Research indicates that significant numbers of Millennials reject or are at best indifferent to religion. A survey by the Pew Research Center in 2015 concluded that 35% of Millennials (Americans born between 1981 and 1996) identified themselves as religious “nones” and that number appears to be growing. Young people seem to have a general resistance to organized religion or to any system that tends to be formulaic, authoritative and restrict their decisions or lifestyle. Many Millennials have adopted the prevailing attitude that religion is out of tune with the times and irrelevant to their life. Apart from those enrolled in religious institutions of higher learning, most college and graduate students and young professionals simply lack the interest to engage in any formal involvement in religious practices.
At the same time, studies also indicate that Millennials treasure meaning and purpose in much of what they do, especially in their work and in relationships, along with positive “do-good” mission trips. They are less motivated by money and professional advancement than previous generations. However, because today’s Millennials are also the products of moral relativism, religiously taught on many college campuses, their relationships are becoming more unsustainable since relationship-building requires the very values that are being called into question. In addition, they wrestle, as we all do, with the seeming randomness of life where bad things seem to happen for apparently no reason.
At the very least, faith-based communities can offer Millennials some solace and comfort by offering a warm and accepting community during difficult moments. One of my students, a woman in her mid-20’s who recently lost her father, was blown away by how comforting her faith-based community was, in this case the Jewish community. Not a religious person per se, she nonetheless found the Shiva, the week-long period of mourning Jewish tradition mandates, very comforting. During the week, her home was filled with streams of visitors offering comfort, prayers and mountains of food. She felt the embrace of the community when she most needed it and it got her to see the value in some of the other Jewish rituals and traditions.
But that’s just one advantage religion has for Millennials. Perhaps even more importantly, religion offers a moral compass, a value system so desperately needed to navigate the turbulent waters of morality and ethical issues with which we are all confronted. Ethical relativism and value neutrality make today’s world a confusing place with little definition of where the lines for right and wrong are drawn. Even more reason for organized religion to share its teachings that have been developed over millennia. The cohort of 18-29-year-olds are frequently unmoored by the shifts in what is and isn’t acceptable with regards to ethics in the workplace and morality in social relationships. It's time for the clergy to step up, reach out and help young people find guidelines that will resonate and provide a haven. Religious leaders have become convinced that young people simply don't care about what we have to say and that is just not the case. Young people are looking for guidance. We just must make a compelling case for how a core teaching of our faith can make a difference.
One example where religion can provide guidance is by helping to provide values and guidelines for healthy relationships. One Millennial student of mine (let’s call him Josh) had been dating a young woman and was about to move in with her. He was conflicted by the pressure to get married on one hand and a few red flags signaling caution, on the other. Seeking some breathing room to reflect, Josh decided to join us on our weeklong trip to Israel which also included classes on religious values and ethics. In his own words Josh said, “While dating, particularly in a secular context, I didn’t apply any kind of religious values. Upon reflection, I realized those values could help guide me in making my decision. The classes and readings made me acutely aware of the value of family and among other things, the woman I was dating was disrespectful to my parents, a core Jewish value.”
Josh continued, “Were it not for these values, I would have walked into a dead-end marriage.”
The spiritual void many Millennials feel in their lives has also been filled to some degree with technology. Not successfully of course. No one really believes an electronic device can speak to the deeper existential part of who are but we have done a pretty good job at distracting ourselves with technology. Like anything else though "it comes out in the wash”. There will be those moments when Millennials feel so unfulfilled, so empty because they’ve spent hours online, ‘connecting’ with others, yet feeling so disconnected.
I have felt that way often after “spending time” with my kids while we're all on our devices. The time goes by and there’s this emptiness, like we were with each other but we weren’t. This void can be filled by religions that offer a “time-out” or some version of a Sabbath. In Jewish tradition, as my kids know, Friday night through Saturday we go into a “no phone zone” for 24 hours, detoxing from the rest of the week. It is a day of being “unplugged”. The freedom from technology allows us to hit “pause" so we can seek the higher purpose of our lives that eludes us during the week. That “pause” may include many different activities, ranging from study and prayer to communal rituals, socializing and even board games which force us to connect in a way we usually do not all week. Unplugging is one of the great ways religion can help Millennials truly feel more connected, both to each other and to something that approaches the spiritual.
Another major benefit religion can offer Millennials is to show how greater levels of happiness can be achieved by being more aware of the blessings we already have. We constantly yearn for what we don't have while we overlook the blessings we do possess: health, a roof over our head, family, the company of good friends. Judaism and other faith systems compel us to acknowledge those gifts through the simple recitation of a blessing. Whether the blessing is made over food or the discharge of bodily waste (there is in fact such a blessing in Judaism), uttering a few words helps focus us on what we do have and that makes us into more grateful people. Studies show the more grateful the person, the happier and more content he or she is.
These are but a few of the advantages religion can offer Millennials and really all of us. We all yearn for something deeper which will give us greater meaning and purpose. The click of the keyboard and the tap of a phone app may give us access to the world but only religion can provide a portal to the sublime.
Rabbi Mark Wildes is the Founder and Director of Manhattan Jewish Experience; an events and educational organization for Jewish millennials.