As Fewer Young Americans Say They Believe in God, a Look at Why So Many Have Abandoned Religion and What Motivates Others to Keep the Faith
Alexander Ocasio praying at New York University Catholic Center.

As Fewer Young Americans Say They Believe in God, a Look at Why So Many Have Abandoned Religion and What Motivates Others to Keep the Faith

Written and Photographed by Briana Ellis-Gibbs

In April 2020, during the beginning stages of the COVID pandemic, Jalesha Bass, 23, and her friends had an unexpected debate about faith while quarantining in their apartment at The University of Texas at Austin. The group included a stripper and a self-proclaimed witch,

"We just ended up having like this random argument about religion and God," says Bass, who grew up Chirsitian in Texas. "And they were just like, Jalesha, you know the Bible, so come explain this to us. I'm like, baby, I don't know the answer to the questions y'all asking either. But we can whip out the Bible, and we can figure this out together."

Bass, now a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary in Harlem, says as the discussion continued, her friends' uncertainties about their faith and belief in God became apparent. She says they were asking, "if I die, what'll happen? Where will I go?"

She suggested they all work together to find the answer. “We were like Google searching and stuff like I tried my best to facilitate conversation."

Jalesha Bass in the middle of the prayer circle after delivering her first sermon at Double Love Experince Church in Brooklyn, New York.

Like Bass and her friends growing numbers of young people are questioning organized religion – or have turned away from it altogether – and have also been wrestling with their belief in God. Generation Z, defined by the Pew Research Center as those born after 1997, is the least religious generation yet, according to a recent report from the American Survey Center. More than one-third of Generation Zers are religiously unaffiliated, along with 29 percent of Millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996. On the other hand, only 18 percent of baby boomers and 9 percent of the silent generation claim no religious affiliation.

Though overall, Americans' belief in God has hit an all-time low, from nearly 90 percent in 2017 to 81 percent this year, according to a new poll by Axios. Generation Zers are far more likely than other generations to identify as atheists or agnostic. Eighteen percent of Gen Z say they are either atheists (9 percent) or agnostic (9 percent). However, fewer than one in 10 baby boomers and 4 percent of the silent generation identify as atheists or agnostic.

A generational shift in parenting style may help explain why so few young people embrace religion. Many modern parents feel reluctant to force the religious practices they were raised with onto their children. “There's less of a kind of generational transmission of religious belief and practice from parents to children than there once was,” says Brian Steensland, the chair of the sociology department at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

“Parents think that children should make up their own minds about their religious lives or whether they are religious, or what kind of religion they practice or beliefs they hold.”

Lucian Kouros drawing using his drawing pad, and Alexander Ocasio holding his bible.

Lucian Kouros,19, who attends Brooklyn College, left the religion of his family and does not plan to ever attend a place of worship again. Kouros’s grandmother is Christian, and he went attended church services regularly until he was 7 years old. But then he stopped attending. He says his grandmother who is 80 years old is indifferent when it comes to whether or not he should worship. “She doesn't care too much,” he says. “She only just does it for herself. She doesn't mind if other people do or don't do it.”

Would Kouros ever attend a place of worship, again? He says probably not. Instead, he uses drawing and listening to music as a way to stay at peace. "They'd have to give me a pretty interesting reason,” he explains. “I can't be so regimented and only this book [the Bible] is what I judged my life on and my decisions off of. I'm kind of more open-minded than that.”

Though Christianity remains the most popular religion in the United States, increasing numbers of people, particularly the young, have adopted alternative faiths. Immigration has shifted the religious demographics of the country, but some of those who were raised as Christians have shifted into other faiths like Buddhism. A study conducted by Pew Research suggests that the number of Americans who identify as Christians will shrink from 64 to 54 percent by 2027. Buddhism is expected to grow from almost 4.2 million in 2022 to 6.1 million by 2050.

Lucian Kouros drawing on his computer at Brooklyn College. He has a instagram page, @lotions_art, where he diplays his drawings.

Methulia Medage,13, finds peace by practicing Buddhism. She attends New York Buddhist Vihara in Queens Village, NY. "Buddhism has introduced ways to help me maintain my anger and any other emotions that might jump out or actions or speech that I might regret saying," she says.

