Many young adults in the U.S. remain engaged in religious faith and practice but have little trust in religious institutions, according to a report from the Springtide Research Institute published in late October.

The institute’s work focuses on young people’s lives (aged 13-25), seeking to provide “quantitative and qualitative research to reflect and amplify the lived realities of young people as they navigate shifting social, cultural and religious landscapes.”

For its The State of Religion & Young People 2020 report, Springtide researchers surveyed more than 10,000 youth and conducted interviews with 150.

“By looking at identity, practice and belief, we move past simple interpretations or assertions about young people’s inner and outer lives and start to see something more complex – and more accurate – emerge,” the report said.

The institute’s March 2020 survey tracks with data from the General Social Survey (GSS) on a significant number of religiously unaffiliated among those ages 18-25.

In 2018, the GSS found that 34% of young adults were unaffiliated (agnostics, atheists or “nones”), with the institute finding that 39% of its survey respondents do not affiliate with a faith tradition. Of this total, 28% are “nones,” 6.5% are atheists and 4.5% are agnostics.

Lack of affiliation increases slightly with age, with 36% of respondents ages 13-17 saying they are unaffiliated, compared to 40% of those ages 18-25.

But neither group should be viewed as a monolith because the unaffiliated are not necessarily anti-religion and the affiliated are not necessarily overly religious.

Around 60% of unaffiliated respondents say they are “slightly spiritual” and 38% that they are religious while 32% “try to live out their religious beliefs in their daily lives,” 19% attend religious services monthly and 12% have become more religious during the past five years.

Forty-seven percent of “nones” say they are religious and 61% that they are spiritual. By comparison, 11% of atheists describe themselves as religious and 42% as spiritual while 24% of agnostics say that they are religious and 65% that they are spiritual.

Among the 61% of young adults who affiliate with a faith tradition, 33% attend religious services once a year or less and the same number do not think having a faith community is important while 20% say they are not religious and the same number that they do not seek to live out their faith in their day-to-day lives.

Overall, a majority of all respondents say that they are at least slightly religious (71%) and that faith in a higher power is important (55%) while 13% say they are “very religious” and 16% that they are “very spiritual.” Just under half (44%) say attending religious services is important.

Trust in religious institutions is low among young adults, with more than half (52%) of religiously affiliated respondents having little or no trust in them.

The report found that organized religion ranked fifth out of 10 entities surveyed in terms of respondents’ trust – behind nonprofit organizations, banks, the medical system and public schools and ahead of media, Congress, big business and the presidency.

In addition, some are finding meaning and purpose in life largely outside of houses of faith. While the report found that 80% say they feel their lives have meaning and purpose at least sometimes, only a third say they participate in any religious gatherings other than worship on a regular basis.

“When we look closer at behaviors, beliefs and practices, we discover that affiliated young people aren’t always doing the things traditionally associated with religion: attending services, living out particular values or even trusting the institution they’re part of,” the report summarized.

“It’s complex for unaffiliated young people too – some of whom do attend religious services or try to live out their religious values. This is why relationships, not affiliation – not membership in a club or even attendance at an organization –can tell us more about the state of religion and young people.”

The full report is available here.

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