A redbrick Catholic cathedral is illuminated by the setting afternoon sun.
The St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Newman Center on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. New research from UNL sociology professor Phillip Schwadel showed a significant decline in religion amongst Americans, especially young adullts.

Despite spending nearly the first two decades of his life deeply rooted in religion, Baruch Michaels has increasingly drifted from his faith since coming to college a year ago.

A sophomore business administration major who moved to the United States from Nigeria in 2012, Michaels finds himself straddling two worlds; the safety and certainty of the one his highly religious parents raised him into, and the adventure and mystery of the one he’s discovering on his own.

He compares his situation to trying to run with one foot on land and one foot in the ocean.

“In the ocean, you can swim. On land, you can walk; you can’t do both,” Michaels said. “I know the world’s a dangerous place, but I still want to swim.”

Michaels is just one of many young adults who are increasingly straying from religion in the US, according to a 20-year study conducted by UNL sociology professor Phillip Schwadel, who gave a presentation of his findings during a live webinar at the end of March.

Schwadel 277x300 - UNL students discuss their religious journeys in wake of reported decline among the young
UNL Professor of Sociology Phillip Schwadel. Courtesy photo.

Schwadel’s findings showed that the number of Americans identifying with no religion doubled from 14% in 2000 to 28% in 2021. The currently widening void of religion in the country was especially notable among Generation Z, with 33% reporting no religion at the onset of the 2020s.

“This affects (their well-being),” Schwadel said. “Broadly speaking, we’ve seen that non-religion among young adults is related to health and well-being, marriage, children, sexual behaviors, friendship networks, interacting with different people, and morals and values.”

The underlying factor among these effects isn’t born from a lack of divine purpose, but rather the community-building that religion tends to engender.

However, largely missing from Schwadel’s presentation were the root causes behind this growing disaffection with religion among the American youth, to his own acknowledgment.

Many are being raised without religion by their parents, he said, but many more like Michaels are straying from religion of their own volition despite being well immersed into it in their childhoods.

“I was born in church, raised in church, I know all the ins and outs of that thing,” Michaels said. “On the other hand, there’s a part of religion that makes you not want to be a part of it.”

Being exposed to a far different lifestyle than he’d grown accustomed to has led Michaels to feeling limited by his religion in the ways he can experiment while living on his own. Coupled with the sense that he’s caught between two worlds, Michaels has decided to step away from religion for the time being.

While Schwadel’s research showed many young adults straying from religion early in their lives, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Cameron Horner is a sophomore construction management major at UNL. Raised Catholic before giving it up in his adolescent years, Horner’s early journey with religion mirrors aspects of Schwadel’s findings.

His perspective drastically changed recently when he encountered a pair of missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ, a Christian Restorationist sect that incorporates pieces of the New Testament as well as the Book of Mormon into its teachings.

Though he hsdn’t been lacking a sense of community at UNL, Horner said a longing for direction and meaning in his life has partially contributed to his religious reawakening, coupled with
the missionaries’ willingness to engage with his skepticism, which he believes has become an inherent quality across much of Generation Z.

“They met me where I was,” Horner said. “They were there to show religion to me and give me the option, not convince me.”

One especially confounding aspect for Generation Z’s adoption of religion in the US is the abundance of information and conflicting ideas at their fingertips thanks to the widespread adoption of the internet they’ve matured into, according to Horner.

“In previous generations, the only experiences they had with society was, like, their families,” he said. “Whereas we can look at anywhere in the world and say, ‘Wow, that’s cool. That’s the way I would rather do things,’ and it can be completely culturally different.”

For Michaels, the wealth of information has also fueled his own separation from religion.

“You hear stories about pastors taking advantage of the church or top ministers taking advantage of young girls, young men, (charity donations) being taken,” Michaels said. “And I’m just like, ‘If this is how I’m supposed to live, I don’t want it.”

During a Q&A session after his presentation, when asked by UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green about the role the internet has played in the religion disaffiliation, Schwadel said he “(hadn’t) really thought about it” coming into the talk.

He said that while it might play a part in moving the needle, it wasn’t likely a major factor, and in fact might be helping to increase religious adoption, and that the trend has preceded the internet’s widespread adoption in the late 90s.

“It’s been a strength in some ways about keeping people connected in ways they couldn’t have been otherwise,” Schwadel said. “(The decline) began really before the advent of the internet.”

According to Schwadel, the future trends in adoption of religion aren’t likely to reverse, and argued for focusing on fostering a sense of community for all citizens. He pointed to one material solution represented by an increasing growth in secular congregations in Europe being spreadheaded by the London-based Sunday Assembly organization that has in part expanded thanks to its digital presence.

Nonetheless, Horner still sees a potential for drawing other young people back towards religion by shifting the priorities in how it’s approached, in order to demonstrate the same value he said he’s found in it.

“Honestly, I don’t think children should learn about religion until they are old enough to really understand true morality and what values are good from a societal standpoint,” Horner said. “We are in an age where we need to be more focused on how we treat each other before we try to figure out all the existential (things).”

Michaels, meanwhile, said he has no intention of leaving his faith behind forever, though he feels a need to live outside the moral and existential framework of religion.

“I am positive that I will eventually go back,” he said. “Right now, I just want to have fun, do my thing.”