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What My Gen Z Friends Think of Religion
Two Jews, a Muslim, a Pagan, and two Agnostics log into a Zoom call.
Human beings don’t want to be lonely. Almost every night, a group of my close friends is on a “Discord” video call from our various cities and states, sometimes playing video games, sometimes doing anything else we can to not feel lonely. Mostly it’s video games, though. Turns out, video games and group calls aren’t enough to assuage the loneliness of being alive.
Instead of video games one night, we sat on a Zoom call and talked about religion. Gen Z is one of several generations to be considered less religious than their parents, a descending trend that throws religious, political, and economic structures into question. Much like anything with Gen Z, though, it’s not that simple.
It isn’t quite a shirking of spiritual duties for the siren call of secularism, nor is it an overarching nihilism and self-absorption that makes God less important than the self. It’s a method of connection, something we continue to seek in all its forms: connection with ourselves, with others, and with whatever may lie in the universe.
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This conversation with my friends is by no means an encapsulation of all of our generation’s experiences and views on religion. There are many paths and opinions not represented, and this is not meant to be a definitive guide on what young people want from the world around them. But our reliance on the internet and clickbait for information flattens the narrative, turning Gen Z into a single figure behind an iPhone. So below, there is an earnest discussion of what religion means to us and what we mean to it.
This discussion has been edited for length and clarity, and Beyond Belief’s editor chimed in with questions in a few places, which we hope could form the basis of further conversation.
Blue-eyed Jew: Can we just go around and say what we believe in?
X Marx the Spot: Honestly, for the context of my experience, it’s important to understand that today I am a liberal, straight white man, and my experience is that. I frequently will be an atheist, and then I will frequently be agnostic. But I promise you it's nothing other than those 2 things.
Blue Eyed Jew: I don’t know if you can frequently be both.
X Marx the Spot: How about if I’m infrequently both of them?
Blue-eyed Jew: I think that works. Wizard?
Wizard: I forgot that was my nickname. I was looking around for a Wizard. I describe myself as a pagan, which is an umbrella term for parts of what I believe in and parts of what I kind of bring into daily thought processes and those big question moments before going to sleep.
Saul (Paul before he liked God): I should say that I am formerly Catholic, baptized and raised as such, and the bare minimum practice up through high school. But currently, I would describe myself as somewhere between an agnostic and an atheist.
X Marx the Spot: You gotta give yourself some credit; you say the bare minimum, but you pulled out that reference [Saul (Paul before he liked God)] from your a**. That sounds like practicing.
Saul (Paul before he liked God): I just paid attention in school. But I am mostly an agnostic in belief but an atheist when it comes to organizations. I believe that it would be naive to say that there might not be something out there. However, in terms of current belief systems and the people who run those belief systems, I am not a member, I do not want to be a member, nor do I agree with a lot of what is done through those belief systems.
Blue-eyed Jew: (interrupting) Stop vaping while we're talking about God.
X Marx the Spot: What else are you supposed to do when you talk about God?
Wizard: That’s all I’m going to do.
Salam: For most of my life, I have identified as a Muslim. But around high school, I started to drift away. I practice aspects of the religion that I can get behind, but it's hard to believe that there is God. I have tended to go towards science and how small we are compared to the universe. Who's to say that there isn't other stuff out there? But I don't know how to really describe it.
Blue-eyed Jew: Shalomie Homie, not like we all can't guess already.
Shalomie Homie: The religion in my life growing up is heavily cultural Judaism. ¾ of my grandparents are Jews, and the grandparent I get my last name from is an old-school, God-fearing Christian. It’s informed by how I was raised, with a very, very liberal reform California Judaism. I would say I’m culturally Jewish, but like what do I believe in–why are you guys laughing?
Wizard: I’m really sorry; I just saw X Marx the Spot’s feet wiggling in his mirror.
Blue-eyed Jew: That’s all I’m going to look at now.
[X Marx the Spot wiggles his feet more]
Shalomie Homie: I believe that something in the universe connects us, but I think the higher power I believe in is probably closer to Buddhism and Hinduism in basis, but I’m not a part of a named practice that I would identify as spiritual. I’m agnostic, I guess, believing in something higher but not God.
Blue-eyed Jew: I was never really clear on what makes an agnostic.
Shalomie Homie: I thought of it as like the in-between step between an atheist and a religious person, like, “I'm not saying that there isn't one, but I don't know what it is.”
