy child sexual assault scandals, and the Stolen Generations policies, as well as Muslim extremism in incidents like 9-11 and Sydney’s Lindt cafe siege. Little wonder they think meditation, yoga, and karma are good, while religious fundamentalism is bad.
BUT THEY CARE
Social commentators have surmised that the brutalizing effects of secularism, consumerism and capitalism would lead not only to a re-flowering of religious interest, but also an era of religious competition and possibly war. It certainly looked like they might have been partially right, given the rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the reemergence of neo-Nazism and Christian fundamentalism.
But Gen Z might be bucking the trend.
Their concerns about the way strongly held belief leads to intolerance and aggression shows how much they care about peaceful coexistence. As we saw earlier, teens have an overwhelmingly positive attitude towards Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. They just don’t want to be one.
Other studies show them to be deeply concerned about addressing climate change, challenging systemic racism, and promoting social justice. In other words, they care about creating a better world. And they want others to care too.
Some religious leaders have expressed deep concern about the hardening secularism of Western culture. But the Worldview of Generation Z reveals a very different challenge, one Lesslie Newbigin described this way:
“The result is not, as we once imagined, a secular society. It is a pagan society, and its paganism, having been born out of the rejection of Christianity, is far more resistant to the gospel than the pre-Christian paganism with which cross-cultural missions have been familiar. Here, surely, is the most challenging missionary frontier of our time.”
The religious life of Gen Z will require a complete game change to church-as-usual approaches to apologetics and evangelism.