The Millennial Generation—consisting of those individuals born between 1980 and 2000—is an oddity when it comes to religion. On the one hand, its members are leaving organized religion in unprecedented numbers. On the other hand, they are not exactly unbelievers.
According to a survey conducted in 2014 by the Pew Research Center, the modal 18-29-year-old identifies as “nothing in particular”: not part of a distinct religious group, but not atheist or agnostic either. Most believe in God with some certainty. Yet it is unclear from this survey just what kind of God they mean, and how they ‘experience’ that God in which they believe.
This puzzle relates to two larger narratives often told about the Millennial Generation. The first narrative claims that because of their many privileges, Millennials are self-focused, immature, and afraid to make strong commitments. An alternate narrative posits that due to growing economic uncertainty and inequality, Millennials are self-reflective, spiritually attune, and unwilling to compromise on core values of self-fulfillment.
The exodus from organized religion generally fits the first narrative: Millennials are the ultimate spiritual individualists who avoid faith commitments. They are the Marlboro men and women of American spirituality. The persistent belief in God fits the second narrative: Millennials are insatiable soul searchers, intrigued by the unseen and unscientific. They like to ask the big questions while rejecting easy answers.
Yet what if these conflicting narratives could be integrated by looking more closely at their patterns of spirituality? What if Millennials seem less religious because they are dissatisfied with the categories of belief that made sense to earlier generations?
Millennials are the ultimate spiritual individualists who avoid faith commitments
Take the issue of God, for example. In survey data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, a cohort of young adults age 24-29 report on their views of God. The categories provided by the researchers include a “personal being involved in the lives of people today”; someone who “created the world but is no longer involved in it”; and something that is “not personal, but something like a cosmic life force.” As in the Pew Center survey, about a third identify as “not religious”; but among these, 16% ascribe to a personal God, and another 27% reject any of these views, while also rejecting the label of atheist or agnostic.
When asked about how they relate to God, an even clearer picture emerges. Millennials tend to be deeply engaged with God and have lots of positive experiences of God. Many of them have a felt and experienced bond with God, not unlike a human-to-human bond, which is distinct from strong religious identities or theological beliefs.
These bonds are multi-faceted. There is evidence they vary along dimensions of intimacy, consistency, anxiety, and anger. Experiences of intimacy and consistency are the most common, suggesting that on the whole Millennials’ experiences of God produce positive emotions. For example, 72% of the survey sample agree with the statement, “I feel like I can always rely on God,” which is an indicator of consistency in the bond. 67% agree with the statement, “I feel God is a close companion in my life,” which is an indicator of intimacy.
These dimensions also go together in interesting ways. While those who are high on intimacy and consistency are lower on anger, they are even higher on anxiety, suggesting that a strong bond with God is also one they are more likely to worry about. This makes sense—we are often anxiously protective of the things we value most. It is interesting, though, to see it play out in Millennials’ relationships with the divine as well.
Finally, bonds with God are not exclusive to those who identify with a religious tradition. 13% of those with no affiliation agree with the statement above about always relying on God, and 11% of those with no affiliation agree with the statement above God being a close companion.
Thus, what Millennials say about their bonds with God in part subverts the narrative about them being highly individualistic or secularized. We see lots of similarity in their responses, suggesting their faith might not be as “individualized” as suspected; and we see lots of positive experiences of God, suggesting they are far from fully secularized. It remains to be seen whether these bonds with God will result in greater interest in organized religion down the road. Nevertheless it is clear that God matters to today’s Millennials, and their God is a distinctly personal one.
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