Religion is dying and we have things like Star Wars to thank for it
You think you're the only one. The only one in your sarcastic, cynical, know-it-all clique — who believes in something else.
You remain silent while friends mock those who love energy or vibrations, who pray or meditate, who rub crystals on their arms or hang a dreamcatcher from the rear view mirror.
Why wouldn't you? You've likely heard that younger generations are the least religious cohort in history and it's true. Atheism and agnosticism practically doubled in the past decade. Four thousand churches close every year. And some of the smartest professors at the best colleges seem to have shown on whiteboards with dry erase markers that everything not scientifically proven is just woo-woo voodoo juju.
And … yet … you sometimes feel something … at concerts, watching heads nod to the bass … or in the mountains, when aspen leaves quake like they're waving specifically at you … or when Jupiter shines bright in the night sky, and you feel small and big at the exact same time … or while meditating to banish stressful thoughts, and an otherworldly silence sets in … or with your friends and family, a warm feeling flows through them to you and lights up your insides ... It’s these times you wonder if the atheists really have it all worked out.
In fact, in having these feelings — sensing a sparkle, force or fire beyond understanding — in believing in things, you're far from alone. You’re average. Human. Normal. Part of the great majority. Even though you’re young.
Because while it's a fact younger Americans are much more likely to ditch religion — three times more likely than their great grandparents, according to a Pew Research Poll — millennials still believe in something bigger at almost the exact same rate. Large percentages of both millennials and the Greatest Generation “think about the meaning and purpose of life, feel a sense of gratitude, and feel a sense of wonder about the universe all the same,” says the poll.
"The vast majority of young people are saying they still believe in something supernatural-ish," says Antony Alumkal, a sociologist of religion at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
So if atheism isn’t the norm, and belief is the thing, the question, then, is: what are the "supernatural-ish" things that young people believe?
In her book, "From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media and the Supernatural," Lynn Schofield Clark interviewed hundreds of teens and asked them what they actually believe in. Some examples: One spirit. Many spirits. One god. Many gods. An energy. A vibration. Fairies. Demons. A silent observer. The laws of physics. Nature. A global consciousness. The programmer of the computer simulation we live in. The alien that sends the gravity waves that organizes the organic matter here into life. The physicists who ran the experiment that made the Big Bang. The Tao of the Dude. God's noodly appendage. The Matrix. The Force: an energy field created by all living things that surrounds us and penetrates us, that binds the galaxy together and gives the Jedi his power.
"Young people are aware that they have a lot of options," says Art Bamford, senior Research Fellow and the Center for Media, Religion & Culture at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The thing about many of these beliefs is that they don’t fit with traditional religions — which is a big reason why young people say they’re not religious, and why young people are approaching spirituality in all sorts of unconventional ways.
"The modern world and its general rejection of metaphysics and the spiritual leaves people open to being moved very deeply by something other than going to church," says Steven Gelberg, graduate of the Harvard Divinity School and music scholar.
Some of the more common non-church methods of being moved very deeply are music, nature, exercise, pop culture, science and drugs. These aren’t usually thought of as religions. But, like religion, they have rituals and order and history. And they are endlessly deep and rewarding.
"Young people are aware that they have a lot of options."
Nothing resembles an old religious revival like a giant concert. Bassnectar, Insane Clown Posse and Bieber fans are just as devoted to their rock gods as Hindus marching to the shrine of Shiva. As Clive Marsh, a British professor who studies both, recently told The Telegraph: "Music is replacing religion." People use it to explore the philosophical and ethical issues of the modern world.
"The Grateful Dead is pretty much a religion," says devoted Deadhead Sasha Bellucci of Boulder. Deadheads tattoo themselves in the symbolism of the dancing bears and the Bertha skeletons, treat Jerry Garcia like a martyr who died for the music, and swear they can literally feel Garcia’s ghost swirling through the stadium. And what is following a band but the modern-day version of a Catholic pilgrim on the road to Compostella?
"Music is felt so deeply and profoundly," Gelberg says, "that it can make you feel connected to the source of all being."
