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New research shows Australian teens have complex views on religion and spirituality

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The 2016 Census suggested about a third of Australian teens had no religion. But ask a teenager themselves about religion, rather than the parent or guardian filling in the census form, and the picture is slightly different.

According to our new national survey, at least half of teens say they are “religious nones” - those who do not identify with a religion or religious group. Digging deeper, we found a more complicated picture of faith and spirituality among young Australians. Most Gen Z teens have little to do with organised religion in their personal lives, while a significant proportion are interested in different ways of being spiritual.

Migration, diversity, secularisation and a burgeoning spiritual marketplace challenge the notion that we are a “Christian” country. More than any other group, teenagers are at the forefront of this remaking of Australian religion. Their daily experience of secondary school and social media sees them bumping into all kinds of difference. Teens are forming their own strong views about existential matters.

Our national study by scholars from ANU, Deakin and Monash – the AGZ Study – comprises 11 focus groups with students in Years 9 and 10 (ages 15-16) in three states, a nationally representative telephone survey of 1,200 people aged 13-18, and 30 in-depth, follow-up interviews.

So what do we know about the religious and spiritual lives of Generation Z teens? We deployed a powerful form of statistical analysis to identify six different “types” that move beyond conventional understandings of religious or nonreligious identity. The categories take into account religious and spiritual beliefs and practices, self-understandings and attitudes to the universe.

To ensure the types were more than computer-generated assumptions, we interviewed at least five teens from each group, checking that it all made sense.

Here are the six spirituality types we found.

This-worldly. This largest group accounts for 23% of Australian teens. “This-wordly” young people have no space in their worldview for religious, spiritual or non-material possibilities. They never or rarely go to services of worship and don’t identify with a religion.

Because none of them believes in God, they are technically atheists. But not all of them identify with that label, nor do they see themselves as humanists or secularists.

They have no truck with other spiritual possibilities, whether that is belief in reincarnation or horoscopes. The majority of them agree with the statement that the physical world is the only thing that exists. Their thinking is entirely “this-worldly”, or as one of them put it: “science-y”.

Religiously committed. Making up 17% of Australian teens, the religiously committed stand in stark contrast to the “this-worldly” teens. Religious faith, whether that is Christian (mainly Pentecostal and evangelical), Islam or something else, is a big part of their lives.

The very large majority of this group attend services of worship regularly, report affective religious experiences, and believe there is life after death. Almost all of them agree that religious faith is important in shaping how they live their lives.

Seekers. Intriguingly different from both these “committed” groups are the exploratory Seekers, a small but vital 8% of teens. Their worldview is decidedly eclectic. They almost all self-describe as “spiritual”. This finds expression in belief in life after death, and repeated experiences of a presence or power that is different from their everyday selves.

Seekers have a decidedly eclectic worldview, seeking out their spiritual truth. They most likely consult their horoscopes, have seen a psychic, or both. At the same time, they identify with a religion and believe in God or a higher being.

This-worldly, Religiously committed and Seeker teens all represent decisive groupings of religious, nonreligious and seeker spirituality. The remainder of Australia’s teens are oriented towards one of these trajectories, but with less conviction.

Spiritual but not religious. Sitting between the This-worldly and Seekers is a group we call Spiritual but not Religious, represented by 18% of teens in Australia. God, faith and religion are not important to them, but the door is open to spiritual possibilities, including issues such as life after death, reincarnation, and belief in a higher being (but not really God).

Indifferent. As might be expected, one group is largely indifferent or undecided about all of it: religion, spirituality and atheism. Following the lead from scholars overseas, we call this group Indifferent. They comprise about 15% of Australian teens.

Nominally religious. This group is largely culturally religious, following the religious identity of their parents, guardians or community (for example, a Catholic or Islamic school). Certainly, they identify with a religion, and believe in God, but faith is not important in their daily lives and they don’t often darken the door of a temple, church or mosque. At the same time, they don’t care for spiritual ideas either, such as reincarnation or horoscopes.

In short, dig a bit deeper and there is a lot of diversity among our teens on matters of faith and spirituality. And that sits comfortably with them. Our data show they are genuinely open to diversity in other people. While only a minority follow a faith with strong conviction, as a whole they are not anti-religious. As we heard often: “It’s all good.”

Tellingly, teens are wary of attempts by some to dictate to others what they can and cannot do, or who are disrespectful of those not like themselves. Didactic politicians beware.

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