Millennials Forgo Organized Religion for Spiritual Beliefs
A medley of peculiar possessions engulfs a room from floor to ceiling. Titles such as “The Essential Rumi” and “Contemporary Paganism” line bookshelves. Divine objects including crystals, tarot cards and Buddha idols dwell in every corner of the space. From suburban households to Webster dorm rooms, representations of this spiritually conglomerated scene are growing increasingly common in the United States.
A survey conducted by Pew Research Center indicates that 35% of Generation Y, the youngest generation of U.S. adults, is religiously unaffiliated. Far more Millennials are identifying with the popular phrase “spiritual but not religious.” Now a focus of research and classified phenomenon, this spiritual orientation rejects traditional organized religion.
Instead, advocates of this spiritual stance follow alternative paths like Eastern philosophies, earth religions, Native American ideals and numerous others. Reflections of this flourishing Millennial attitude can be witnessed at Webster, notably through the student-created religious studies course regarding Wicca and Neo-Paganisms.
In order to understand the spark behind this spiritual movement, one must recognize the evolving definition
of spirituality. Historically, the terms “religious” and “spiritual” have often held the same meaning. Religion in today’s world is associated with social worship and community, while spirituality relates to the personal, emotional and self-interpreted connection with the ethereal. This individualistic quality of spirituality appeals to a bulk of young people, therefore acting as one of the driving forces in this burgeoning spiritual shift. “The communal part of church is very unnerving to me,” Olaf Eide, Universalist directing major, says. “And while I do agree with a lot of philosophy based in religious teachings, the primary problems that I take with organized religion are worship and unitary commitment to one prescribed set of ideals. I think that’s very limiting.”
Institutional religion is often portrayed by media and public opinion as oppressive and constricting. In their individualistic age, emerging adults are apt to steer from ideas they perceive as restrictive. Greatly mirroring the counterculture movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, millennials simply don’t want the rules.
Khadija Alzadjali, a religious studies minor raised in the Muslim community of Dubai, believes that religion is taught similarly to mathematics.
“They don’t teach you so you understand, they teach you so you know the formula,” Alzadjali says. “You don’t know why two times two is four, you just know that it is. So, I think this new idea of spirituality is really attractive to people. It’s almost like a subtle rebellion.”
Another leading factor in the orientation of young spiritualists stems from the invention of the Internet and the recent ability to truly personalize beliefs. By drawing knowledge and ideas from a now-infinite amount of places, individuals with different minds and backgrounds are able to pick and choose which values they most resonate with. Rather than exclusively following one set of principles, much of Generation Y is choosing to be part of several.
Like many Millennials, Genevieve Pellegrini, a religious studies major and former Catholic, has experience with multiple faiths.
“What I believe to be quite artful is that I can use both of my current religious perspectives — Unitarian Universalism and Eclectic Neo-Paganism — to create something that makes sense to me,” Pellegrini says. “It’s like the choice of using many colors to form a rainbow, rather than many shades of just one color.”
As technology advances, so do the ways in which humans understand and interact with both the world and one another. Young thinkers like Alzadjali and Pellegrini propose the idea that today’s changing world is no longer shaped for traditional religious views.
“There have been a lot of suppressed issues in prior generations, and I think we are having this grand change right now because rules no longer exist that can punish us for having liberal perspectives,” Pellegrini says.
Current affairs like feminism, gay and transgender rights, the environment and more contribute to shifts in religious affiliations. For example, many people come into Wiccan and other Neo-Pagan spiritualities because Pagan tradition gives reason in acting highly compassionate toward nature, women and the body. Modern seekers feel encouraged to focus on the particular issues that hold significance to them.
Pellegrini believes that this “spiritual but not religious” movement and its copious components are transcending all that mankind has known before.
“I feel like our generation is trying to figure out how we are different, and how we can explain that to others without there being hatred toward our one world, one mind, one heart belief,” Pellegrini says. “When we finally break through to those people who keep fighting us liberal-minded thinkers, our faith will become stronger.”
Story by Julia Peschel
Photo by Jenny F. Chan