It helps, as well, that the best concerts happen outdoors, at Red Rocks or The Gorge Amphitheater — natural “churches” for millions. "Nature gives you that sense of awe and wonder that you might otherwise get walking into a cathedral in Europe," says Bamford. "Protestants have always gone to nature to connect with god."
The outdoors provide the ability to connect with our natural roots. Mountain biking. Rafting. Hiking. Jogging. For anyone deeply involved, being active is a common route to approaching the divine, from a “runner's high” or going deep in “the zone.”
On the website HowWeGather, religious scholars even identify CrossFit as a kind of religion, with a cult-like devotion of always giving it your all and achieving personal bests. Similarly, any serious yoga class is half-a-step away from Hindu temples. There, computer programmers and real estate agents alike — who probably don't know the first thing about Ganesh or Vishnu and laugh at the idea of reincarnation — still put their thumbs to their third eye and chant "Namaste guru."
Music, nature and exercise are ancient routes to approaching something bigger, and are timeless in their effectiveness. But there are newer routes, and more unfolding every day. One is pop culture, dating back to at least the Boomers and their pilgrimages to Graceland, the home of Elvis, whom they all called — and worshiped as — “The King.”
John Lennon even said, probably correctly at the time, that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus.
Today, a greater connective media pumps culture with steroids, allowing many to treat fleeting trends like a religion. Harry Potter, a sacred text. Jeddism, the Buddhist-like religion of Luke and Rey and the Force. Dudeism, the Daoist-like religion of Jeffrey Lebowski. It's eastern spirituality, but available on Netflix.
Theologian Jeffrey Mahan points out how the digital world is reprogramming the way we think about that something else. An astonishing number of people believe we're in a computer right now, a digital computer simulation designed by aliens — like The Matrix.
Others hope the afterlife will become real when we upload our consciousness into a hard drive and live on the Internet as You.com. Mahan calls this the "digital metaphor," and says, "The digital provides such new ways of living in the world; it's going to open the door to new ways of thinking about the spiritual."
And what about sacraments? Most religions have had them. And so do some new ones. At the Cannabis Church in Denver, the members believe weed puts them in touch with a reality bigger than themselves. At Johns Hopkins, religious leaders are taking mushrooms to see how close a psilocybin trip is to a religious experience. Ayahuasca circles and ibogaine ceremonies happen in cities all over the world, and trippers swear that spirits join them every time.
A common part of all these religious approaches is — surprisingly — science. Unlike older believers in Abrahamic religions, who have a weakness for fudging the science when it contradicts the stories in their holy books, Schofield Clark found that, whatever teens' beliefs actually are, they all respect the methods and findings of science, and trust it to uncover complex truths: the universe was once smaller than the tip of a pen! The material in your body was cooked in the center of a star! All material is actually energy! Astrophysicist Carl Sagan says, additionally, what science uncovers can give us the grand feelings we used to get from religions — only the revelations of science, he notes, "are much more elegant, and have the added advantage, and it is not an inconsiderable one, of being true."
It’s why younger millennials seek guidance about what's right and wrong from science and reason, more so than older millennials do.
Yet, much like religion, science has given us more questions than answers. The two cross paths like that often. Science even opens more avenues for religious feelings by expanding the number of possible things we can worship. For example: lately, the collective consensus seems to assume there are aliens out in the galaxy that we might one day really talk to. And these aliens function in the imagination a bit like divine beings.
"God was an alien," several teens told Schofield Clark. One even said, "The term 'extraterrestrial' means 'not of this planet.' And if God supposedly created this planet and everything in it, how can he be from here?"
A couple of new-ish American religions — Mormonism and Scientology — have alien-ish aspects. It makes sense. The concept of aliens sounds a lot like the old concept of a god, no? A being in the sky who's cooler and smarter and more powerful than everyone else? Who might one day come down and give us answers? What's the difference, then, between alien and god?
It’s all a glorious mishmash, and changing by the day. But a few things are becoming crystal clear:
One thing that's especially noteworthy is that, whatever the contents of their beliefs, there is a new kind of lightness to the way young adults hold them, a fluidity, a quickness, with which they move from one thing to another.
