Millennials haven’t forgotten spirituality, they’re just looking for new venues

March 3, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Millennials are turning away from religion faster than any other age group, yet the majority still believe in god or a universal spirit and are hungry for meaningful connection. Casper ter Kuile, a researcher at Harvard University, shares his honest opinion on the changing shape of American religion and how millennials are creating new forms of spiritual community.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, as the world’s Christians begin Lent, a six-week period of introspection in preparation for Easter, reflections from Casper ter Kuile, a researcher at Harvard University, who shares his humble opinion on the soul survival happening outside America’s churches.

CASPER TER KUILE, Harvard University: I grew up never going to church.

And as a 30-year-old married man, I still don’t, not because I don’t value reflection, community, even the experience of the divine. I do. But traditional religious congregations don’t appeal to me. And I’m not alone.

Millennials are turning away from religion faster than any other age group. And according to the Pew Research Center, more than a third of Americans between 18 and 35 are now unaffiliated, meaning, when asked on a survey what religious identity they hold, they answer none of the above.

But what’s really interesting is that the overwhelming majority of us nones aren’t necessarily atheists. Two-thirds believe in God or a universal spirit, and one in five even pray every day.

We aren’t young people who hate religion. It’s a growing group that feel like they have been left behind by religious institutions.

In a move that confused a lot of my friends and family, I have found countless examples of other millennials creating new forms of community that often fulfill the same functions that a traditional religious group would have.

And they come in all shapes and sizes. It might be a regular meal with strangers to share honestly one’s experience after losing a loved one, like the organization The Dinner Party. Within a few years, The Dinner Party has spread to 116 cities across the U.S. hosted by volunteers who create sacred spaces for their guests.

It might be lifting weights and climbing ropes five mornings a week like at CrossFit. And if you have a friend involved in a CrossFit, you will know how evangelical that community is.

Or it might be experiencing healing and forgiveness through movement and meditation at Afro Flow Yoga.

Each of these communities and others like them shape participants’ world views, ethics and behaviors. And in a culture where many are hungry for connection, these communities offer the experience of being part of something bigger than themselves, what some theologians might describe as experiencing the divine.

Now, you may dismiss these communities as simple entertainment, but we’re convinced that this is the new face of religious life in America. Just as you would expect in a religious congregation, people in these communities build friendships and drive one another to the hospital when they need a ride.

They help each other raise money to fight cancer. And some are even getting involved in struggles for more affordable housing. While a few thousand churches close every year, many fewer open. So, as you drive through your town and notice an empty house of worship, pay attention next time you see a community workspace, a climbing gym or a micro-brewery.

They may just be the new center of soulful community that you have been looking for.

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