American teenagers and their parents have a lot in common when it comes to religion, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center—“though not quite as much as the parents may think.”
The report analyzes the responses of more than 1,800 U.S. teens and one of their parents, each of whom took separate online questionnaires exploring such topics as their concepts of God, ways of praying, religious beliefs and doubts, and notions of morality.
“Pew Research Center gets so many questions nowadays from people wanting to know what Generation Z thinks,” says Elizabeth Sciupac, a senior researcher on the Center’s domestic religion team and co-author of the report, referring to the moniker for those born after 1996. “This survey doesn’t begin to answer all of that, but it does start to flesh out a picture of what they look like religiously.”
Among the findings:
- Parents are more likely than teens to say that religion is very important in their lives—and to overestimate rather than underestimate how important religion is to their teen. For instance, far fewer teens (24%) than parents (43%) say that religion is very important in their lives.
- Teenagers attend religious services about as often as their parents, but 38% say they attend mainly because mom or dad want them to. Thirty-five percent say they attend because they want to.
- Most U.S. teens ages 13-17 share the religious affiliation of one or both parents.
- Eight in 10 parents who identify as evangelical Protestants have a teen who identifies as such. But little more than half the teenage children of mainline Protestants identify the same way their parents do, and about one-quarter of mainline Protestant parents have a teen who is religiously unaffiliated.
The report marked some new territory for the Center’s religion research, says Sciupac, “in part because the religion team doesn’t do a lot with teens.” Asking respondents to speculate on how another respondent might answer certain questions was also a novel approach for the team, she says.
“Some of what I loved most about this survey were the answers we got to open-ended questions, where people had a chance to write in their own responses,” Sciupac says. “We see teens grappling with big questions, like `Why does God let people die?’ And they have these really well-thought-out answers.”
“It was wonderful how much came up in our conversation,” says Lilace Guignard of Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, after she and son Gabe, 16, took a short version of the original Pew questionnaire modified for this article. “He’s much more thoughtful about all this than I knew to expect.”
Like the original survey, the short version queried Lilace and Gabe on such topics as their frequency of prayer, belief in God, and denominational identity. It, too, asked what each thought the other’s answer to certain questions might be.
Gabe answered that religion is “very important” to him and supposed his mom would say the same. To his surprise, she ranked it “fairly important” because, she explained, religious identities “have a tendency to divide people.”
Both Lilace and Gabe identify as Presbyterian, and they attended church services together nearly every week before the pandemic. But neither knew until they took the questionnaire that the other prays once a day, or that they both favor conversational, informal prayer over formal recitation. “I said I pray at night,” says Lilace, a part-time teacher of creative writing, outdoor recreation leadership, and women’s studies at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania. “And he said, `Yeah, me, too.’”
As they talked further they discovered each feels a special devotion to God—whom Lilace conceives as God the Creator, and Gabe as God the Father. “The talk he and I had focused on how we experienced God firsthand through the natural world, and how this was the foundation for our absolute certainty about God,” says Lilace. “It was a wonderful thing to discover we shared this.”
The survey’s findings “give us an up-to-date view of how teens are not only experiencing religion for themselves but also with their families,” says Sciupac, as well as “how much they feel obligated, how much they feel engaged, what is shaping their religious lives. I think that can bring a lot to the table for a variety of groups who are interested in these things.”
The report’s data analysis mined a larger religious attitudes survey that the Center conducted in 2019. “This report tried to capture how teenagers and one parent interact when it comes to religion,” says Sciupac, and “how they align and don’t align.”
The analysis examined the results of a self-administered web survey conducted in March and April 2019 among 1,811 adolescents ages 13-17 and one parent per child, in both English and Spanish. Released in September 2020, the report’s full title is “U.S. Teens Take After Their Parents Religiously, Attend Services Together and Enjoy Family Rituals.”
About two-thirds of adolescents taking the survey say they identify with a religion, with about one-quarter identifying as Catholic and 21% as evangelical Christian. The evangelical teens say religion is “very important” in their lives nearly twice as often as those of other Christian groups and are also far likelier to believe in God “with absolute certainty,” attend religious services weekly, and pray daily.
If the major Christian traditions are counted separately, however, those who identify as “nones” (that is, agnostic, atheist, or “nothing in particular”) make up the single largest religious category among teens, at 32%.
The survey’s sample size was not large enough to allow for analysis of the views of some religious groups, including Black Protestant denominations, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Orthodox Christian churches, and non-Christian faiths.
Among the parents who took the survey, 57% were mothers. Although mothers are typically involved when one parent is more engaged in the religious upbringing of children, the survey found that teens identified about equally with their father’s religious beliefs (50%) and their mother’s (47%).
Among the report’s other findings:
- About 70% of teens and parents accurately estimated how important religion was to the other. But when they estimated incorrectly, parents overestimated its importance 69% of the time, while teens underestimated its importance for mom or dad 55% of the time.
- Less religious parents are likely to have teens who are also less religious. Eighty percent of parents who say that religion is “not too important” or “not at all important” in their lives have a teen who feels the same way.
- Half of teens say they hold all the same religious beliefs as their parents, but among those who say their beliefs differ, a third say the parent is unaware.
What do these findings say about the future of religion in America, whose young adult population has grown markedly less religious in recent decades? Sciupac and her colleagues urge a cautious reading.
“While it is possible that these adolescents will ultimately be equally or more religious than current young adults,” they write in the report, “this survey neither supports nor contradicts such a hypothesis.
In fact, previous research has suggested that much of the movement away from religion among adults occurs after they come of age, move out of their childhood homes, or otherwise gain a measure of independence from their parents.”
What’s more, the researchers note, “religion varies across the life course, often declining in late adolescence and early adulthood, and then increasing as people age, form new relationships, start their own families, and mature into later adulthood.”
David O’Reilly was the longtime religion reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer.
America’s Overdose Crisis
Sign up for our five-email course explaining the overdose crisis in America, the state of treatment access, and ways to improve care