Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Is religion losing the millennial generation?

I read this article in yesterday's USA Today. It really gets at the heart of the issue with our youth. I'll probably use parts of it in my Friars Corner for this week, but check out the story:

If you asked college students in an introductory religion course to create their own faith, what might you get? Dessertism, which insists that the stomach is the way to the soul, and Zen Boozism, which seeks self-discovery through alcohol — for starters. But you’d also see a growing problem for the ‘traditional’ faiths that treat the young as an afterthought.

By Stephen Prothero

Religions seem ancient, and many are. But they all began somewhere, and a considerable number began in the USA. The most successful new religious movements of the 19th and 20th centuries — Mormonism and Scientology — were both "made in America." And according to J. Gordon Melton of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, Americans continue to pump out new religions at a rate of about 40 to 50 per year.

For the past two years, I have asked students in my introductory religion courses at Boston University to get together in groups and invent their own religions. They present their religious creations to their classmates, and then everyone votes (with fake money in a makeshift offering plate) for the new religions they like best. This assignment encourages students to reflect on what separates "winners" and "losers" in America's freewheeling spiritual marketplace. It also yields intriguing data regarding what sort of religious beliefs and practices young people love and hate.

The new religious concoctions my students stir up might seem to mirror the diversity of American religion itself. Students tantalize one another with a religion (Dessertism) that preaches the stomach as the way to the soul, another (The Congregation of Wisdom) that honors Jeopardy! phenom Ken Jennings as its patron saint, and yet another (Exetazo) dedicated to sorting out the pluses and minuses of all the other religions so you can find a faith tailored to your own unique personality.

What strikes me most about my students' religions, however, is how similar they are. Almost invariably, they mix fun with faith. (Facebookismianity anyone?) But they do not mix faith with dogma. My students are careful — exceedingly careful — not to tell one another what to believe, or even what to do. Above all, they want to be tolerant and non-judgmental. Most of the religions my students developed were fully compatible with other religions.

They made few demands, either intellectually or morally. Repeatedly, their founders stress that you can join their religion without leaving Catholicism or Judaism or Islam behind.

'Dogma aversion'

During the 1930s, the neoorthodox theologian H. Richard Niebuhr skewered liberal Protestants for preaching "a God without wrath (who) brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."

But my students' "dogma aversion" (as one put it) goes liberal Protestantism one further. These young people aren't just allergic to dogma. They are allergic to divinity and even heaven. In the religions of their imagining, God is an afterthought at best. And the afterlife is, as one of my students told me, "on the back burner."

What my students long for is not salvation after they die but happiness (or, in the case of Euphorianity, euphoria) here and now. They want less stress and more sleep. (In fact, two student religions — Sertaism and ZZZ — emphasize the importance of a good night's sleep.) They want to discover themselves and to give voice to their discoveries. They want to experience joy because of their bodies, not despite them. And they don't want to be told what to do with those bodies, or with whom.

My students are not libertines, however. A religion that takes the lyrics of the reggae star Bob Marley as gospel (Eudaimonism) says nothing about smoking pot. The founders of Zen Boozism (a "religion of togetherness" in which alcohol lubricates the pathway to "self-expression and self-discovery") insist that its followers drink in moderation. And a faith based on the grooves of rapper Tupac Shakur teaches that those who do not follow the ethical injunction to "respect the rhythm" will trade in a glorious postmortem "After Party" for eternal silence.

A couple years ago, Andy Deemer, a documentary filmmaker from Brooklyn, advertised for a new messiah for a new religion. The pay was $5,000, and the only requirement was that the winner spread the word for a couple of months.

The winner, and the subject of my god, Deemer's not-yet-completed documentary, was Joshua Boden, a bassist in a rock band called the Angelic Bombs. The religion Boden invented goes by the Church of Now, and one of its 14 precepts is "This life is the one that counts; this IS your eternal reward." To which I can practically hear my students cheering, "Amen!"

What of tradition?

In their final exam this past semester, I asked my students to reflect on whether young Americans are the canaries in the mines of more traditional religions. Study after study has shown that American college students are fleeing from organized religion to mix-and-match spirituality. So what will happen to what one of my students referred to as the "religions of discipline" when this millennial generation (born in the late 1970s through the 1990s ) grows up? What will today's youth do with religions whose ethical injunctions arrive as strict commandments rather than friendly suggestions? Will they be able to abide religions that divide the human family into the saved and the damned, that present as absolute truth what they suspect is mere speculation?

