Introducing Hannah Evans: Her Research Story
Springtide Research Institute is pleased to welcome Dr. Hannah Evans to our team. She is a sociologist who specializes in how racial and cultural socialization shape religiosity in adolescence and emerging adulthood. Below, she shares her personal story of how she came to this particular focus and what it means for her work at Springtide.
I was 19 when news of Michael Brown’s murder flashed on the television, and videos of the subsequent protests filled our social feeds. I remember reading Twitter about the experiences Black people were sharing online of their encounters with the police, and thinking to myself, “Believing people when they tell you that they’re hurting is what it means to be a Christian. If I don’t listen and do something about it, then I have to stop calling myself a Christian at all.”
I was raised in conservative evangelical Christianity, and my late teens and early twenties were marked by wrestling with my childhood faith and finding a new path for myself. When I began my journey over a decade ago, deconstruction was not a term we used to describe this process, but my experience mirrors the paths of many Gen Z young people today—building a spiritual worldview that aligned with my core values of justice, compassion, tenderness, curiosity, and courage.
In college, I immersed myself in the grassroots activism happening on my campus, and I became passionate about having hard conversations with other white people in my family and my community about our role in systemic racism. I also began to take note of all the ties between organized religion and racism in the US. By the time I began my doctoral degree, I dove into how racial socialization, particularly white racial socialization, shapes religious behavior and identity. Yet, when it came time to write my dissertation, focusing on young people seemed like a natural choice. I still had so many questions about my own teen years and why I deconstructed my own faith when so many of my peers did not.
My dissertation, which I defended in October 2022, focuses on how racial socialization in adolescence and emerging adulthood shapes religious attendance, affiliation, and salience (how important religion is to your everyday life). One of the things I report on is that trends of religious decline among young people are not happening at the same rate across racial groups. White teens and young adults are identifying as not religious at much higher rates than other racial groups, whereas Black teens and young adults are the most consistent in identifying as religious over the last 60 years. This matters because it shows us that religion is also intrinsically connected to racial identity in the United States, and white people are secularizing in part because of our whiteness, which allows us to ask better sociological questions, like: What is it about whiteness that makes white people (particularly white young people) less religious?
The other key finding from my dissertation is that religious “individualism” (the focus on an individual self in relationship with a higher power) is inherently racialized. White young people are far more likely than other groups to emphasize a purely vertical (self and “god”) spiritual life, whereas young people of color are more likely to prioritize a horizontal spiritual life (self and community). In particular, I found that for Black young people, being highly religious was associated with being closer to their mothers than for any other racial group. This shows just how important community and relationships are for Black religious life. In contrast, white religious life is much more focused on the self and our relationship with God, and less so our relationship with others.
One of the things I love about Springtide is our commitment to asking with intentionality how culture and structure shape our specific, individual spiritual lives. I hope that my work on how race and racism shape the religious and spiritual values of young people can help shape our research questions and the conversations we get to have with young people about their values. I respect that Springtide is willing to ask the hard questions about how society is shaping our spiritual formation, and I’m grateful to now be a part of that work.