Jana Riess: How religious are Gen Z Latter-day Saints in the U.S.? The results are mixed.

Young members are attending church and youth activities, but many say they have been personally harmed by religion.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A aerial view of a For the Strength of Youth conference in Brazil in 2016. A new survey shows young Latter-day Saints are attending church and youth activities, but many say they have been personally harmed by religion.

A new study of Americans ages 13 to 25 shows teenage and young adult Latter-day Saints to be traditionally religious … and also not. And in that, they are similar to other Americans who still consider themselves religious but are in many ways disengaged from their faith traditions.

“The State of Religion and Young People 2021: Navigating Uncertainty,” conducted throughout 2021 by the Springtide Research Institute, argues that “for a large and growing segment of young people, religiosity is increasingly decoupled from institutions, even as they express high levels of religious belief, practice, and identity.”

During the year, more than 10,000 young people were surveyed, including a total of 470 who self-identified as Latter-day Saints or Mormons. Of that group, 134 also received an additional set of questions about their experiences and views.

So, as always when interpreting data about Mormons, keep in mind that when the sample size is small, the margin of error is high. For each finding discussed below, I’ll indicate the n, or sample size, for that particular question.

Let’s start with the positive findings — what many stalwart members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would consider to be good news.

• Mormons reported the highest participation rate in what the study called “youth group” activities, at 43%.

This indicates that even in a time when many young people are disengaging from organized religion, programs like Young Men and Young Women, seminary and institute are still a factor in the lives of many young Latter-day Saints.

When attending services and gatherings, which do you attend? (Youth group?) (n = 396)

Mormon 43%

Protestant 36%

Just Christian 33%

Orthodox Christian 32%

Jewish 31%

Buddhist 29%

Roman Catholic 28%

Unitarian Universalist 25%

Muslim 24%

Hindu 24%

Agnostic 16%

Nothing in particular 14%

Atheist 12%

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jana Riess speaks at a recording of the 100th episode of the "Mormon Land" podcast in 2019.

• These Mormons also report higher attendance at religious services than the national average.

Only 1 in 10 say they never attend, compared to more than 1 in 4 nationally. And more than a third (36%) of the Mormon young people say they go to church nearly every week or more often, compared to 23% in the sample as a whole.

How often do you attend religious services, for example, at a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or any other religious place?

Mormons (n = 396); all Respondents (n = 10,274)

Never 10%; 27%

Once a year or less 25%; 25%

1­ to 3 times a month 25%; 19%

Weekly or nearly every week 28%; 18%

More than once a week 8%; 5%

I don’t know, or not applicable 6%; 7%

Note: Percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

• They show somewhat greater trust in organized religion.

Some 57% of the Latter-day Saint respondents said they trust organized religion “completely” or “a lot,” compared to 35% in the national sample.

How much do you trust organized religion?

Mormons (n = 396); all Respondents (n = 10,274)

Do not trust at all 7%; 19%

Trust somewhat 31%; 33%

Trust a lot 34%; 21%

Trust completely 23%; 14%

Not applicable 5%; 13%

On the other hand, the research also showed a number of findings that will give Latter-day Saint parents and leaders pause. Before I get into that, let me try to provide a bit of context. In most data about religion in the U.S., two things are consistently true about Mormons: They aren’t immune from national trends toward disaffiliation and decreased orthodoxy, but they’re still more religious than other Americans. They generally report stronger belief in God, higher attendance at religious services and a greater sense that religion is important in their lives.

In fact, last month when I reported on longitudinal data from the Cooperative Election Study about the drop-off in Mormons’ religiosity, some readers complained that I didn’t give enough context about the declines that are happening in other religions, too.

But with the Springtide data, it’s not necessarily the case that Generation Z Mormons are holding to the line I’ve been using for years when I talk about millennial Mormons: “They’re less religious than their parents but still noticeably more religious than their peers.” The picture is murkier here, especially in the smaller subsample of Mormon respondents who were asked a battery of additional questions about their faith.

• Their belief in God is about average.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was displayed by 17,000 Young Women and Young Men during the cultural celebration marking the completion of the Jordan River Temple. The celebration was held in the Conference Center on May 19, 2018.

I found this very surprising. While few young Mormons surveyed were flat-out atheists (only 7% compared to 16%), they expressed a significant level of agnosticism, with most falling somewhere in the middle. Only 1 in 5 said they had no doubts at all about the existence of a higher power, on par with Gen Zers nationally.

“Which statement comes closest to expressing what you believe about a higher power—whether it be God, gods, or some other divine source of universal energy?”

