Millennials turn away from organized religion as pandemic tests faith

It is not uncommon for people to seek God in times of trouble. However, the opposite appears to have happened in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic.

A Pew Research Center survey, published earlier this month, found that 29% of US adults said they had no religious affiliation, an increase of 6 percentage points from 2016, with millennials leading the shift. A growing number of Americans said they were lessening the frequency of prayer. About 32% of those surveyed by the Pew Research Center from May 29 to August 25 said they rarely or never pray. This is up from 18% of those polled by the group in 2007.

“The apparent secular shifts in American society so far in the 21st century show no signs of slowing down,” said Gregory Smith, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center.

This trend is prompting an increasing number of religious leaders to try to engage with millennials on their land.

“I use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, Stories and all sorts of things to go where people are, and that is where a lot of young people are,” said Reverend James Martin.

A wake-up call for religious leaders

A parishioner wearing a mask prays at midnight mass on Christmas Eve at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on December 24, 2021 in New York City.

Alexei Rosenfeld | Getty Images

Martin, 61, is a Catholic Jesuit priest in New York City and itinerant editor for America magazine. He is among the religious pastors who embraced social media at the height of the pandemic when places of worship were forced to close their doors.

“I started these Facebook Live programs at the beginning of the pandemic, because I felt people really lacked a sense of community. … Anything I can do to help people face God is important,” Martin said.

However, with churches reopening across the United States, attendance has been slow to recover. Average in-person attendance has fallen 12% over the past 18 months, according to a study published in November and overseen by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

While this trend is cause for concern for houses of worship, it also serves as a wake-up call for religious leaders to improve the way they communicate with their members, Martin said.

“I think it took some time but most churches and religious organizations realized that this needs to be addressed,” he said.

jolt of energy

At New York City’s East End Temple, Rabbi Joshua Stanton gave his sermons a boost of energy in an effort to attract new worshipers.

“My sermon is getting shorter and shorter, more open. And what I’m trying to encourage people to do is discuss it with me. Argue about it. Move in with them. Come and study together so we can all share,” Stanton said.

Stanton, 35, said he also encourages providing a safe haven where members feel free to debate and argue with each other.

The spiritual experience will never go away. The need to find meaning and purpose in our existence will never go away.

New York-based designer Fletcher Eshbow, a modern convert to Judaism, said the debate is what he enjoys most at the East End Synagogue.

“The aspects of the arguments and the conflicts are very important,” Eshbo said. “And I think that’s definitely one of the pillars of Judaism…this intellectual pursuit.”

While many millennials are leaving organized religion, Ishbo converted to Judaism after learning about Jewish traditions through a couple of close friends many years ago. He was not raised religious but immediately felt a sense of belonging and loyalty.

He said, “I find a sense of spiritual and intellectual wholeness and an understanding of my place in the world by being Jewish. Constantly asking questions and challenging ideas through Judaism satisfies me.”

No topic off the table

Reverend Jackie Lewis of the Voting for Common Good group speaks to voters during a rally at Mission Hills Christian Church in Los Angeles, California, on October 31, 2018.

Mark Ralston | AFP | Getty Images

Elsewhere in New York City, younger Christian adherents are flocking to Middle East Side Collegiate Church, where Reverend Jackie Lewis says no topic is on the table. It encourages devotees – most of whom are millennials – to get involved and take a stand on political issues.

“We put social justice and democracy at the center of faith in a way that really speaks to young people,” Lewis said. “We’ve done an incredible amount of campaigning for the right to vote, the right to choose for women, immigrant rights and racial justice.”

While Lewis said her teachings were inspired by the Bible, her approach was on the progressive political side, emphasizing spirituality and community more than the Bible. Middle Collegiate said on its website that its church is “the place where therapy meets Broadway…where old religion gets a new twist.”

While some people may see this paradigm alter the traditional relationship Christians have with God, Lewis embraces it, saying, “It’s exciting to me, I’m trying to get God out of the box.”

