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Generation Z and the question of belief

A recent study into Australian teens’ attitudes to religion made headlines for its negative findings – that 52 per cent of Australian teens do not identify with any religion and only 37 per cent believe in God.

The Australian Generation Z study by academics from the ANU, Deakin and Monash, released late last year, found that 38 per cent identify as Christian, with Muslims (3 per cent), Buddhist (2 per cent), Hindu (1 per cent) and other religions (2 per cent ) totalling 46 per cent. Two per cent weren’t sure.

The authors specified that not identifying with any religion did not necessarily mean no faith or spirituality, but that they did not see themselves identifying with any particular group. They found that 58 per cent of teens aged 13 to 18 never attend any worship service and only 12 per cent attend weekly. (That, by the way, is in line with the adult population.)

I may be wearing rose-tinted glasses, but I think these findings are exactly what one would expect, and not desperately negative for religion. Despite the 52 per cent of “nones”, fewer than a quarter (24 per cent) reject the idea of God, while 37 per cent do believe in God and another 30 per cent believe in a higher being or life force (the rest are unsure).

While some commentators dismiss today’s teens as shallow, screen and self-obsessed, in fact most are morally aware and open-minded.

At a time when established religion – along with other institutions such as politics or unions – has never faced greater obstacles, both self-inflicted and from a relentlessly negative mainstream media, it would be astounding if teens were flocking to churches.

In other words, while some commentators dismiss today’s teens as shallow, screen and self-obsessed, in fact most are morally aware and open-minded.

Of course, every generation despairs about the moral standards of the next. That anxiety was one of the key reasons for the colossal success of the 1959 Billy Graham Crusade in Australia, attended by a third of the population.

Does it matter if Christian faith has lost its critical mass in Australia? One of my highest principles is freedom of conscience in religion, including freedom to reject religion, and I readily agree that one does not need religion to be a kind or good person. After all, many people reject religion for perceived moral reasons.

And yet … Christianity, with its focus on love of God and neighbour, expands the moral imagination, the social conscience and awareness of others. I have often argued in The Sunday Age that people motivated by Christianity have immeasurably enriched Australia. So I regret that the DNA of Christian virtues is receding in the general culture that shapes today’s teens.

Yet I also believe that those who seek after truth are likely to find it and that, as Jesus promised (John 8:32), it will set them free.

Barney Zwartz, a senior fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity, was religion editor of The Age from 2002 to 2013.

This article first appeared in The Age.