As Spirituality Rises, Many Young People Are Redefining and Rethinking Religion

Autor: Liz Bucar

Believers is a series running throughout April, examining different facets of faith and religion among young people.

Once reserved for that one woo-woo friend who does a lot of yoga, we’ve seen things like crystals, tarot cards, and other symbols of spirituality go mainstream recently. The shift is evident across social media, where manifesting goes viral and angel numbers are commonplace.

According to a study Pew released in December 2023, 21% of adult Americans who identify as “spiritual but not religious” are ages 18 to 29, and 37% are between 30 and 49. A separate study released in January found religious membership of young Americans was lower than other demographics – 29% of Americans who have no religious affiliation are 18 to 29, compared to just 13% of all adults over 65. Only 18% of Americans under 30 attend church weekly, according to a recent study by PRRI, compared to 33% of Americans 65 or older. The same study found young people are also the least likely to read sacred texts or donate money to religious organizations.

Are young adults trending more spiritual, and if yes, why? And how exactly do they define spirituality? Teen Vogue asked 17 young people what spirituality means to them. Here is what we learned:

The Rise of Spirituality

The concept of spirituality has a long history in the U.S. From Native Americans, to Transcendentalists, to Alcoholics Anonymous, to new age seekers who, in the 1970s, adopted a hodgepodge of spiritual practices in the pursuit of alternative ways of life — spirituality has increasingly become seen as a category separate from religion.

Scholars of religion like Nancy Ammerman suggest that spirituality as distinct from religion is somewhat of a branding exercise — we can label spiritual the parts of religion we like, and religion the parts that we don’t. But if young people we spoke to are any barometer, the distinction isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

How Young People Define Spirituality

When asked “What does spirituality mean to you?” the young people we spoke to gave several responses, including believing in a higher power, magic, or miracles; making sense of the universe; connecting to nature; nourishing their soul; and having a sense of awe. Delaney Wallace, a 24-year-old from Anderson, South Carolina, said that for her, spirituality offers a “language for experiencing this life.”

They referred to specific practices when asked to give examples of spirituality – mindfulness, meditation, yoga, prayer, tarot card readings, viewing art – making it clear that, for many, spirituality is something one does, not only something one believes in.

Young people don’t think institutions play the same role in spirituality as they do with religion. Evelyn Stovin, who grew up in Federal Way, Washington explained, “religious Christians go to church often.” In contrast, someone who is spiritually Christian may “follow their faith in God and the Bible.” “They may still go to church,” she said, “but it is not as important as their individual faith.”

Most mentioned that you can customize spirituality and several said that they adopt practices from many traditions and communities. Zeennah Akorede, a 19-year-old from Antioch, Illinois, said her peers think spirituality allows more choice when compared to religion, and doesn’t feel like “something that requires too much of us.” She added, spirituality “is like choosing your own adventure.”

Spirituality Avoids Pitfalls of Religion

Most of the young people we spoke to thought their generation was more interested in spirituality than their parents. When asked why they thought that was the case, the most frequent answers were about how spirituality avoids some of religion’s pitfalls.

Several mentioned that they view religious institutions as corrupt and believe that spirituality avoids this sort of baggage (though this isn’t necessarily the case). Lesrene Browne, a 21-year-old from Paterson, New Jersey, whose parents are devout Seventh-day Adventists, told us that she thinks young people turn to spirituality because they have negative associations with religious institutions, but are “still invested in finding a higher truth.”

Most of the young people we spoke to thought spirituality was more compatible with their values than the religion of their parents. Blair Carpenter from Portland, Maine, told us religion “can be rooted in outdated, conservative values that no longer align with our more progressive vision of the future.”

Keanna Smigliani, a 25-year-old from Hudson, New Hampshire, shared that the reason she no longer attends services is because she doesn’t agree with the moral teachings of her parent’s Evangelical church. “My parents can look past those differences and enjoy the community and routine of church,” Keanna said. “That was not enough for me.” Mackenzie Fitzpatrick, a 27-year-old from Winston Salem, North Carolina, shared a similar reason for leaving her childhood church. She was raised Catholic but when she asked her priest why women couldn’t be ordained “he was unable to give me any answer that was not deeply rooted in sexism.” That is when she realized that she “couldn’t align with that belief system any longer.”

The issue turning young people away from religion more than any other is the anti-LGBTQ+ positions of some religious communities. A recent study by PRRI found that 60% of young adults who no longer identify with their childhood religion left because of negative teachings and treatment of gay and lesbian people. Stovin, who identifies as queer, says this is related to an increased interest in spirituality in their community. “More people who are raised Christian are becoming more spiritual because the faith may still be important to them, but the institution is hostile.”

To be sure, there are many LGBTQ+ friendly religious organizations. And spirituality comes with its own baggage of alt-right politics and conspiracy theories. But the overwhelming impression of the young adults we spoke to was that spirituality avoids the problems of religion.

Utility of Spirituality

Many young people are drawn to spirituality as a way to try to cope with the stress uncertainty, whether radical Supreme Court decisions that shrink their basic rights, ongoing warfare and violence, or pending climate catastrophe. Sophie Esteves Varvella Vicente, a 22-year-old from Springfield, New Jersey thinks spirituality “has become a safe haven from the impending doom of the 21st century life” because it provides a “semblance of answers for the suffering of the world” and a “path toward something greater.” As Akorede, who is studying political science at the University of Chicago, put it, “the trend of spirituality is hope and hoping that there is something bigger.”

But Michael Hernández, a 25-year-old Episcopalian and Masters in Divinity student, provided a word of caution. He thinks the rise in spirituality is part of a larger trend “where people have retreated to their self-centered eco-systems.” But the truth is, we long “for community and connection,” something, he points out, “religion offers.”

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