The Central Colleges Church’s membership grew by 500 members during the pandemic — even though the 128-year-old church building was destroyed last year by a fire. Lewis said she now has 1,900 members.

Congregationalist Barron Allen said he grew up in a conservative Christian home in Mississippi, but as a gay man, he struggled to feel accepted by his community.

“I was a Baptist Christian. And that’s the way we saw things – and the way you communicated -… you had to do things literally the way the Bible says. But I feel the Bible and Jesus Christ believe in love no matter what. I feel like I’ve found That’s in the middle… It’s all about love — and love, period,” Allen said.

Disagreements over the place of church doctrine on specific issues continue to be a struggle for a number of younger Catholics.

“When it comes to the Catholic Church, there are some important differences between the church’s teachings and what young Catholics believe,” Martin said. “I think the ordination of women and the way the church treats homosexuals are probably among the two biggest problems.”

“I think the difference is that maybe 25 years ago, people would have said, ‘Ah, how can I remain Catholic and have difficulties with the teachings of the Church?'” Now, I suppose, the young men only say ‘I’m leaving,’ said Martin. ‘Right? There is much less tolerance for what they see as intolerant behaviour, in their opinion.”

People flock to retreats

Deepak Chopra, founder of the Chopra and Chopra Global Foundation, speaks during the Milken Institute’s global conference in Beverly Hills, California, on October 18, 2021.

Kyle Grelot | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Spiritual leader Deepak Chopra said, “Some of the things we are told in traditional religion do not seem logical or rational, and more and more people are questioning these teachings.”

However, Chopra believes that the interest in belonging to a community and finding connection has never been stronger.

“The pandemic has shown us that people do not like isolation… [In] He said that the absence of that human need for love, compassion, joy, sharing, attention, affection, appreciation and gratitude… people panicked.”

These past two years have certainly tested my faith – it is hard to find meaning in the many lives that are taken from us.

Mega Desai

Non-Profit Leader, Desai Foundation

Chopra, 75, is the author of 97 books with topics ranging from Jesus and Buddha to metaverses. He has amassed a following around the world and speaks at notable events throughout the year. As founder of the Chopra Foundation, he hosts global retreats where spiritual minds come to heal, meditate and connect.

“The retreats are full,” he said. “We just finished one in Mexico and another in Los Angeles. People are flocking to these retreats.”

Events can cost thousands to attend. A week-long retreat planned for next month in Carefree, Arizona, ranges in price from $6000 to $8000. Chopra said people are skipping church to attend these retreats, and he stressed that the decline in religious practice may raise questions about how society is changing — but not about our spiritual nature.

“The spiritual experience will never go away,” he said. “The need to find meaning and purpose in our existence will never go away. The need to resolve inevitable suffering will never go away.”

As the pandemic continues, he said, the younger generation’s attachment to spirituality is one way to connect with them.

Faith is at stake

Nonprofit leader Mega Desai, who is Hindu, was raised in Boston but regularly spends time in India. She was worshiped in beautiful temples in both countries. But Desai, who now lives in New York City, said the pandemic has changed her relationship with religion, prompting her to ask more questions.

“The past two years have definitely tested my faith,” Desai said. “Because it is hard to find meaning in the many lives that are lost among us.”

Desai is still known as a Hindu, and she shares that her relationship with God has developed over time.

Desai said, “I come closer to my relationship with God from a spiritual place than through the medium of religion. … I believe the Hindu rituals I participate in are festivals like Diwali, which connect me more with my culture than my faith.” , who runs the Desai Foundation, a non-profit organization that empowers women and girls through community-based programs to improve health and livelihoods in India.

Chopra said this quest to answer life’s toughest questions will always be pivotal to people, even if young Americans continue to leave organized religion.

“Some of the things we are told in traditional religion do not seem logical or rational,” he said. “So people leave…but humans still have the same questions: Is there a meaning or purpose in our existence? Why do we suffer?”

CNBC’s Katie Young contributed to this article.

Correction: Reverend James Martin is a Catholic Jesuit priest in New York City and itinerant editor for America Magazine. An earlier version misspelled his name.



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