My students' projects suggest that traditional religions are in trouble. Of course, these young people might eventually see the light. Who cares about heaven or hell when there is a party to go to and a hot young thing eager to meet you there? But after college, after your children are born and your parents die and your body grows old, traditional religions might look more appealing.

One of my students, Carrie-Anne Solana, told me that the religions her colleagues presented in class amounted to nothing more than "organized atheism." "They took normal human impulses," such as eating, drinking, sleeping, having sex and socializing, she said, "and justified them under the title of religion while not offering any form of explanation into why we are here, where we came from or where we go when we die."

Even so, I can't help but think that priests, rabbis, imams and ministers would do well to engage in interfaith dialogue not only with one another but also with this "spiritual but not religious" generation. One of the biggest challenges to any ancient faith is to adapt to modern circumstances and then, as circumstances change, to adapt again. American religious institutions are, as a rule, doing a poor job of listening to and learning from this millennial generation. Far too often, religious services in the USA are of the adults, by the adults and for the adults. And don't think young people aren't noticing.

Yes, the religions that students conjure up in my courses tend toward vagueness and relativism. Often they seek to entertain as much as to enlighten. But because they are invented rather than inherited, these religious creations provide a glimpse into the concerns and convictions, hopes and fears of young Americans, who are slouching not toward Bethlehem or even atheism, but toward new ways of being religious — innovative ways that ancient religions ignore at their peril.

Stephen Prothero is the chair of Boston University's Department of Religion and the author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn't.


  1. I wouldn't say it's my generation's fault. I was born in 87 and I was a die-hard atheist for 5 years all through high school and my first year of college and looking back now, I'm not surprised at all that I went that way. The religious education I got really had no substance. The picture of God I got straight from Kindergarten on through middle school and even into high school (I think I finally convinced my parents to let me drop out of CCD a few months into 9th grade) was this old wrinkled guy with long white hair floating off in space some where poofing things into existence. As I got older and my grasp on reality grew more sophisticated and wanted more, was I was getting in religious ed just didn’t grow with it. No one gave me any reason I should believe in God, helped me see where the Bible came from (until very recently Protestants had me convinced it fell out of the sky and Christians only believe in God because the Bible said so, which made no sense to me and was nothing but circular reasoning), nobody seemed to know the answer to “if God was so powerful why does he need a bunch of lowly humans to worship him in order to be happy” or “if God is so loving and merciful, why does he send people to Hell” or “how do we know Christianity’s right when the majority of the world doesn’t believe it. How do we know Islam or Hinduism isn’t right?”. All I seemed to get from religious ed was “love everyone and feed the hungry and be happy because Jesus loves you”. I had no base whatsoever on which to fit God into the adult view of the world that I was starting to develop. Tie into that a modern education which basically tells us we have to accept everyone’s opinions and beliefs as potentially correct or we’re evil and “close-minded”(the magic term right there to stop anyone from holding any definitive beliefs), and you have the perfect upbringing for a relativistic, religion-doubting generation. It wasn’t until I did my own research and discovered the treasure trove which are the writings of the Church Fathers and people like Thomas Aquinas that I learned that all the questions I had back in middle school and high school actually had been answered a long, long time ago and that it is actually possible to bring God into an adult view of reality and that Theology doesn’t stop at “Believe in God because God loves you! Plus you’ll go to Hell if you don’t!”. So yeah, that’s the short version of my take on the issue. The fluffy-hippy-love generation’s catechesis just didn’t satisfy the internet-information-age generation’s need to know.

  2. I've listened to Stephen Prothero speak in lecture via CSPAN...and I purchased his book but was not able to weather it to the end. His own faith strikes me as far to analytical (of course I understand that he is not teaching faith itself...but about religion as a construct).

    One of my foolish fears used to be that I would die in a world without faith. That there would be no one left to cart me to my own funeral or pray for me while I lanquished in purgatory. That I would have to be 'pulled up' rather than 'pushed in'.

    To my great joy I have witnessed so much renewal and faith among the generation he just described. They are rebels of sorts...ranters...and 'Trads'...but many have been hit by 'life without faith' and have found it empty to the point of despair.