Mormons (n = 470); all respondents (n = 10,274)

I don’t believe in a higher power. 7%; 16%

I don’t know whether there is a higher power, and I don’t believe there is any way to find out. 24%; 18%

I doubt a higher power’s existence more than I believe. 22%; 13%

I believe in a higher power’s existence more than I doubt. 23%; 24%

I know a higher power exists and I have no doubts about it. 20%; 23%

I don’t know. 5%; 7%

• Mormons rank highest of all faith groups in saying they personally have been harmed by religion, faith, or a religious leader.

For me, this was a jaw-dropping finding, and a potentially disturbing one. (Remember, the n here is 134 people, so I am taking all of this with a grain of salt, as I’ll explain at the end.)

I have been harmed by religion, faith, or a religious leader in the past.

Group % agree

Mormons 59%

Atheists 52%

Jews 45%

Muslims 45%

Orthodox Christians 45%

Buddhists 43%

Hindus 35%

Protestant Christians 39%

Agnostics 38%

Roman Catholics 38%

Just Christian 33%

Unitarian Universalists 28%

Nothing in particular 26%

Nationally, 39% of respondents said they had been harmed by religion. For Latter-day Saints, it’s a full 20 points higher. It’s hard to digest that number, frankly: More than half of young Mormons say they’ve been harmed by religion? On a similar question, 60% of Mormons said they don’t feel safe within religious or faith institutions.

This is particularly confusing when you juxtapose these findings side by side with the trust results reported above: A majority of young Mormons say they have been harmed by religion or religious leaders (59%), but an almost identical percentage (57%) say they have a lot of trust in religion. It’s a head-scratcher.

• Young Mormons don’t feel like they can bring their whole selves to church.

Mormons ranked fifth overall on this question, so, on the one hand, you might see them as occupying the middle of the pack in the table below. But compared to other Christian groups, they are markedly more likely to say they can’t be themselves in a religious organization.

I don’t feel like I can be my full self in a religious organization.

Group % agree

Atheists 82%

Agnostics 76%

Nothing in particular 75%

Unitarian Universalists 66%

Mormons 57%

Jews 56%

Buddhists 56%

Muslims 52%

Orthodox Christians 52%

Roman Catholics 51%

Hindus 47%

Protestant Christians 43%

Just Christian 43%

Of course, one possibility is that these respondents are reflecting on the idea that they can’t be themselves in any religious organization, not just their own. The question doesn’t specify. But in any case, it demonstrates a discomfort, a worry that the community might not be expansive enough to hold whoever they are behind the facade.

• Half of Mormons don’t think religious leaders care about their concerns.

I don’t think religious leaders will care about the things I want to talk about during times of uncertainty.

Group % agree

Atheists 72%

Agnostics 66%

Nothing in particular 65%

Jews 58%

Mormons 50%

Orthodox Christians 50%

Unitarian Universalists 50%

Muslims 48%

Buddhists 44%

Roman Catholics 40%

Hindus 38%

Just Christian 37%

Protestant Christians 35%

The question doesn’t spell out what kind of leaders, so it’s hard to know if these Mormon respondents were thinking of apostles in Salt Lake City or a bishop closer to home.

So there’s good news and bad news, potentially. I think we should exercise a lot of caution in interpreting the results from the small subsample, and also be aware that post-survey weights that are applied to make data represent the national population in terms of gender, race, and region can skew the results somewhat for Mormons. The nation is more racially and geographically diverse than Mormons are, and this can make a difference. For example, Utah Mormons are more religiously orthodox in both belief and practice than Latter-day Saints elsewhere in the U.S., and they make up about 30% of Mormons throughout the country. But in a national survey that is weighted to reflect the total population of each state, Utah accounts for only 1% of the U.S. population, which means the post-survey weights may be deflating responses from some of the most orthodox respondents and artificially inflating the responses of Midwestern heretics like me. However, that’s true of every national survey that includes Mormons, not just this one.

Despite the data’s limitations, I also think that the Springtide data is particularly valuable for people who care about Latter-day Saint young people, because it’s able to harness something that studies that only include adults often miss. By targeting people ages 13 to 25, Springtide is unconsciously including some Mormons who will probably leave the church later.

Think about it this way: Some of these respondents are still living at home, maybe attending church with their parents (or not). They still consider themselves Mormon, and will self-identify as Mormon on a survey, but they’re not strong believers. Some years down the road if they’ve been inactive in the church for a long period, they may be less likely to still identify themselves on a survey as being LDS.

I think that’s a major part of why Springtide’s data looks different from what we’re used to seeing from outlets like Pew and PRRI, which focus only on adults older than 18. Since the median age for leaving the LDS Church is in late adolescence (19 in The Next Mormons Survey, and apparently 18 in internal data from the church itself), the Springtide data gives us a glimpse of young adults who may have one foot out the door but not yet both.

We need to learn from what they have to say.