Medage, who attends MS 158Q in Queens, says she will never believe in a traditional God. “There is no God that is more powerful than me,” she explains. “Everybody is sort of equal in a way, but in Buddhism, we follow one teacher, not God. He's the Buddha and he's a human, just like all of us. I feel like I wouldn't really believe in God because it makes us feel inferior.”

Medage suggests many of her peers have moved away from traditional religion for a number of reasons. "Some people may be driven by social media or what they hear outside,” she says. “Some people just may simply become bored or feel like they shouldn't be forced to learn about something.”

Methulia Medage attends New York Buddhist Vihara in Queens Village, NYC.

Zach Williams, 34, a former pastor, now an atheist, agrees with Medage that technology has pushed people away from religion. That’s partly why he left the church. Williams, raised in a religious family in Tennessee – his grandfather is a pastor – believes limited access to technology kept him in the faith at the time as a child. “ I didn't have a cell phone until I was in high school, and we didn't have the internet when I was growing up,” says Williams, who lives in Brooklyn, NY. “So I remember sitting at dinners and people asking questions and somebody says the answer, and then that was it. But now if somebody asks a question, they can look it up on a search engine, and they can have millions of different answers at their fingertips in no time.

Williams says books, including the Bible, strongly influenced people’s world and religious views when he was a kid. “Growing up in school, I remember them saying that the best references are books because that's where the truth lies,” he says. “For a lot of religious people, that book is the Bible.”

As he began to discover technology and meet new people, Williams realized he disagreed with the values and beliefs upheld by the church. He thinks young people are turning away from faith because they have access to many more tools that can shape their thinking. “A lot of people are leaving because there are alternatives to that one source (the Bible),” he says.

For other young people, technology has led to their faith. Alexander Ocasio, 19, a sophomore at Brooklyn College and the president of Brooklyn College’s Catholic Club, joined in conversations and debates in chat rooms when he was deciding which religion to pursue. Unlike most children who are religious because of the influence of their families, Ocasio has taken his religious beliefs a step further than his parents expected. Growing up, Ocasio lived in a household where Catholicism was the primary religion although his family is not very religious. The debates and conversations he saw online solidified his belief in Catholicism.

Alexander Ocasio prays with his rosary beads at New York University Catholic Center where he attend mass every Friday.

Even with many of his peers leaving traditional religion and having parents who are not always in agreement with his religious views, Ocasio insists on forming his own opinions. "I don't think what other people do or say affects [my religion],” he insists. “Even if 99% of the world doesn't believe in gravity, it doesn't change the fact that gravity exists. Catholicism is true; it doesn't change based on if other people believe it is or not."

Outside of Christianity, other young people are bucking the trend of turning their backs on religion and keeping faith front and center in their lives. Yahya Abdul-Basser, a 24-year-old Muslim who works at a clinical lab in Long Island, says his faith brings him structure and guidance each day. “I feel like a lot of people in our society are missing purpose,” he explains.

Yahya Abdul-Basser doing his daily prayer at New York University Muslim Center.

Williams, the former pastor turned atheist, disagrees with Abdul-Basser. He says that the idea that someone has a divine purpose is all made up. “I don't think that anyone has a purpose,” he says. “You can find joy and enrichment in lots of things in life without having to call it a purpose.”

Williams has always found joy and peace in music. It has helped him build community outside of the church.“Humans by nature are very drawn to music,” he says, “and most people enjoy music and have some sort of an emotional connection to it.”

Zach Williams plays with Bluegrass music group at Sunny's Bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn every Saturday night.

Still, moving away from his faith has sometimes caused conflict in his life. His now-ex wife divorced him because they no longer shared the same religious beliefs and practices. And Williams has not told his family about leaving their religion. But when he does, he hopes they see that he and his family are not that different at all. “I haven't changed as a person,” he insists. “I'm not a bad person. I'm not doing bad things, and I'm still the person that they think I am. I just believe in one less God than they do.”

Developed by Briana Ellis-Gibbs

Thank you to my advsior Linda Villarosa