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A striking statistic greets those who attend the British Museum’s ‘Living with gods’ ongoing exhibition, taken from a Pews Research survey conducted in 2012: 84% of the global population would currently self-identify as religious/remain actively affiliated with a religion.

The exhibition proceeds to suggest that this is unsurprising given the fundamental role of spirituality in the human race. Since time immemorial, we have channelled emotions and thoughts through spiritual media: whether that be an understanding of how things come to be; attempting to ensure good luck and prosperity; aid in dealing with loss or hardship; or reconciling ourselves with the certainty of death. Times may change, but this quality has and will always remain constant, a fact illustrated by the enduring religiosity in our century of reason and science.

This framework sounded compelling to me at the time, but reflection soon raised questions. I remembered reading that religion is on the decline in the west, and a look into the figures supported this: 2017’s British Social Attitudes survey[1] reported a record-high 48.6% of society as possessing atheistic beliefs. More widespread figures for the west in general were summarised well by the BBC just 2 years ago.

Further scrutiny also revealed that this downward trend is noticeable even more amongst western millennials, described in some instances as the least religious generation ever. Whilst this might not come as such a surprise to those living in the UK or western Europe, it is a trend brought to attention particularly by its presence in America, traditionally considered a more conservative and religious nation.

Another Pews Research survey[2], this time from 2015, demonstrably showed how American millennials now are less religious than previous generations were at the same point in life. 50% of millennials answered that they believe in God “with absolute certainty”, compared to 64% of Generation X (born 1965-1980), 69% of Baby Boomers (1946-1964), and 71% of the Silent Generation (1928-1945). 38% of millennials deemed religion “very important in their lives”, versus 53%, 59% and 67% respectively. The general rise in areligiosity amongst western millennials seems hard to dispute on the back of these figures.

Such a reality, however, need not necessarily be the death knell for the BM’s ‘Living with gods’ exegesis regarding spirituality’s integral role. Perhaps western millennials – reacting to a society increasingly built upon foundations of science and the empirical – are replacing traditional religious views with other forms of spiritual outlet which do not clash so awkwardly on difficult questions?

A Google search on the matter raises some intriguing suggestions. “Millennials Replacing Religion with Witchcraft”[3] tops the search page, duly followed by references to “astrology”, “tarot cards” and “surge in palm-reading classes”.

Whilst for some these might be pursuits based on genuine beliefs, it is hard to see them as much more than fads temporarily partaken in by trendy 30-somethings in Santa Monica and Greenwich Village. I for one do not have any friends who possess a deck of tarot cards. A nascent western religion based on revived probability games and horoscopes pushes the imagination too far for credibility.

Superstitions such as tarot cards and horoscope readings are seeing a revival amongst millennials

Maybe, after all, a sea change has occurred so significant that the former ‘need’ for spiritual manifestation no longer remains?

Dr Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, sees a decline in religion as inseparable from the west’s burgeoning emphasis on individualism. She made the following comments in a 2015 interview[4] with the Huffington Post:

“We found that religious involvement was low when individualism was high. Individualism is a cultural system that places more emphasis on the self and less on social rules. Individualism can conflict with religion, especially as religion usually involves following certain rules and being part of a group.”

This sounds like a compelling general sociological explanation, but one which cannot account for the specific timing of this phenomenon. The truth is that individualism is far from a latent world outlook in western societies, its traces extending beyond Daniel Defoe’s homo economicus of the 18th century right to the 16th century Protestant reformation.

Whilst this model maintained religious conviction whilst reducing spiritual-communal reliance and elevating the self (borne as it was from a rift in Christianity), the notion that Protestant work ethic and introspectiveness gradually morphed into secularism is not a new one. Fundamental tenets of this form of Christianity prioritise the need for the individual to take care of his own soul and sins, diminishing the responsibility of the church and collective. The link between this and insular economic pursuit is not a difficult one to see.

For the best part of 400 years, however, such shifts did not give way to the seismic deterioration in religiosity being exhibited now. Other contemporary changes must be at play.

Nor can the charge against materialism/capitalism be maintained as the sole driving force. In England, Victorian society upheld strict Christian virtues and standards, whilst relentlessly pursuing capital, in an environment of imperial rapacity and the aftermath of the highly enabling Industrial Revolution. The exact same occurred across the Atlantic in America in the same period; the Rockefellers and other bulwarks of the Gilded Age all possessed strong, traditional religious views.

When these factors are considered alongside traits and quirks relevant to western millennials as a demographical group, however, a spiritual-sceptic concoction begins to materialise.

Sociologist Michael Hout analysed the Pews data mentioned above and devised his own unusual explanation:

“Most age differences at any given time are the legacy of the times people grew up in. Many millennials have parents who are Baby Boomers and Boomers expressed to their children that it’s important to think for themselves – that they find their own moral compass. Also, they rejected the idea that a good kid is an obedient kid. That’s at odds with organizations, like churches, that have a long tradition of official teaching and obedience. And more than any other group, millennials have been and are still being formed in this cultural context. As a result, they are more likely to have a “do-it-yourself” attitude toward religion.”[5]

In other word, millennials’ attitudes towards religious conviction have been coloured by the attitudes of their parents. Children growing up in the late 50s-early 70s have been coined the ‘latchkey kids’, as statistically they grew up in empty houses with both parents working late. The independence honed as a result – accentuated by the liberalisation of the 60s – shaped the similarly self-instructing approach to parenting mentioned by Hout which millennials received as a result. This, he postulates, accounts for why millennials are more suspicious of big governing institutions/powers, including that of religion.

The issue with such generalisations is that there will always be countless exceptions and un-conforming cases. But, after all, we are dealing with big data when considering the status of religion worldwide. It therefore appears most probable that the ‘typical’ western millennial experience – one of independence and natural cynicism of all things purporting to be an authority – is combining with its context of a society which inexorably favours individual pursuit and personal gain.

The aforementioned rise in faddy spirituality is therefore better seen as the re-emergence of atavistic spiritual trends in an environment of image and consumption. Rather than comprising the alternative to religion, such activities are the offspring of the very social conditions which are leading to spirituality’s decline amongst the young.

The confidence in spirituality of ‘Living with gods’ is still healthily supported by global data, namely the 84% figure. Equally true, however, is that religion’s potency is beginning to waver in the affluent, capitalist and individualistic societies of the West. As significant eastern powers start to establish themselves in these same economical and social criteria, spirituality might find itself inhabiting a diminishing place in the human psyche it has governed for so many years. But only God knows the accuracy of such predictions.

Marcus Solarz Hendriks