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Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Haneen Ahmed, far right, 13, watches her teacher at Annoor Academy on Dec. 14, 2021, in Chattanooga.

Religion and the role of spirituality continue to have a place in the lives of the youngest generations of Americans, even if their approaches to faith differ from traditional definitions of religion.

That finding was one of many in the research study State of Religion & Young People 2021 published by Minnesota-based Springtide Research Institute in October.

The data, based on more than 10,000 surveys with Americans ages 13 to 25, found most young people identify as religious, 71%, or spiritual, 78%, but they were as likely to look to "no one" for help during stressful moments than they are to seek out a faith leader. The study makes clear the connection travels both ways — one in 10 young people told the researchers a faith leader had reached out to them in the past year.

Josh Packard, executive director of Springtide, said the people studied, largely from Generation Z, are largely trying to balance an inward focus and a trust in institutions.

"They're very much striving for this middle ground where they're just not going to compromise their identities and the identities of their friends and their abilities to show up for them just to be a part of an institution," Packard said. "And, at the same time, what we don't see is them crafting, if you have 700 individuals, they're not crafting 700 versions of religion for their 700 selves. They're very much interested in these traditions and in these intact faith systems."

Data published this week by the Pew Research Center found that about three in 10 Americans do not affiliate with a religion, part of an ongoing downward trend. Research on Gen Z shows that some of the youngest Americans have a more fluid definition of belonging to a faith group.

Chattanooga resident Haneen Ahmed, 13, said she has friends who follow different religions than her own. When she shares her understanding of Islam or they ask questions, it is not toxic and it does not lead to arguments, she said.

"I don't really base my friends off their religion but when we do talk about it we just talk about the basic stuff of their religions," she said.

An interest in learning about other religions, or even pulling lessons from them, was a takeaway of the Springtide research. Defined in the study as "unbundling," the current generation of young people look less to strict religious frameworks and are drawn more toward mixing traditions.

Levi Lebovitz, 17, said although he was raised Jewish and is active in many Jewish group extracurriculars, he sees the religious tradition as a helpful framework.

"My relationship to Judaism isn't very evangelical or, like, very orthodox," the Chattanooga resident said. "I'm very more into it for the community aspect. I'm a conservative Jew, which means I'm kind of in the middle of the strict category. I go to services and things, but I'm not like a strict believing every word of the Torah is the truth."

Lebovitz said he has learned about meditation and Buddhism because of general interest and the potential mental benefits of meditation. But, in the aftermath of the 2018 mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, he turned to the Jewish concept of "tikkum olam," Hebrew for "to repair the world," to inform his push for gun law reform.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga area Christian colleges rank among 'absolute worst' for LGBTQ students, advocacy group says)

The Springtide survey found young people are hungry for religious institutions to address major social issues, such as climate change, racial justice or LGBTQ rights. The research found about half of young people believe religious groups, across all faiths, do not care about the things most important to their generation.

Gen Z is very interested in mental health and aligning belief systems with actions, Packard said. However, being told what to believe is likely a nonstarter.

"This has always been true for young people," Packard said. "And it's just really critical right now, where so many of our institutions, including our religious ones, seem so polarized. So making space for all of their feelings within the context of your religious tradition and showing that those two things are not incompatible is, I think, a really important step to rebuilding some of that trust."

Emma Campbell, 22, said she does not want the preaching in her church to be political or prescriptive but young people are hungry for ways to apply the Bible to daily life or current issues.

Campbell, a Chattanooga resident who said she has debated going into full-time ministry, understands young people are resistant to submitting to a religious ideology because that call to submission has been misused before by faith leaders.

Packard said it is important to remember young people's approaches to faith will shift over time as they age. Keeping in conversation with them is what is critical, he said.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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