Saul (Paul before he liked God): Agnosticism does come from Christianity because agnostics were initially…
X Marx the Spot: We’re not denying it; we’re just laughing because he was like, “I’m the smartest guy in the Zoom call.”
Shalomie Homie: We’re trying to have an actual conversation.
X Marx the Spot: No one’s asked a question!
Blue-eyed Jew: I haven’t even introduced myself.
X Marx the Spot: You’re the blue-eyed Jew. Like the Yugioh card (game).
Blue-eyed Jew: Jew-gioh card. Well, similarly, I am culturally Jewish. My dad is Jewish, but I had less of a Jewish influence in my upbringing, and it was very much something that I chose out of a sense of protest. You hear about how your family was driven out of Russia, then, 20 years later, they were killing all the Jews in Europe. Today people are shooting up synagogues, there are swastikas all over the place, and it's kind of hard to not think, “Well, no, f*** you. I'm going to do more now,” which has actually been a pretty big force behind my calling myself a Jew. But I have a feeling that in 10 years, I will genuinely be able to call myself more Jewish than I am now. But it is interesting that a key part of my identity, and something that does frankly put me in a little bit of danger, is going to be heightened over the course of my life. But since you want a question, I’m curious if any of you that aren't religious feel a loss in your life because that spiritual presence isn't there.
X Marx the Spot: I have gained so much from there not being a presence. In fact, I feel more in tune with myself, knowing that I’m no longer under the pressure of some 2,000-year-old bull****. One of the things that had always frustrated me was when I was growing up the logic behind my parents in raising me as a Christian, as an Episcopal specifically–which was a choice because I was raised by a Baptist and a Catholic, and they had to make a decision that appeased the New York Catholics and the Southern Baptists. My mother would say that they raised me in religion because it was a great way to learn morals, which always drove me f***ing crazy because I was like, “Why do I have to learn morals from these stories when there are real things in life that I can learn morals from? I have parents for that.”
Shalomie Homie: You say that “I've parents to learn this from.” But if they're modeling that from a book, that's where they believe that they draw their morals from.
Editor: What are morals? Where do they come from?
X Marx the Spot: My point is I didn't need to learn about crossing the desert, making wine, or blinding people. Those aren't tangible things that are ever going to benefit me in my life because I am never going to be presented with the opportunity to do something like that. It didn't happen back then. It's not going to happen now…
Blue-eyed Jew: You can still wander in the desert if you want to.
X Marx the Spot: Yeah, great. I could also go hike up a mountain and sacrifice my son or something like that. I think there's a story about that.
Salam: Actually, that story is part of why I want to deny that there is a God because that story is Abraham taking his son to the mountain, and God was like, “I command you to go slaughter your son,” essentially a test of Abraham’s faith. And when he got up top of the mountain and was fully ready to sacrifice his son, God swapped him out with a cow…pretty sure it was a cow or sheep.
Wizard: It's the best verbiage you can use for the cow.
Salam: Thank you. And it was so special; it's Eid, one of the holidays that we celebrate in Islam. But how can you put someone through that?
Editor: A lot of people go through very rough situations in life. If life has no meaning, then those challenges are meaningless. If it has meaning, then we need to try and understand why we go through what we do. But how does the story invalidate the possibility of God? Seems like a non-sequitur.
Shalomie Homie: So that thousands of years later, two north-east, culturally Jewish girls could produce a silly play based on it. [Context: Blue-eyed Jew wrote a play based on the Binding of Isaac, which Shalomie Homie directed. They think it’s pretty funny.]
X Marx the Spot: How did this turn into a plug for your play?
Shalomie Homie: You mentioned that specific story!
[Getting back on track has been cut out]
X Marx the Spot: I had to go to like school church, I went to an Episcopal school growing up, and we went to church every Tuesday and Thursday, and the only reason I was excited to go was that there was this pretty girl that I got an assigned seat next to, and we made shadow puppets on the pews in front of us. That's what I was excited to do. It was never “Oh, I want to go learn about God.” I do believe in spirit. I do not associate it in any way with religion because I think that it is impossible, improbable, that we have an understanding of it. I don't care about God, but I do care about spirit, not in the way that I worship spirit or that I think that it is something that needs to guide me in any principal way. I do believe that there is a soul–I don't like using the word soul because of the religious connotations–or a spirit or an essence. The reason that I bounce back and forth between being an atheist and an agnostic is that there is a spirit that leads me to believe that there is something beyond.
