I grew up receiving a lot of praise from the older folks in my church for just about everything I did. I found this perplexing as I was just doing what came naturally to me — involving myself in the life of my small United Church of Christ congregation. I sang in the choir because I love music. I went to Sunday school because I like to learn. Yet every week I was given more praise and encouragement. I remember asking my grandmother why everyone in the church seemed to dote on me so. Her reply: “We need more young people involved in the church. Without kids like you, the church is going to die.” Talk about pressure!
I did go on to increase my involvement, so much so that I now find myself entering my second year of study toward a master’s degree in divinity. I’ve found my classmates and professors sharing sentiments similar to my grandmother’s: Their churches are slowly fading.
The overall decline in religiosity has been a hot topic among individuals of faith likely since the conception of religion itself. This despite more than 84% of the world’s population identifying with some type of religion. Even 70% of atheists and 90% of agnostics report being open to a category of divination, whether it’s astrology, reincarnation, or another spiritual practice (2019). But how can these statistics be true when local communities have seen attendance and financial support dwindle?
Let’s first explore reasons the younger generations may be declining to identify with organized religion, despite the inner spiritual feelings they may or may not have. At face value, it’s easy to assume that people belonging to generations X, Y, and Z simply don’t agree with the “traditional values” of Judeo-Christian America. Millennials, for one, are delaying marriage, co-parenting in separate homes, and including organized religion in the list of oppressive institutions perpetuating the capitalism that they are hyper-focused on tearing down. Is an embracing of religion possible in our current capitalist society when you believe that capitalism is inherently violent? Generation Z — or ‘Zoomers,’ a new favorite term of mine — have been raised with infinite access to information, are glued to their screens, and are overall politically radical. How could these two generations thrive within the walls of organized religion? It seems antithetical.
Exacerbating this disillusionment is an inundation of convictions of abuse and political philandering from religious institutions, and hateful speech from some faith leaders. As Linda Woohead, a professor of Sociology of Religion at the UK’s University of Lancaster suggests, “religions do well, and always have, when they are subjectively convincing — when you have the sense that God is working for you.” It can be hard to believe that God could be working for you, your fellow humans, or for love, peace, and happiness in the face of such hypocrisies.
And yet despite all of this I hear peers of varying traditions and backgrounds, many of whom left the communities of faith they were raised in, claim to want something to answer to. We want to have faith in something; we want to be able to love each other, live peacefully, and feel confident in a higher purpose. The very thing that is turning younger generations off from religion is the reason we need something to believe in. Whether our current climate is due to “the fall of capitalism” or another explanation for the chaos in our societal institutions, it is clear that the nation is experiencing birthing pains and younger generations are seeking an ultimate answer. We all want something “Good.”
I don’t have a specific solution — and I very well might be projecting! But I think it’s time for something new. A fresh interfaith tradition that embraces diversity and addresses the issues of today. A “church” for the new generations.
Will it be a benevolent AI created by humans working together, à la Roko’s Basilisk? Could it be a return to Zoroastrianism, or something more syncretized? As Sumit Paul-Choudhury writes in ‘Tomorrow’s Gods: What is the future of religion?:’ “Perhaps the religions that span the world today are less durable than we think. And perhaps the next great faith is just getting started.” Personally, my money is on the latter and I’m eager to see what the next generation will do.