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Generation Z has twice as many atheists, research group finds

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Today's teenagers much less likely to attend church than previous generations.

“The youth are the future of the Church” might not be an accurate statement anymore.

A national research organization says it has found a significant increase in atheism among the so-called Generation Z—young people born between 1999 and 2015.

The Barna Group released the results of a survey showing that the percentage of Gen Z that identifies as atheist is double that of the U.S. adult population. Barna calls Generation Z the first truly “post-Christian” generation.

“More than any other generation before them, Gen Z does not assert a religious identity,” the research group says. “They might be drawn to things spiritual, but with a vastly different starting point from previous generations, many of whom received a basic education on the Bible and Christianity.”

The percentage of teens who identify as atheist is double that of the general population (13 percent vs. 6 percent of all adults), Barna reports.

Meanwhile, the proportion of each generation identifying as Christian has been dropping. While 75 percent of Baby Boomers, those who were born in the years after World War II up through the mid-1960s, are Protestant or Catholic Christians, only 59 percent of those in Generation Z, who are now between the ages of 13-18, say they are some kind of Christian.

In its inquiry, Barna focused on barriers: What is keeping today’s teens from the religious life their older siblings, parents and grandparents embraced? The existence of evil is one of the major sticking points.

“Teens, along with young adults, are more likely than older Americans to say the problem of evil and suffering is a deal breaker for them,” Barna says. “It appears that today’s youth, like so many throughout history, struggle to find a compelling argument for the existence of both evil and a good and loving God.”

Other issues that seem to be stumbling blocks include truth, perceived conflict between religion and science, and lack of acceptance of diversity in religious congregations.

More than one-third of Gen Z (37 percent) believes it is not possible to know for sure if God is real, compared to 32 percent of all adults. “For many teens, truth seems relative at best and, at worst, altogether unknowable,” according to the report. But among teens who do go to church, 49 percent say “the church seems to reject much of what science tells us about the world,” so in the realm of science, relativism doesn’t seem to hold as much sway.

Hypocrisy and lack of tolerance emerge as complaints among non-churchgoers. However, among Gen Z-ers who do go to church, perceptions of a place of worship tend to be more positive than not:

Strong majorities of churched teens say that church “is a place to find answers to live a meaningful life” (82 percent) and “is relevant to my life” (82 percent), that “I can ‘be myself’ in church” (77 percent) and that “people at church are tolerant of those with different beliefs” (63 percent). Negative perceptions have significant currency, however. … One-third [find] “the people at church are hypocritical” (36 percent). Further, one-quarter claims “the church is not a safe place to express doubts” (27 percent) or that the teaching they are exposed to is “rather shallow” (24 percent).

Among those who say attending church is not important to them, three out of five Christian teens say “I find God elsewhere” (61 percent).

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