Sara Alqaragholy, 23, identifies as a non-practicing Muslim, though she admits this identification would puzzle many. But even though she doesn’t traditionally practice, she believes she carries core Islamic values with her wherever she goes. In fact, it is her ongoing desire to encounter God in nature that keeps her in touch with her Muslim heritage.
“From my Islamic education, I grew up understanding that nature must be respected and preserved, for these are gifts from God,” she told me one afternoon over the phone. Sara sees everything in this world as connected, from the ground to the trees to the people who live on this earth, a worldview she credits to Sufi influence. “I do not think my family understands much of my developing beliefs, or how much they shape my worldview,” she added.
If Alqaragholy’s spiritual connection to nature feels illegible to her older relatives, she’s not alone. A growing body of research suggests that teenagers and younger adults—typically called Generation Z—are increasingly turning to the outdoors as their primary source of wonder and faith, even when they’ve grown up in traditionally religious homes.
It’s part of a larger trend of Gen Z taking their spirituality outside of traditional religious institutions. Matthew Hedstrom, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, told Vice that this generation is prone to subsuming religious experiences into a broader spiritual worldview. “Talking to God in prayer or profound, moving, emotional experiences that happen in nature, that happen with art, that happen with falling in love—all of these things get labeled spirituality [for Gen Z],”
Gen Z also appears to care more about environmental conservation than generations prior. When Amnesty International surveyed over 10,000 Gen Zers from across the world in 2019, they discovered that climate change is the issue they’re most concerned about.
“These young people aren’t just motivated by climate change…they [have] an urgency few others have mustered,” Sarah Ray, professor of environmental studies at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, told Fortune.
When you speak to younger people about their faith, it seems clear that urgency is taking shape in their spiritual life as well.
“In my years of attending religious services, I never had anything reveal the divine creativity of God to me more than this park near my campus,” explained Lucy Cobble, 21, who identifies as Roman Catholic. “My arrival at the park is when my prayer actively begins to flow.”
The prominence of nature in spiritual experiences is true outside of traditional faith groups as well.
“My connection to nature is the closest thing I have to spirituality,” Freya Olson, a 24-year-old atheist, told me. “For me, being outside helps me to feel invigorated and connected to the world around me. It makes me happy seeing so much life flourish, and I feel a sense of responsibility to help foster life and growth rather than oppose it.”
For many of these teenagers and young adults, nature isn’t merely supplementing strong engagement with a religious institution. In many cases, nature is providing spiritual outlets for young people that religious institutions simply are not.
David Frye, a 24-year-old based in Maine who is also a Protestant Christian, told me that as he grew in his Christian faith, he often found himself sneaking away up a mountain or taking walks through his garden to pray. “Nature became the place where I could be alone with God,” he said, adding that such activities ran encounter to what was encouraged by his Christian community. As cessationists, his church does not believe that the Holy Spirit still uses individuals to perform miraculous signs, a perspective he believes made people discount nature as a source for divine encounters.
“Most would say the outdoors draws them to marvel at God’s work, but few would see nature as a place to commune with God,” he said. “After searching the Scriptures, I became convinced that what I experienced in nature was not abnormal or unbiblical as my cessationist upbringing taught – rather, the living God still speaks to his people as he always has.”
As a result of the pandemic, many religious communities have moved their services and programs outside. Though it seems unconventional right now, history shows us that American religious communities have a rich history of meeting outside.
“A variety of American religious communities in the 18th and 19th centuries made do without physical houses of worship,” writes Jeffrey Wheatley, instructor of philosophy and religious studies at Iowa State University, for The Conversation. “They turned to alternative spaces for worship out of necessity – due to lack of institutional support and issues of religious freedom – or even preference.”
Wheatley also notes that enslaved Black people met in “hush harbors” outside of established churches to partake in Christian and African-derived worship practices away from white surveillance and pro-slavery Christianity. Meanwhile, American transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Caroline Sturgis Tappan escaped into nature to discern and reflect on the divine, emphasizing nature’s unique capacity to facilitate profound spiritual experiences.
Faith leaders, understandably, may be attempting to replicate their indoor worship and prayer services as closely as possible outside. However, embracing the exciting possibilities of outdoor worship promises to resonate strongly with Gen Z. As Gen Z struggles to trust religious institutions, many young people maintain a resilient interest in religion and spirituality and are eager to express themselves this way.
Springtide Research Institute recently surveyed over 10,000 young Americans about their beliefs and values when it comes to spirituality, politics, work, the environment, and more. The resulting study, The State of Religion and Young People 2020 confirmed that Gen Z is moving away from religious institutions. Even among those who say they belong to a religion or denomination, 52% say they trust religious institutions “very little” or “not at all.” Yet, large majorities of Gen Z consider themselves to be at least slightly religious (71%) or slightly spiritual (78%). Notably, this includes a surprising number of young people identifying as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular -- 38% of this group say they’re at least slightly religious, while 60% say they are at least slightly spiritual.
Clearly, young people still have spiritual impulses and curiosities, though they may not be expressing these within conventional religious institutions, and may be more influenced by other values than earlier generations. For example, Springtide’s study also found that majorities of Gen Z are concerned about the health of the environment: 55% agree that “It is important to me to look after the environment and to care for nature to save life resources,” and that “Businesses have a responsibility to be environmentally sustainable,” while 71% say it's important that they are “making decisions and taking actions that intentionally work toward environmental sustainability.”
These findings resonate with other studies showing a clear difference between how Gen Z and previous generations are assessing the threat of climate change and the importance of sustainability. As a case in point, a recent Pew studydiscovered that Gen Z Republicans are more likely than previous generations to agree that climate change is a pressing issue that the government is doing too little to address. Only 18% of Gen Z Republicans believe that global warming is attributable to natural climate patterns, a view more commonly held by older Republicans.
If nature is where so many young people feel spiritually connected, centered, inspired, and safe, faith leaders should consider moving their programs and interactions with young people outside. Some religious communities – mainly evangelical churches and orthodox/Hasidic communities – have been resistant to moving their services outside during the pandemic, fearing that their religious freedoms are being undermined. Others, however, have embraced the change, eager to discover new ways to celebrate traditions like Hanukkah and to invite their communities to celebrate with them.
Gen Z’s trend toward nature should also cause us to reconsider whether traditional categories like religiously “affiliated” and “unaffiliated,” and the way we assign these terms, are really helping us to fully capture the complex spiritual lives of young people.
Gen Z has been called the “least religious generation” on the one hand, but “differently religious” on the other. To truly understand them, we’ll need to go beyond convenient categories and the four walls of our religious institutions.
Kevin Singer is Head of Media and Public Relations for Springtide Research Institute, an educator teaching world religions at two community colleges, and a doctoral student in higher education at North Carolina State University.
4/5/2021 3:45:17 PM