Millennials Are Faithful, But Not Always Religious

By: Kevin D. Sullivan

July 15, 2013

Being both a “Millennial” and a Catholic trying to live a faithful life, several reports on my generation and our religious affiliations have bothered me over the last few years. It is not so much the declining religiosity of my generation that bothers me, but the clearly paradoxical nature of our “identities.” It seems we are confused about our beliefs and religious practice in a way that must be reconciled.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that one out of every three of 18-22 year-olds are “nones,” the term for the religiously unaffiliated. Gallup found that 18-29 year-olds comprise a significant 27 percent of all “nones.” Yet, of those unaffiliated, only a small fraction identify as atheist or agnostic. One-third of my generation attends religious services once a week. This leaves a gap that seems to be filled more and more by the “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR), perhaps the greatest paradox of the Millennial generation.

These surveys and reports continue to show that my generation has a problem with organized religion. We may not necessarily be more secular, but as sociologist Robert Putnam and David Cambell have found, it seems that the association of religion with political beliefs deemed “intolerant” or “socially conservative” has created a wedge, particularly for young Roman Catholics and Protestants. Sitting “on the fence” can only last for so long. Either Millennials will reconcile our “spiritual” beliefs with the religious institutions of our parents, or accept them to be just another set of values, to be placed alongside our political and social views.

It was an unlikely place – a dimly lit crypt turned chapel at Georgetown University – that shed light on this bothersome paradox for me. Sitting at the basement level of historic Copley Hall, the Copley Crypt faces out towards the Jesuit cemetery, where generations of Jesuit priests and brothers rest, having devoted their entire lives to their faith. The Crypt once served as the location for the wakes of Georgetown Jesuits, who were then taken down the hill to their final resting place. Beautifully decorated in the style of churches in the Holy Land, the chapel appears very traditional. Light filters in through stained glass depicting North American Jesuit martyrs – men who not only gave their lives to their faith, but were killed for it. The Christian theme of death is pervasive.

Yet out of the Crypt, students have found a new religious life - and the answer to the Millennial “paradox.” Three years ago, as a freshman, I rarely attended the 10:00 p.m. nightly mass that is held in Copley Crypt. Maybe ten students attended each night. The numbers were roughly similar last year. But then, something changed. Over the course of the year, the chairs filled. By the end of the year, students entered to find standing room only, from Monday through Thursday. In an incredibly grassroots nature, one student started a Facebook group named the “Nightly Mass Community,” where students share faith reflections or Catholic news. Several other students created a baking “schedule,” volunteering to bake a dessert for after Mass and creating a reason for students to stick around and chat with each other after the service. Regular attendees brought friends who perhaps only attended Mass weekly or were fallen-away Catholics. Some brought friends of other faiths to experience the very intimate nature of Catholic faith in the very small, personal space. The sharp change in attendance – and more importantly, energy – has surprised even the Jesuits who celebrate the Mass. The missing piece to my generation’s unique struggle with faith was community.

The community that naturally sprung out of the efforts of several students is truly “Millennial.” Self-identifying liberals and conservatives, who only hours before were debating each other in class, join hands in prayer. Members of the pro-life student organization and leaders of community service organizations come together, where they previously saw a divide based on understandings of “social justice.” Cradle Catholics share in the same ritual as Muslim or Jewish students who are invited to join in the community. The nightly Mass community does not demonstrate how a return to “orthodoxy” or “reforming” the Catholic Church – or any faith for that matter – will bring Millennials back to the pews. Instead, it demonstrates that my generation is looking for a community of faith in the face of increasing secularism and hostility to religious convictions. If we were giving up on our faith in God – regardless of denomination – then more of us would be atheists and fewer of us would identify as “spiritual.” Surrounded by a culture skeptical of convictive religious belief, we are simply looking for the support of a community.

Armed with this experience, I have a challenge to offer to my generation: do not throw your hands up in the air and wait for the community we seek to form. Instead, try returning to the pews, this time with a friend. If we are truly to find our identity as a generation, we cannot keep living in a paradox of being accepting of others’ convictions and beliefs but denying ourselves our own. The statistics on religion and the Millennial generation demonstrate not that we have rejected “religion,” but instead that we are undecided on how we want to express our religious beliefs.

The cold numbers do not paint the picture that of hope in a way of expressing belief more socially than ever before. The great challenger to secularism, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, knew this as he addressed a crowd of young believers and non-believers alike. His words ring out in the small faith communities of my generation that have found new direction: “You who are believers long to tell your friends that the treasure dwelling within you is meant to be shared.” A social faith is one that enters into communion in more than one way – with God and with our community. It is both inwardly spiritual and outwardly religious, and the answer to the “Millennial” paradox.

This blog was originally published in the Washington Post.
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Millennials Are Faithful, But Not Always Religious