Why Are Millennials Becoming Less Religious?
Millennials… how do I even begin to describe us. Some call us lazy, coddled and narcissistic, while others call us starry-eyed, individualistic and headstrong. No matter how anyone sees us, it’s no secret that we’re notoriously not afraid to stir the pot and reverse traditions in all sorts of arenas.
So when it comes to religion, specifically Judaism in America, where do we stand in comparison to previous generations? I did my research and talked to a bunch of fellow millemnials in the hopes of finding patterns to crack this code. But of course, humanity is, and will never be, that easy to solve.
Still, I searched to answer this question: Are we becoming less religious, more religious, or maybe even ambivalent, in comparison with our Jewish ancestors? And why is this happening? Should we as Jews be worried?
First, I looked at the numbers. A report from the Pew Research Center , of more than 35,000 Americans, found that in just seven years, the percentage of Americans who are “absolutely certain” that God exists dropped eight percent, and those who describe themselves as “religiously affiliated” dropped six percent. Those might not seem like huge differences, but this change occurred in less than 10 years! Yikes.
The report also found that only 4 in ten millennials consider religion to be important in their lives, compared with over 50 percent of those who are older. If there’s any light here, it’s that millennials are just as spiritual as they’ve always been. We have consistent rates across the years of thinking about the meaning and purpose of life and feeling a sense of wonder about the universe. Luckily, we haven’t turned into robots quite yet.
But what’s up with the dwindling of organized religion? Part of it has to do with our generation’s prioritization of individualism. Being involved with religion means following certain rules, to an extent, and being a part of a community. However, we’re often rebellious and unsettled, so this doesn’t necessarily appeal to us. We’d rather arrive at our own answers about life on our own accord, in our own ways, and in our own time.
Additionally, many of us went to Hebrew/Sunday school and had Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, not completely because we felt it necessary to our Jewish identities, but because our parents wanted us to. Then, after age 13, we rejoiced and let Judaism fade away for a while. Our motivations to pursue Judaism decreased because it was more or less pushed on us when we were younger, rather than it being chosen.
And us millennials, we love choices. “At the end of the day, it’s a mentality—you have to want to practice Judaism,” UF Hillel President Trevor Youshak says. Of course, though, there are still a ton of us who choose and embrace Judaism later on, especially those who get involved with Jewish youth groups and UF Hillel, but it’s still on an individual, personal basis. “We now live in an age where we can sculpt our religion to fit us, rather than the other way around,” UF sophomore Carly Sadicario says.
The passage of time, as American Jews have become more assimilated into American culture, has also influenced how strongly we wear Judaism on our identities. “We have a double consciousness. Am I Jewish first or am I American first?” Director of UF to Israel link to UF to Israel Jared Glosser points out. When Jews were moving to America in the 1800s, they were living in insular communities and feeling the weight of being the minority. As they started moving out of Jewish neighborhoods, they became more comfortable as they melted into society. Jared points out that the more assimilated we are, the less we feel the need to hold onto each other as a community, and the less likely we are to practice traditional Judaism, like that of our ancestors.
Combine this with how relaxed we’re becoming about the idea of interfaith marriage. When we’re choosing significant others, many of us don’t find religious differences to be a deal breaker, while our grandparents are utterly verklempt about it. In fact, we sort of love overlapping cultures and merging traditions. UF graduate student Rachel Reiss says that her Catholic boyfriend gets excited over Jewish foods and traditions. I don’t blame him—we make some great food.
And we make some great memories on Birthright trips, which are hugely popular amongst our age group. My initial hypothesis was that Birthright could play a heroic role in bringing traditional religion back to our generation, especially with its spiritual opportunities like visiting the Western Wall, but the participants who come back to the states with a newfound zeal for religion are in the minority.
However, Birthright does have a profound influence in that many of us come home with a rekindling of Jewish traditions and a sense of community. Many of us grow up knowing that we’re Jewish in a basic sense, but unless we’re practicing traditions on a daily basis or are surrounded by Jewish friends regularly, it’s hard to conceptualize what being Jewish actually looks and feels like. Going on Birthright doesn’t necessarily entail that you’ll come back from Israel and suddenly decide to embrace traditional Judaism, but it does give the opportunity to have that insular Jewish experience with Jewish peers that many of us have lost since we’ve assimilated so well.
Jared grew up in a town where he was in the minority being Jewish, he didn’t have Jewish friends, and he was more or less denouncing his Judaism every day-- until he went on Birthright. He says that visiting Israel gave him a sense of belonging in the Jewish community at UF, even if he had never been part of a Jewish community growing up. He further points out, “Is that community religious? No, it’s not. It’s more or less completely culturally and community-oriented. But are there Jewish traditions involved in that? Yes, of course.”
And here we go again: Millennials love Birthright because it helps us figure out what we want from Judaism on our own accord, in our own ways, and in our own time
With all of this, I’d say that for the most part, us Jewish American millennials are less traditional in how we prioritize Judaism and practice it, but we’re still just as spiritual as ever. In comparison with our predecessors, we view religion as more of a choice, rather than an inherent strand in our blood that we’re mandated to carry out. And we still value Jewish culture and traditions, but they’ve taken on a more fluid, pick-and-choose-type role in our lives. It’s almost expected for these changes to occur-- Jews live very different lives than they did back in the day, and America is a very different place than ancient Jerusalem.
So a new question stands: How’s humanity supposed to modify the means of transmitting Judaism to our unique age group, while still keeping the integrity of the Jewish religion? UF Hillel Rabbi Adam Grossman says that living Jewish lives through asking questions, feeling a sense of spirituality, doing social good and practicing overall wellness is what can inspire our generation to want and to choose to practice traditional religion. When we can see that Judaism has a practical application, we become inspired by the thought “Hey, practicing Judaism could maybe lead me down the road to success.” And for us idealists, this is music to our ears. To have both religion and a satisfying career life is the best of both worlds. In fact, Judaism can even be practiced through the work we do.
“Judaism isn’t isolated in a moment, but it’s an expression of time,” says Rabbi Adam.
Maybe that’s the inherent magic of Judaism- that it can manage to survive and acclimate itself to all kinds of people and through the shades of time. And rather than us spiraling down farther in the title of “selfie generation,” maybe Judaism is exactly what we need to realize that we’re all linked in this human web together.
Maybe we need each other more than we think, and maybe unity lies in the Jewish community.
And when it comes to wondering about all of these things, maybe it would benefit us to stop looking for answers in the branches, and to look at our roots instead.