Young Adults Around the World Are Atheist. Why?

Generational Gap in Religious Affiliation
Growing up Catholic and attending a private Catholic school from kindergarten to 8th grade, I was sheltered and confined to the little bubble of an environment that I knew. With a graduating class of only 15 people, my teachers, my family and even all my friends were catholic as well. Being Catholic was just a part of who I was.
When I got to my public high school, I met new people from different backgrounds and different religions. Some were Jewish, others were Muslim and yet others considered themselves atheist or agnostic. It was obvious to me that my previous assumptions that everybody shared the same Catholic background and religious beliefs were completely wrong. In fact, at school, I knew more non-religious people than I did religious people. I began to question my faith and when speaking to my middle school friends, I noticed them doing the same.
I quickly noticed a trend. Younger generations in America are not as religious as previous generations. Pew Research Center states that 63% of teens aged 13 to 17 identify with one of the branches of Christianity, 4% identify with non-Christian religions and 32% identify as religiously unaffiliated. This is a stark nine percentage point difference when compared to their parents, with 72% identifying with a branch of Christianity and only 24% identifying as religiously unaffiliated. This difference could be for a variety of reasons but two of the largest ones include political developments and technological and social developments in the United States, such as increased access to the internet and social media in particular.

Political Developments
Despite the notion that church should be separate from state, developments within American politics have had a significant effect on Americans’ affiliation with religion. For example, one can see this when looking at the LGBTQ+ movement and the effect that it has had on American politics. The rapid growth of this controversial movement has had a significant impact on the American political scene, garnering attention and debates over potential changes in legislation. Democrats taking a largely secular political stance have been proponents of the movement whereas Republicans, on the other hand, have taken a traditional stance, appealing to religion and citing the Catholic Church as opposition to the LGBTQ+ movement.
The effect that this political debate has had on the adolescent population of the United States is clear to see with sources reporting that “nearly two-thirds of Generation Z between the ages of 18 and 25 say they are worried about the state of LGBTQ+ rights in the U.S.” Furthermore, the UCLA Williams Institute reports, “Public support for lesbians and gay men has doubled in the past three decades.” With public support for LGBTQ+ rights growing and becoming a more pressing political issue, it has also become increasingly divisive.
As seen through the statistics above, public support for LGBTQ+ rights has grown significantly, especially with Generation Z. Younger generations’ increasing support of the movement has driven them away from many of the largest religions such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), Islam, the Orthodox Jewish Movement and more who oppose LGBTQ+ ideals. Anti-LGBTQ+ stances and political stances by religious congregations have proven to be an issue for those who have left their congregations. According to Aspen Institute, among those who have identified as non-religiously affiliated, “29% cite negative religious teachings on LGBTQ+ people as a reason for leaving and 16% state that they left because their congregations became too focused on politics.”

The Role of Media
Another factor in this youth movement away from religion is the growth of the internet and social media. Access to these resources has led to a never-before-seen interconnected world, especially between adolescents around the world. With access to the internet changing the world we live in, kids and adolescents growing up with technology are exposed to a much more diverse amount of information than previous generations have ever been.
Naturally, being exposed to diverse perspectives will lead members of any worldview to start questioning it out of curiosity. This is especially relevant in teens, as they are more impressionable than adults. A recent study published in 2023 surveyed 1,000 teenagers aged 13 to 19, collecting data on “media consumption habits, self-reported behavior, and well-being.” The results show that “60% reported changes in their behavior, such as purchasing decisions [and]lifestyle choices, directly influenced by media and marketing.” This shows the power and influence that the media can have over the teenage mind.
This is further exacerbated by the amount of time that teens spend on the internet and watching television. A study published in 2013 reveals that 30% of teenage girls spend about 25 hours a week watching TV or surfing the internet and 47% of boys spend more than 35 hours a week watching TV or surfing the internet.
Relating to religion, the internet and media can be a positive for religion as they can help members of religious groups stay connected more easily without physical contact and spread the word about upcoming religious events. However, much more commonly, the internet and media can be turned into a negative for religion as it often covers radical members of religious groups. A study published in 2016 by the American Friends Service Committee explains that “news media covers violent responses to conflict far more often than nonviolent responses.” Examples of this can be seen with CNN covering the violence of Christians with Confederate flags in 2015.
It is worth noting that the media also disproportionately covers Islamic violence. Georgia State University News reports, “Terror attacks carried out by Muslims receive on average 357 percent more media coverage than those committed by other groups.” This shows media bias against certain religious groups is not only possible but also happening. Combining the impact that media has on teens with the obvious power and influence they have in people’s perceptions of certain groups, it is understandable why teens are moving away from religions that have been getting a bad rep in the media. Previous generations have never had access to so much information at their fingertips which may be why this trend has not been noticed in previous generations.
With these new inputs of information, many adolescents have the opportunity to learn more about their religion and other religions from the internet rather than just from their parents and their communities like previous generations. This new access to information has led to different outcomes. Some become more religious, but more commonly, adolescents are becoming increasingly disaffiliated with religion. The intense role of media, combined with the politicization of different religious groups, has driven younger generations away from religion.