It’s hard to fathom, but religious activity among American young people is at a notable all-time low. Millennials (born ~1980-2000) are less religious than their parents or grandparents, and, though little data has been collected on Millennials little brothers and sisters (Gen Zers, 2000-Present), it is safe to assume they aren’t pumped about revival meetings or Bar Mitzvahs either.
Emma Green, a brilliant senior associate editor at The Atlantic is putting together a series of pieces called “Choosing My Religion,” a play on “losing my religion,” which is the most overdone “rise of the nones” blog title on the Internet. Emma, like I said, is brilliant. You need to always read her stuff and follow her on Twitter. Anyway, here is her introduction to the piece:
In the United States, fewer young Americans identify as religious or attend regular services than members of any other living generation. People in their 20s and early 30s account for more than a third of the country’s “nones,” an academic nickname for the religiously disaffiliated. Religion is no longer the mode through which many people live their lives, and this relatively new state of affairs affects even those who remain religious: It opens up the possibility of beliefs and practices that are not simply inherited, but actively chosen.
This makes some people nervous—for the future of religion, for the strength of cultural mores, and for the health of American communities. And perhaps these worriers have a point. Religion tends to make people happier, healthier, and more civically engaged. It creates a foundation for communal and social life, provides a common set of behavioral rules for people to abide by, and can be a useful guide for navigating the exhaustion and pain of everyday life. Looking out at a generation full of folks who don’t go to church or synagogue or mosque, some sociologists and commentators can’t help but wonder: What will become of us?
As I was reading Emma’s piece last night, I began to wonder, “When it comes down to it, what three or four basic values would draw unbelieving young people to a faith system or “religion?”
So, I started writing. I wrote this piece a number of different ways, but I ultimately landed here.
Here are four core tenets of a yet-to-be created faith that would attract American young people:
1. Celebration of the self.
Each individual person believes he or she is the best person on this planet, and you have to figure out a way affirm that delusion that in a way that doesn’t hurt the feelings of everyone.
Whether young Americans are posting naked pictures and flipping off the camera or are bragging about the number of women they’ve slept with, and get mad when someone records them doing it, the mantra of the under-30 American crowd is, “You do you, boo.”
If a faith system is going to attract young people en masse would encourage pride, not humility. It would encourage people to “give it up” for themselves instead of giving themselves up to something else. Selfies and self-help books are both hot right now, so if you can figure out a way to base your sacred text around the idea of “Celebrate Your Selfie,” you’ll be set.
Also, young people are super into “stories” and “adventures,” right now. So if you can figure out a way to create a worship experience that walks them through the story of how awesome they are by singing songs and listening to motivational speakers, JUST DO IT.
A key point to remember is this: each of these core tenets of this faith must not violate one of the others. So, for example, a young-people-savvy faith encourages the celebration of the self inasmuch as it does not create an intolerance of other or a burden on the weak.
2. Tolerance of the other.
A faith system created to attract young people must understand the great importance of tolerance, for if it doesn’t, it will not be tolerated!
The utmost value in humanity’s quest to celebrate the self without consequence and yank the weak out of their weakness is to tolerate the views of everyone, as long as they’re tolerant of yours.
You see, this is where tolerance gets tricky A faith created to attract American youth must be alert and always aware of what the populous has deemed worthy to be tolerated. For instance, in colonial America, the populous was not tolerant of morally relative sexual ethics. However, today the tables have turned, and the populous has decided it is not tolerant of those who do not tolerate morally relative sexual ethics.
I hope you’re keeping up if you have any desire to attract young people.
If you want to tolerate the right people, the “other,” you must be aware of who is to be tolerated and who is not. Because it could change at any given moment, and if you misstep, it could mean harsh fines, angry emails, and references in Slate!
These principles apply to all matters of tolerance. A faith system that hopes to attract young people will be a faith system that knows what should and should not be tolerated at any given time, which can be a challenge because of its chameleonic qualities.
3. Empowerment of the weak.
Caring for others is one of the primary ways young people prefer to celebrate the self, so this tenet works hand-in-glove with the first. But, like “tolerating the other,” beware, fait- forger, that the “weak,” can be relative, especially when it comes to the matter of born and unborn children.
But, regardless, a faith that draws 21st Century American young people will care for the orphan and the widow, the sojourner and the homeless. Quite frankly, among many unbelieving young people I know, this is the most appealing aspect of many of the most common faiths in America today, namely, Christianity.
Young people, particularly Millennials, are activist-oriented, so a faith built to reach young people would engage this.
4. Discovery of the unknown.
Young people are fascinated by the “beyond,” and that which they cannot see. A faith system that is interested in attracting young people would be prudent to engage this wonder. However, in engaging this wonder, it is best to not attempt to provide any answer that cannot be proven by empirical means. “Belief” or “faith in that which one cannot measure,” isn’t a popular concept among young people, really, so it is fun to engage the sense of wonderment, but not build one’s faith or value system around such wonder. It would be good to find ways to couple the “discovery of the unknown” principle with the popularity of the personal narrative. A faith system whose gospel is self-celebration on the way to wondrous discovery would be “on point.”
It remains to be seen if young Americans will engage faith systems as they age. Historically, as Americans age, they become more religious. However, there appears to be significant reason to doubt this will be the case for Millennials and Gen Zers like it has been for their predecessors.
What religion will young people choose? Will it encompass one or all of these tenets?