Editor: What is the difference between Spirit and God that would cause you to believe in one and not the other? Would religion seem less onerous if it could be shown that the central tenets of most of them revolve around the “spirit” and the “something beyond” that you refer to?
Blue-eyed Jew: My parents very specifically did the opposite of your parents, and they raised me without religion. My dad is Jewish, and my mom is a very intentionally lapsed Catholic. As a kid, I used to complain to them that we didn't go to church or we didn't go to synagogue because I felt that was a community that I didn't have. Part of it was that we were living in a really rural area. We were probably the only Jews in a 5-mile radius. They eventually brought us to a Unitarian Universalist Church, and I hated it because I had to wake up early on a Sunday. But it did make me realize that part of the wonderful thing about religion isn't so much the actual religion part of it; it's the community that you create, which is also really tricky if your community is engaging in practices or belief systems that you disagree with on a moral level, whether those morals come from the religious text that you're talking about or not.
Shalomie Homie: I think that's one of the things that was emphasized to me growing up. I really wasn't raised with what you would call religion. We do some of the major holidays, and sometimes it would just be at home or with family. Sometimes we would go to an event with the community, very much focused on music and food and gathering together, and community service. It was more about what you could call morals or values of certain types of Judaism than it being just about God. I didn't really think about what not having a higher power meant until I had a lot of people pass away in my family over the past 6 months, and one of the funerals I went to is my biological grandfather, the one Christian part of the family that we really don't interact with much. My dad didn't talk to his father for many years. He was an alcoholic, and part of AA, which helped and was very based on Christianity. Going to his funeral with that part of the family, I saw the genuine comfort that people who are firm believers were getting. If you have that full faith, that full belief in a higher power that is merciful and making decisions, I'm sure that does provide a certain amount of comfort, especially in hard times like that.
Salam: There was a community for us, but it wasn't really geared toward the youth. A lot of our like gatherings, our Friday prayers were in Arabic. It was really geared towards the parents, those that have immigrated here, and those were the mosques that were around at the time. So there wasn't really a place where I felt like I had a community of other people that were my age. Recently, because they have finally started to pay attention to the youth, my brother has become much more religious than I am because there’s a community around him. A lot of his friends are also there because they've geared it more toward the children. I don’t feel like I missed out because the things that I was hearing were of a vengeful God, and I didn't really like the idea of that. We are continuously being told to be good, and we have this moral system based on this religion. And like, if you don't follow these steps, you go to hell. But if I’m a good person, just a good person, I don't harm anyone else, I don't do s*** to anyone else, like a genuinely good person, and there is a God, then I should be fine. There was a time when I thought like I’d grow up and become more religious. I don't think that's gonna happen.
Saul (Paul before he liked God): Funny enough, my parents were not as strict with the religion as it seems they would be since they sent me to private Catholic school all my life. My dad was probably the most religious. He tried to get us all to keep going to church and keep doing the things we should be. But eventually, life got so busy that we just stopped. Honestly, if it wasn't for Catholic school, I would have changed from being a Catholic long before I did. I questioned a lot, I always had my own moral compass, and admittedly some of it was still in line with the religion. So do I feel like I've lost anything? No. Because Catholic guilt is a real thing. The emotional toll that it took on me, there were so many moments I can think of up through middle school at least where I've cried because of like, “Wow! I'm a bad person. I’ve fallen from God.” So I am so much happier now. Because I know what my morals are and because I don't have that emotional toll.
Editor: A lot of people seem to associate religion with Divine vengeance, but there are many verses that say things like: “My steadfast love shall not depart from you, and My covenant of peace shall not be removed.” How do you explain the Divine schizophrenia, and why does the emphasis always seem to be on the God of Vengence/consequences vs. the God of Love?
X Marx the Spot: I do have a specific question for Wizard, which is that I've met your parents, and I love them deeply, more than maybe my own. Are they religious? And how the f*** did you end up what you are?
Wizard: I was raised not really religious. But as a kid, my mom was like, “We should probably start going to church on Sundays.” I later came to realize that the church was a Unitarian Universalist church. It's more of just like a community table; it was just really nice coming together and talking. We did the equivalent of Sunday School, you went in, and this week we’d talking about Islam; after that, we'd go over Buddhism, and Hinduism, just like a taste of everything. Eventually, we got to Paganism, which is a ridiculously stereotyped term. That was the one that my 12-year-old brain was like, “Oh, yeah, that seems all right.”
