Last night I began reading Lisa Miller’s Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife. In the introduction, Miller summarizes the United States’s current views on religion and heaven.
Unsurprisingly, Miller also points out that the U.S.’s outlook on religion has changed drastically “by the rise of virtual spiritual worlds, where people have easy access to religions other than their own.” In fact, many Americans, she concludes, “now feel perfectly comfortable embracing more than one religious tradition at once” (xii).
This last point is especially true, it seems, among the Millennial generation. For example, earlier this year, the Pew Research Center reported that millennials, those currently between the ages of 18 and 29, are less religiously active than any other living generation. Specifically, the study found that
A LifeWay survey reported similar results when it surveyed a group of Millennials:
As someone who is interested in generational studies, I wonder why this shift has taken place. Why don’t Millennials (and many others, of course) want or feel the need to attend church as have their parents and grandparents? A quick scouring of news sites, blogs, and social networks locates several theories.
As Miller points out in her introduction, unlike their predecessors who attended church for reasons of cultural norms or social conformity, millennials are exposed to a variety of faith perspectives online. They can “tailor-make their own religion,” one religious expert notes. Case in point: “I go to the Internet and when I’m stuck and I’m not sure, and the research is right there, the answers are right there,” one millennial student explains.
Other religious experts suggest that the “millennial way of thinking” gets in the way of their belief system: “They are absolutely appalled at the conflict and war that competing exclusivist religions can engender. According to millennial logic, they can’t all be right, so they must be all wrong. Political parties are viewed the same way.”
Additionally, some suggest that the millennial way of life (tattoos, tolerance, free[er]thinking) does not gel with most religions. For example, a leader for a Buddhist lay organization reports, “Many youth I speak with feel they are estranged from their church groups because of the way that they live, whether it’s the clothes that they wear, the way they present themselves, the fact that they have tattoos, or even if they are homosexual. Many churches and synagogues do not engage the interest of the youth.”
Another example, this time from a millennial herself: “I had a friend who was considered atheist but she was a very good person and I remember bringing it up to the [church members] and they were just talking about how she’s going to go to hell. It just made me feel it wasn’t right.”
Still, one pastor claims that the word religion is the primary problem: “I think their generation is really turned off by the term religion. They see it as a set of rules or something that represents the past.”
Then again, others believe our consumer culture and the church’s embracing of said culture (e.g., mega-churches) has turned off millennials who, in general, seek to distance themselves from large institutions. For example, one religious leader explains, “Christianity has become a commodity in our society; one product in a wide range of possibilities for consumers seeking fulfillment in life.” Another points out that “churches are businesses like any other, fraught with hierarchy and prone to the same cliques, power struggles and petty despots” and that most Millennials, it seems, don’t want any part of that.
Finally, some are apparently turned off by the current merging of church and politics. A professor of theology writes that millennials are “sick of the association we commonly make, in our culture, between ‘being religious’ and having a conservative political agenda.”
There are certainly other reasons that millennials — and many people in general — have left, renounced, or redefined religion, Christianity in particular, e.g., the teachings/beliefs of the progressive Christian movement and the Jesus Seminar, the founding of Universal Unitarianism, sex scandals within the Catholic Church, the inexplicableness of September 11, 2001. And there are certainly more traditional reasons: it’s boring, hypocritical, out of touch, too big, judgmental, etc. Whatever the case, it will be interesting to see where the Millennial class will take us. Will they return to the fold like the Prodigal Son/Daughter, or will they maintain their millennial ways of thinking?
** The quotes and information above may be found in/on the following sites” Dallas Morning News: Religion Blog, In Their Shoes: Millennials Talk Religion, Youth Leaving Religion in Droves: ‘Millennials’ Play by Own Rules, and Millennials Increasingly Finding Their Religion Online.