The ‘Gen Z’ flip: Why young women are leaving religion — and how to bring them back

Gen Z For the first time in decades, young men are more likely to stay in the church, while young women are leaving, according to a recent U.S. study. | Credit: Shutterstock/MDV Edwards

For the past 20 years, men have left religion at higher rates than women; but for the first time in decades, young men are more likely to stay with it, while young women are leaving, according to a recent study.

For the past three generations — baby boomers, Generation X, and millennials — men when surveyed were more likely to have left religion than women.

Now, the opposite is true — Generation Z women are more likely to disaffiliate than men, at 54% to 46%, respectively, according to an April survey by the Survey Center on American Life and American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

Why they leave

Researchers point to influences such as church teaching on controversial issues. Fifty-four percent of young women are pro-choice, according to a 2022 General Social Survey, and when it comes to the LGBTQ divide, 31% of Gen Z women identify as LGBTQ compared with 15% of Gen Z men. 

Young women in general are simply becoming more liberal and progressive, while the newest generation of Catholic priests are markedly more conservative. Meanwhile, secular media such as the Associated Press is observing a traditional renewal in the Catholic Church among young people. What can be made of these trends?

Daniel Cox, who headed the survey, believes that the flip has to do with political issues such as abortion.

“My own view is that the growing political liberalism among young women, and the rising salience of abortion after the Supreme Court Dobbs decision, is largely responsible for this shift,” Cox told CNA in an email.

While 57% of boomers who left their religion were men, only 43% were women. The pattern in men and women continued in Generation X (55% and 45% respectively) and again in the millennial generation (53% and 47%). But Generation Z has flipped the pattern, as only 46% of those who left their formative religion were men, while 54% were women.

Noelle Mering, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of “Awake, Not Woke,” speculates that the generational shift might be rooted in how popular political ideologies that are “detached” from “what human beings are” are affecting the core of what it means to be a woman.

“We are more bodily — in our capacity to bear and nurture life, and we are more vulnerable in our embodiment,” Mering told CNA in an email. “Ideology tells us that our bodies can be anything — but that just means that our bodies mean nothing.”

While popular pro-abortion rhetoric pronounces “my body, my choice,” the Catholic perspective continues to affirm the dignity of human life at all stages.

Young women are also more likely to identify as feminists, with nearly two-thirds of Gen Z women (ages 18-29) saying they believe that churches do not treat men and women equally, the survey found. Millennial women also tend to agree with this (about 64% of women ages 30-49).

How they return 

But Gen Z is also the loneliest generation, according to a Pew survey — and they’re not turning to their local churches to find community.

Americans who are affiliated with a religion are more likely to feel close to others than non-religiously affiliated Americans by a wide margin (73% to 51%), according to a May study from Pew Research. 

Mering suggests “the apostolate of friendship, hospitality” for bringing Gen Z women back. Mering co-authored the series “Theology of Home” about how women can live out their vocations at any stage of life through bringing beauty into the home. 

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“That is one of the main goals of ‘Theology of Home’: To show — not just tell — what a true Christian anthropology of embodiment looks like,” she continued. “The popular imagination is filled with dominant pop culture distortions. Catholics should be pushing back on that by putting out media that reflects our true nature.” 

There is one area of society where the Catholic Church is seeing large numbers of conversions: Vibrant, traditional parishes seem to draw in both young men and young women.

Young people on college campuses such as Texas A&M and Hillsdale College are flocking to the Church, as the National Catholic Register, CNA’s sister news partner, reported in April. 

Father Aquinas Guilbeau, the chaplain at Catholic University of America, said he doesn’t “see the results of the survey reflected on our campus.”

“Young women still make up the bulk of those students who attend Mass regularly, seek opportunities to grow in the faith, and engage in service. But the survey’s results make sense to me,” he told CNA in an email.

“As [American author] Mary Eberstadt has pointed out, a society’s living of the faith will be only as robust as the health of its families and the male-female relationships that undergird them,” he continued. “As long as our society remains hostile to family formation and family support, and as young men take ever longer to grow and mature, even young women now — who from the beginning of the Church have been the quickest to embrace faith in Christ — find the temptations of secularism and individualism attractive.”

Rebuilding community may also be a key to bringing the least religious generation back to church.

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Political scientist and statistician Ryan Burge, co-author of “The Great Dechurching” with Michael Graham and Jim Davis, found in his research that disaffiliated people would go back to church if their friends were there.

“We fielded a series of three surveys to find out why people left and what would get them back in the door,” he told CNA in an email. “Friends scored near the top of the list for every type of dechurched group… Theological reasons often scored very low.”

The apostolate of friendship and hospitality may not only be a compassionate response to the loneliness crisis but might also bring people closer to religion. 

“We might not be able to get our friends to church, but we can get them to our kitchen table for coffee or dinner,” Mering noted.

This story was updated June 4, 2024, at 3:06 p.m. ET with the quotes from Father Aquinas Guilbeau.

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