The Spiritual but Not Religious Millennial

What do Millennials Believe?

According to recent research, many Millennials consider themselves spiritual but not religious. What does today’s spiritual but not religious Millennial believe about God and the supernatural?

You may be reading this hoping for a handy list of Millennial’s–people currently between the age of 18 and 35–religious beliefs. While it would be wonderful if I could give you that, it’s not as easy as you might think. For one thing, we’re talking about a whole generation. It’s huge, over seven million people in Canada alone (depending on how you count). Generalizations can be risky, so we should be cautious and not paint with too broad a brush. For another, belief is probably not the best way to get at what is going on with Millennials, especially if they are spiritual but not religious.

‘Belief’ is a typically Western way of thinking about religion. It is actually a little biased. To ask what Hindus, Mormons, Sufis, Zoroastrians, and nature lovers believe comes from a very Protestant idea that sacred texts contain holy tenets. If we believe these tenets that makes us believers or members of the faith. Yet, not all religions operate like this. Spiritual but not religious is a good example of a way of being religious that is not centered on a single holy text or canon. Overall, asking what Millennials believe may be slightly artificial; we might have to ask different questions to get closer to understanding the spiritual worldview of Millennials. So, let’s begin by considering whether spirituality matters to Millennials. What does the research show?

Does Spirituality Matter to Millennials?

There are two different ways to answer this.

The first is, “Yes!” Fifty four percent of Canadian teens say they have spiritual needs. And why wouldn’t they? They are conscious and aware like their parents, and they live in a crazy fast world. They have questions and they are good at finding answers. Spirituality is one way of getting some of their questions answered.

The second answer is, “Sort of.” Dr. Reginald Bibby has been studying Canadian teens since 1975 through his Project Teen Canada surveys. According to his research, Millennials say that some of the things they value most are friendship (86%), freedom (85%), and having choices (74%). Only 27% say spirituality is really important to them and a paltry 13% say religious group involvement is a matter of prime concern. Similarly, the things that bring them enjoyment are friends (95%), music (92%), the Internet (83%), their mothers (79%), cellphones (54%) and having their own room (74%). Did you see religion on that list? [1] Neither did I. But the values that seem to be influencing their religious lives are some combination of choice, freedom, privacy and connection. Now let’s look at what sorts of religious things Millennials get up to: what do they do?

How Religiously Active Are They?

While 68% of Millennials identify with a religious group, only

  • 2 in 10 attend services weekly; 3 in 10 monthly
  • 3 in 10 pray once a week; 1 in 10 once a month
  • 2 in 10 read scripture monthly; 8 in 10 hardly ever [2]

So why don’t they do more religious things? A big reason is that their parents weren’t that into traditional religious services, so they got minimal exposure growing up. This is especially true in single parent families where there was only a one in two chance of making it to a religious service.

Another one is that when they do go, they tend to ask a lot of questions. Because Millennials are used to finding answers online, they don’t have a lot of patience with “That’s just the way it is” and “Don’t question our traditions or authority.” They don’t like feeling manipulated and controlled (remember they value freedom and having choices) and this can interfere with traditional religious values like duty and obedience. Finally, they’re stressed. They feel a lot of pressure about doing well in school, figuring out their careers and earning money. In fact, 56% of youth say they feel they never have enough time, and 50% are unsettled by the rapid rate of change.[3]  So it looks like they have other things on their mind than getting to church. But does that mean they don’t think about it at all?

What about the Supernatural?

Well as we’re seeing, many Millennials aren’t that interested in traditional religious practices, but they do have an appetite for spiritual questioning. For instance,

  • About 8 in 10 say they have thought about the existence of God, and two thirds have concluded that some greater force is at work here
  • 4 in 10 say they have felt the presence of a Being or Higher Power
  • 5 in 10 say it’s possible to have contact with the spirit world
  • 8 in 10 believe in life after death [4]

But this isn’t very specific and it doesn’t answer the question “What do Millennials believe?” I think that we can get closer to some answers if we reframe our question. Let’s pull some of the above information together by asking “What shapes the spiritual world Millennials inhabit?” We still aren’t going to get a list, but we’ll get closer to one.

What Shapes the Spiritual Outlook of Millennials?

In addition to the Internet, Millennials grew up with high divorce rates, the global village and multiculturalism. They are sociable, connected and smart. I mean that literally, Millennials are one of the most educated generational cohorts in history. Almost 70% of Canadians between the ages of 25 and 29 have a post secondary degree or diploma—and they have the debt to prove it. They’re frustrated too; although they have been called entitled, the think-and-grow-rich mantra of their parents, it hasn’t quite panned out. They’re experiencing high rates of unemployment and underemployment. According to Pew Research, 36% of Millennials in the US are living at home.

Millennials are digital natives–the first generation raised on personal computing. They have grown up in a networked world where world cultures and economies are connected, and they can reach out to people across the world with the click of a mouse. One in five has a friend in a distant country. For them a cosmology of connection as a lived reality.  They have also heard a lot about respecting others; they live in a world where gender, sexual, national and religious orientation are increasingly fluid. Ambiguity is routine.

They have also been influenced by their Boomer and Gen Xer parents. They have been encouraged to question authority. As heirs of the self help generation, they have been raised to think that psychological well-being is important. Feelings are a personal guidance system that indicates what feels good, and by that measure, what is right. They use psychology, therefore, as a tool to understand how they think and feel, so they can figure out how to be successful and happy.  Truth is universal but also personal.Their religious beliefs, therefore, are going to reflect their independent and highly subjective impulses.

So What DO They Believe?

There are basically three types of Millennials: those that are religious in a more traditional sense, those that don’t care about religion or spirituality, and those that are spiritual but not religious (SBNR). The first group will tend to traditional religious beliefs. That doesn’t mean they accept everything they hear–they don’t.  They want religion served up in ways that meet their standards for transparency and integrity. They are really turned off by anti-gay teachings, and want religion kept out of politics.

There are also SBNR Millennials whose spirituality, like that of their parents, is a pastiche of mysticism, psychology, and science. They combine Eastern and Western religious teachings with metaphysics in ways that have been around since before the 1970s. They’re into experimenting with the autonomy of Buddhism, the magic of metaphysics, the wisdom of indigenous traditions, the allure of altered states of consciousness whether achieved through meditation, high adventure or hallucinogens, and the promise of science. They are attracted to holistic thinking, integrated everything, but are not always articulate about what they believe. They are not following a rulebook, but rather discovering what feels right as they go. Their spirituality is seamlessly woven into the fabric of their lives.

What Can We Expect Moving Forward?

Millennials are still in the early stages of their spiritual development.  Some who reject the gods now will change their minds when they enter recovery for addiction, get divorced, lose a child, a parent or a lover, or have a mystical experience. They are still experimenting, cutting and pasting. Some of their spiritual experiments will succeed, and others are going to fail. They will be led astray by strange crystal merchants but they will survive and grow wiser. They will learn that they need teachers and guides. They will learn to ask for help but but they will  never stop trusting their instincts. As they age and marry, they will have greater incentive to find meaning in life, values and beliefs they can pass to their children. They are going to keep asking questions, keep looking for answers to life’s big questions like every generation before them.


Works Cited

[1] Reginald Bibby, Sarah Russell and Ron Rolheiser, The Emerging Millennials: How Canada’s Newest Generation is Responding to Change and Choice (Lethbridge: Project Canada Books, 2009) 25-27.

[2] Ibid., 167

[3] Ibid., 66.

[4] Ibid., 168-170.