Recently, Atlantic writer Derek Thompson tweeted an image of two graphs of religious survey data. The first showed the number of people who say they “believe in God without a doubt,” broken down by generation: Gen Z numbers drop off precipitously since the late nineties. The second showed the number who say they “believe in some higher power.” Here, Gen Z showed an equally precipitous rise, since around 2012. Thompson’s tweet betrays some exasperation with the apparently contradictory results: “Depending on how you ask the question,” he wrote, Gen Z was either “leading a stunning atheist revolution, or they’re extremely spiritual people without an organized religion to claim for themselves.”
But the graphs, made by political scientist of religion Ryan Burge using GSS data, are only contradictory if you read them from a limited, Christian-centric perspective. Asking about belief “without a doubt” implies that belief and doubt are mutually exclusive, not a pair of related and often fluctuating mental habits. The concept of “some higher power,” while assuming a theological hierarchy that’s not relevant to all traditions, seems to be perceived as a larger category than “God,” and thus an easier proposition for some Gen Z survey subjects to sign onto.