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Religion or None-sense? Finding god on the Gram

Jun 6, 2019 | Featured

Hillsong. Silent retreats. Mandalas. Goop. Moon circles.  Kanye’s Sunday Service.

Earnestly, fervently, ferociously, the most non-religious generation of Americans to date seem intent on connecting with their spirituality.  On web sites, in crystal circles, sound baths, and chanting sessions, the desire to tap into something bigger and higher than themselves continues to emit a siren call for young Millennials. Maybe it’s a direct result of the increasingly caustic, secular life we have been living, tapping out our daily thoughts from behind blues screens.  Maybe it’s an emotional reaction to the rapid and nausea-inducing daily upheaval that leaves us all clinging to each other like survivors in some existential car wreck.  Young people are searching. It’s not for religion.  But it might be for god.

In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that 35% of Millennials identified themselves as religious “nones”. This comes largely with the shift in how the younger generation communicates. Skeptical of pat definitions, and wary of boxes to check as way of defining themselves and their lives, Millennials are less attached to organized religion than previous generations. Looked at another way, young adults are more likely to be religiously unaffiliated. However, Pew Research Center found that 80% of Millennials believe in God. A few key strokes later and a quick check of Instagram shows the hashtag ‘god’ has been used over 37 million times.  Maybe it’s a form of prayer, maybe it’s an incantation,  but god in some form, exists among the youth. And their need to capture something of the emotional and organizing benefits of religion seem to be driving new behaviors.  Within the world of spirituality, millennials are in search of a system, the same way they used to train for the SATS. They are seeking a hack, a process, a roadmap, to being a better person.

It’s not a big surprise  that organized religion has had a diminishing appeal for the younger generation. After all their parents, the Boomers, were spiritual seekers too – the very creators of the original counter culture. As the OG rejectors of organized faith, they pursued their own higher purpose quest through a wide varieties of mindful modalities, including EST, gestalt, communes, love-ins and psychedelics.  Although most left those conceits and activities behind as they aged, they did not necessarily return to the faith of their fathers. Millennials – their children – are in a sense, then, the spiritual orphans of that diaspora. And like any orphan, they look might just be looking for home.

For some, that search takes place among the broad diversity of practice and faith they can find celebrated online.  The process of pluralization in the world has rapidly multiplied the number of spiritual views, faiths, and ideologies. This increase in choice and ways of worship create a drive to experience everything. Spiritually hungry for meaning, they are sampling the wares the world has to offer and creating customized mash-ups of what they like, leaving the less savory or unappealing by the wayside. One Millennial couple I spoke with, who were married on a hill by a Universal minister, celebrated their baby’s arrival with a traditional Chinese naming ceremony, thirty days after its birth, instead of with any sort of baptism or bris.  The mom, Jessica, (who is Caucasian) shared “ we liked all the traditions and rituals around the naming ceremony. It seemed so fun and happy, and something we could share with our friends.” This sort of collaging of custom is something we expect to see increase, as Millennials seek out rituals with which to structure their adult lives.

And ritual seems to be the key driver. As a generation taught in systems for success, millennials are hungry for patterns of behavior that lead to better living. (Remember that K-beauty 12 step skin care ritual?) It almost seems that with the increased freedom remote working, the gig economy, and shared hard goods offer up, the more we crave some sort of consistency or structure. After Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, shared via a tweet that he had spent his birthday at a 10-day silent mediation retreat, he had over 12,000 likes and close to 3,000 retweets of that fact. We, as a people, are intrigued with spiritual systems of behavior that seem lead to better living.

A recent article in the NY Times provided a fascinating look at the co-mingling of the old school religious ways, and the new interpretation of idealistic fervor. “The Sister Project” focused on an emerging movement where religion-free millennials move into convents, seeking a road map for spiritual and social development. Both sides of this unique equation were fascinated by the other, the nuns as much with the millennials as vice versa. Tellingly, the sisters honed in on the hunger for process and path their guests presented so plainly. “So many of the millennials would say ‘I’m looking for rituals. I am looking for rituals to work in my lesbian community or social justice, or I need rituals fort this other thing ” Sister Judy Carl shared in the piece.  One young woman wanted ritual so much she began going to Mass every morning.

The search for spirituality is as old as human beings. We long for proof that our existence has more meaning than just physical maintenance. In times of great chaos and uncertainty the hunger for hope and the need for spiritual food always increases. It seems the same Pew study that spoke about the decline of organized religion among the young, also reported some variables. One study found that people living in places where earthquakes and other unpredictable natural disasters such as tsunamis and floods recently occurred are more religious – regardless of age – than people living elsewhere. Likewise, among victims of Hurricane Katrina, 67% reported becoming more religious as a result of the trauma. And this effect is not limited to natural disasters.  Some survivors who were inside or in the immediate vicinity of the World Trade Center buildings during the terrorist attacks of September 11 reported having stronger faith after the attacks. We know the times we live in today are fraught with uncertainty.  Mental health awareness coupled with reports of increased anxiety and depression among young adults today is at an all-time high, with no signs of abatement. Is it any wonder some form of ordered and consistent spirituality seems to appeal?

The Sisters of Mercy, of the Nones and Nuns program,  speak of “Charism” or the great spiritual gift their order brings, and their worry about who might keep it fueled and alive after they pass on. It is their most precious gift, far outweighing the existence of their actual order. The Nones, these young Millennials living in dark times of chaos and uncertainty, might provide the very oxygen needed to keep it burning brightly for years to come.

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