The reason it stuck out to me is that all the other ones, especially the Abrahamic trio, kind of feel like a book club. They all just kind of felt like a book club every week, and they're talking about this story that they really liked, they really liked it a lot. They base their whole lives on it. And I was like, “Okay, I get it. There are some good morals here.” But I could never get behind the Catholic Church being like, “Because Jesus did it. We gotta do it that way.” So Paganism is all about “If it exists in nature. it's probably good.” And I was like, “Yeah, that's a good start.” And then it was like, “If nature existed, what made that? And what made the thing before that? Let's just call it God for now; we'll get back to that.” The other big thing that got me, apart from it being not a book club, was that you didn’t have to do anything. Do you like it? Okay, cool. It's on you.
Blue-eyed Jew: I remember when some of us were living together during the pandemic, we celebrated a pagan holiday, Samhain. I thought it was really fun while we were living together; we kind of did a little sample platter of each other's religions. We also did Hanukkah, and we did a very informal Christmas. Well, we had a tree, but we put the tree up on November first, right after we were literally done with Samhain.
X Marx the Spot: I put llamas on that tree. It was pretty nondenominational.
Wizard: They were alpacas.
X Marx the Spot: During a phase where we had no money at all, we spent $40 on a disco ball star from Michael's.
Shalomie Homie: In high school, my 2 best friends were a practicing Muslim and a Christian. My friend and I would get so excited about Christmas, and there'd be a little joke about “The Jew and the Muslim are getting super excited about Christmas?” What we were getting excited about was trees and Christmas movies and cookies, part of the culture. Not like, today, Jesus was born.
X Marx the Spot: I have a question about what Saul was talking about earlier with Catholic guilt, which I don't have because I was never a Catholic. But one of the arguments that I would get into with a number of my family members was about how I thought religion was ridiculous because it was all just built on this fear that you would be punished for not believing something that really had such little basis other than “Take my word, trust me, Dude.”
The argument that my father had against it was that it wasn't about fear; it was about hope. It's the only thing that he's ever said where I thought, “Oh, you know what, that kind of makes some sense to me.” I'm pretty jaded to the idea of religion; I do believe that a large source of evil in our world comes from the conflicting beliefs of people. But then, when I think about it in the context of my father, he's hopeful of religion because he watched his sister die at a very young age, and he's hopeful that she's in a better place. It might be the only thing that wears on me because I don't believe that there is a place where my dad's sister is other than six feet under, which is a harsh reality. And I’m curious about what you guys have felt in terms of hope.
Shalomie Homie: There's also so much Jewish guilt. But I think, fundamentally, where all of that comes from is when the religion is very organized in a structure. It is more the organization and very tied to these ideas of power. Some of the more cultural aspects or communal aspects that we've all been talking about, like “This is all right. This piece of it feels right to what I think I believe.” We're in an era where so many structures of cultural and religious, and political power are being completely shaken up and questioned. And there's extremity and nuance facilitated by technology. I think our generation is interacting with religion in such a different way that, in some way, some of the structures are trying to change before we let go of the structures completely. But I think a lot of us have already lost the structures because they don't serve us in the ways we need them to. And so we're going to take what we do need, whether that is spiritual or larger, or communal, or whatever it may be, and reinterpret it in our own way.
Saul (Paul before he liked God): Fun fact from psychology: morals and religion have no ties to each other. Your beliefs may overlap, but what your moral, what your morality is has nothing to do with what your religious beliefs are.
Blue-eyed Jew: That’s why it hurts me when you see religious leaders or people that are really prominent in certain religions that claim to preach love and peace and acceptance and tolerance and all of these things, and then you see them getting busted for these really hateful beliefs, or incredibly violent, abusive treatment of people, especially children. One of the reasons that I think that it hurts so badly is that it’s forcing us to confront this distinction between religion and morality. I truly do believe that some of the worst things in human history have been done in the name of religion and have been done in the name of God. But I still don't believe that religion is a force of evil. If anything, I think that it's neutral. It's all about how we use it. And frankly, we're not using it properly, but fortunately, the social and structural shake-ups are easier now because the dissemination of information is a lot easier.