Just as millennials are unlikely to stick with the same job or career choice their whole lives, they also jump from belief to belief without worrying too much if a current belief contradicts an old one. Unlike their parents and grandparents, who may have been staunch Catholics or Lutherans their whole lives, young people are not fundamentalists. They’re not sticklers for the seven or 12 commandments or the 613 unbreakable laws.
For young people, "All kinds of beliefs, from angels to aliens, are possible, and not necessarily in conflict," Schofield Clark writes. "They're trying things out and discarding them."
One other thing seems clear and important, all of the scholars agree: young people are discarding Christianity. And probably permanently.
This is new. In previous generations, people wandered off from their childhood churches in search of self. Yet as they got older, most returned to Christianity.
And this is still mostly true for some faiths. Muslims, Hindus and Jews are holding on to their young people. According to Pew Research, “while the world’s population is expected to grow 32 percent in the coming decades, the number of Muslims is expected to increase by 70 percent — from 1.8 billion in 2015 to nearly 3 billion in 2060.”
They're hungering for a bigger God, a more comprehensive one — God 2.0
But with Christians, people aren't returning to the religion of their birth in quite the same numbers. "There's a more permanent casing off of Christianity than there was for the Boomers," said Alumkal, the sociologist of religion.
American millennials will never again believe fervently, as their grandparents did, in the One True Faith. Overall, they aren't very interested in learning about ultimate truths from religious authorities or the Bible. As Schofield Clark writes: "They consider themselves to be the ultimate authority."
Within the millennial generation, the old Christian rituals are dying like flowers in the desert. In the same Pew research, people aged 18 to 24 pray less, read scripture less and think the Bible is the word of God way less, than older millennials, aged 25 to 33.
God is, to most, not an old man napping in the sky. Nor is his son a man who spent some time nailed to a cross before crawling out of a cave. Many believe that that man-shaped god of that old religion "is a god of a tiny world and not a god of a galaxy, much less a universe," as Sagan wrote.
It's not that young people aren't hungering for God, writes Drew Dyck, author of “The Leavers: Young Doubters Exit the Church.” They're hungering for a bigger God, a more comprehensive one — God 2.0. For the newer generations, if a religion doesn't have dinosaurs, and aliens, and space travel, and time travel, and quantum physics, and computers, and cyborgs, and drugs, and nature, and science — then the religion isn't big enough to match the times.
Reverend Willa Barber Johnson of the East Bay Church of Religious Science in Oakland says she sees this all the time. In her part of town, which she openly admits is “rough,” the kids who come to her — sometimes strung, sometimes addicted, who have seen real evil — are dying to connect. She tells them to trust their own senses, even if their "spiritualness is messy and funky" and their behavior "ratchety."
She doesn’t preach a whole ton about the Holy Trinity and John 3:16. She just works to show kids "this magnificent power of goodness we all have." She tells them that they are not alone in feeling that "life is honored as expressions of the divine." The problem isn't that God doesn't exist, but that the old God wasn't big enough.
Rev. Barber Johnson says she doesn't worry quite as much about what her kids "believe" as that they "use their power for goodness in ways that are positive." (As she tells them: "We love you unconditionally and some of you have to change.")
This is a common place to be. For most of human history, scholars say, people didn't care much what other people "believed," because people were judged more on what they did. Doing, not believing, scholars agree, is still the best way to find something more.
"You cannot learn to dance, paint or cook by perusing texts or recipes," writes Karen Armstrong in "The Case for God." "The rules of a board game sound obscure, unnecessarily complicated, and dull until you start to play, when everything falls into place. There are some things that can be learned only by constant, dedicated practice." In doing a religious practice, whatever it is, people "discover a transcendent dimension of life that is not simply an external reality 'out there' but is identical with the deepest level of their being."
It sounds nice. And young people seem to have intuited this. You might have, too. Maybe you, like so many young people, are "believing" less and "doing" more, using science, music, nature, exercise, pop culture and drugs to do what the ancient Daoist master Zhuangzi called the essence of religion, which was ekstasis — ecstasy — meaning to "step outside" the prism of the ego and experience something greater. Whether that's energy, consciousness, The Force, gods, spirits, crystals, the Matrix, aliens, football or the flying spaghetti monster …
... it shouldn’t matter to anyone else but you.