Stephen Prothero: Is religion losing the millennial generation?

Religions seem ancient, and many are. But they all began somewhere, and a considerable number began in the USA. The most successful new religious movements of the 19th and 20th centuries ”” Mormonism and Scientology ”” were both “made in America.” And according to J. Gordon Melton of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, Americans continue to pump out new religions at a rate of about 40 to 50 per year.

For the past two years, I have asked students in my introductory religion courses at Boston University to get together in groups and invent their own religions. They present their religious creations to their classmates, and then everyone votes (with fake money in a makeshift offering plate) for the new religions they like best. This assignment encourages students to reflect on what separates “winners” and “losers” in America’s freewheeling spiritual marketplace. It also yields intriguing data regarding what sort of religious beliefs and practices young people love and hate.

The new religious concoctions my students stir up might seem to mirror the diversity of American religion itself. Students tantalize one another with a religion (Dessertism) that preaches the stomach as the way to the soul, another (The Congregation of Wisdom) that honors Jeopardy! phenom Ken Jennings as its patron saint, and yet another (Exetazo) dedicated to sorting out the pluses and minuses of all the other religions so you can find a faith tailored to your own unique personality.

What strikes me most about my students’ religions, however, is how similar they are…

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Posted in * Culture-Watch, * International News & Commentary, America/U.S.A., Religion & Culture, Young Adults

7 comments on “Stephen Prothero: Is religion losing the millennial generation?

  1. John Wilkins says:

    So where is the religion that cares about what the bible says about homosexual bishops? Can’t we teach them something about that?

  2. Stefano says:

    Before I run out to get some Torx drivers I will suggest another new Faux faith : “Salty Vicarism” for people with too much time on their hands and nothing to say!

  3. TWilson says:

    A few thoughts: first, while I agree many traditional faiths do a poor job “listening to and learning from” young people, is there not a limit to how much a faith can do this and retain its core?; and second, is this article really communicating a fresh insight, or just iterating on the general observation that folks of college age typically rebel against traditional sources of authority? Some scholars focusing on religion and economics (in the broad sense of economics as the study of how humans act and make choices) argue that “hard” religions, ie, those demanding much of adherents, are healthier as institutions than soft ones (Larry Iannaccone’s work is a great starting place). That said, there has been some interesting work done on the varying worship/church styles prefered by individuals of the baby boom generation who either (a) kept going to church or (b) returned/boomeranged, with the latter prefering more participation, entertainment-orientation, experience, etc. One wonders what the boomerangs of this generation will prefer when they return… here’s one example of what might beome more typical:

  4. Wilfred says:

    I wonder if any students have refused to complete the assignment, on the grounds that it is silly and blasphemous? Religions are not something you should “invent”.

  5. Passing By says:

    “American religious institutions are, as a rule, doing a poor job of listening to and learning from this millennial generation”.

    What they should be doing is TEACHING IT, rather than “listening to” its anti-establishment claptrap.

    Allowing “Anything Goes” to be turned into a religion is a deadly societal game. Once it falls apart or people realize its vacuity, it is often to the Triune God, after the fact, that they turn. It saves much pain to realize God’s value in the first place…

  6. cyst says:

    This article sounds more like students not taking the assignment seriously than students actually expressing their religious beliefs. It’s no secret (and nothing new) that college students are often anti-establishment, but come on — Zen Boozism? That sounds more like a student mocking his professor’s dumb assignment than an actual window into the beliefs of an entire generation.

  7. drummie says:

    A “religion” with no dogma or not telling you what to believe or what to do/not do is not even a poorly organized social club. A lot of young people that I deal with routinely seem to want direction. They respect direction that is given evenly. They want to know that there is more than just the here and now. The boomer (I’m guilty and an old one) have dropped the ball so to speak. We led many people into the What Happening Now Does IT Feel Good way of thinking. We as a group decided that none of the past was relevant to us, thast we would remake everything. Boy did we mess it up it seems. I have faith that the younger, 10-20 now, generation is coming back to its senses. I see it happening where parents and grandparents have stayed engaged in their life. Maybe it is as simple as take a kid to church, you might learn from them.