Saul (Paul before he liked God): Well, the problem with the organization is that speaking from a Catholic background, Catholic leaders are some of the worst in terms of crime and the things that they do to people. You can't look at religious beliefs when it comes to those people. Those are just horrible people hiding behind an organization–but also that organization lets them hide. There are some people who are like, “I believe in the Bible. I believe in all the good things that Jesus did, all, all X, Y, and Z”, and then they question, ridicule, or condemn the actions of certain religious leaders.
But then there are those who follow a specific group of Christianity and say that they are a member. And then their religious leading figure, like the highest one in that group, says that this is the official belief of this group.” And then someone says, “I don't believe this; this is not what this group is about,” and then still stays with that group. You may have your beliefs; I'm not questioning your beliefs, but why are you sticking with the group that is so vehemently against what you believe in? I guess it's the whole community thing where they just want community, even for the sake of sticking with bad people. I do believe that there are good beliefs out there, and people need their beliefs at points, and there are absolutely benefits to believing in certain religions. But when it comes to the organizations, not so much.
Editor: What is the issue with religion being “organized?” Would you want an institution like Medicaid or the Academy of Arts and Sciences, for instance, to be unorganized? Doesn’t the organizational aspect provide them with things like longevity, cohesion, and effectiveness?
Wizard: This is another big reason I look towards Paganism as the whole organized religion thing. The problem that I think a lot of people, especially in our generation, are seeing is that when you organize something that's inherently good, which I believe that religion is, and strip it away from all the people preaching it, controlling it, strip it down to not even the text but what it's actually talking about, just a way to organize your life: I think that's an okay thing to follow. Granted that it's not manipulating you inherently.
The problem is that society takes religion and goes, “ I believe this as a person, so therefore, we should organize a society around that.” That's where things get really fun because then you're just putting beliefs on others, and you're making this hierarchy based on a hierarchy that shouldn't exist in the first place into a legal system. Right now, with people in our generation, we're pinpointing that aspect of it and saying, “Hey, wait, this is all built on some random bull**** from a thing that we don't believe in, and it's been like that for a bit.”
X Marx the Spot: You bring up the government, too, which is an interesting point, I know, but inherently tied together. This is my opinion, you guys can totally disagree, but I think every religious organization should be taxed. F*** your s***! Tax it all. Not one of them, not a couple of them. Every one of them, the Spaghetti Monster included. The idea that they're exempt leads to people using it also as a way to get rich, to scam, and to take advantage of a system.
Blue-eyed Jew: A little bit of a broader look at the government and religion is that you have places like France that are so stubbornly secular. They are so secular that they end up just using it as an excuse to continue to perpetrate structural harm against people of “other” religions.
Shalomie Homie: There was a philosophical mathematician who created a reason for why you should believe in God. Not that there is one, but that is why you should. I apply it to ghosts. If there is a God, and you believe in him, her, them, whatever, and they do exist, then maybe when you die, cool stuff happens. If there isn't one, no consequence. But if you don't, then you're possibly losing out on the chance of the cool thing after death. This is how I apply it to ghosts. When people are going to hunt ghosts, I’m like, “I don't know if they exist, but I would rather assume that they do and not go f***ing with them.”
Saul (Paul before he liked God): Part of the reason my agnosticism kind of comes back and forth is that Neil Degrasse Tyson has a wonderful conversation about what happens when we die. The idea is that something in the universe connects us all and that when we die, some part of us goes back into the universe to join everything, going back into the creation of things.
Blue-eyed Jew: We don't represent every part of our generation, but something that I find really interesting is this idea that all of us are taking what serves us and leaving behind what doesn't. When you look at a lot of the talk that's going on about us, you see the same thing repurposed in different packages, depending on what they're talking about. They're only taking this part of the workplace culture that they want, and they're leaving the traditional 9 to 5 behind. That's exactly what we're doing with religion in these spiritual ways and also logistical ways. Jews aren't supposed to get married until there are 3 stars in the sky, which means that you get married at night. I've always wanted to get married in the afternoon, so it's like, “Well, what do I pick? Do I take this piece of my religion that doesn't really serve me, or do I abide by it?”
X Marx the Spot: The sun's a star.
Blue-eyed Jew: There’s not three of them.
X Marx the Spot: The stars are there in the sky all the time!
Wizard: That's how space works.
X Marx the Spot: Come on, Jews got them space lasers. We know you guys have telescopes, too.
Blue-eyed Jew: This is how the piece is going to end. I'm not kidding. This is how we're ending it.
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