Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston published a report last April called How We Gather — A New Report On Non-Religious Community. The big takeaway is that while Millennials are less religiously affiliated than ever before (see Pew’s “Nones” on the Rise from 2012), the authors’ research suggests that Millennials are seeking spiritual grounding through community. Or, as I have put it in the past, they are more likely to seek enigmatic spiritual experiences than dogmatic ones.

From the report:

America is changing.

Though many millennials are atheists or agnostics, the majority are less able to articulate their sense of spirituality, with many falling back on the label ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’. The General Social Survey of 2014 shows that the disaffiliation trend is only growing.

Ever greater numbers do not attend church, but two-thirds of unaffiliated Americans still believe in God or a universal spirit. (Notably, though, fewer than half say they are absolutely certain of God’s existence.) As sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell explain, those in this group “reject conventional religious affiliation, while not entirely giving up their religious feelings.” Indeed, one in five prays daily and one in three says that religion is at least somewhat important in her life. This looks less like a process of secularization and more like a paradigmatic shift from an institutional to a personal understanding of spirituality.

In a qualitative study of a 100 teenagers in five major cities, Richard Flory and Donald Miller found that millennials are not “the spiritual consumers of their parents’ generation, rather they are seeking both a deep spiritual experience and a community experience, each of which provides them with meaning in their lives, and is meaningless without the other.” In other words, when they say they are not looking for a faith community, millennials might mean they are not interested in belonging to an institution with religious creed as the threshold. However, they are decidedly looking for spirituality and community in combination, and feel they can’t lead a meaningful life without it.

The lack of deep community is indeed keenly felt. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among youth. Rates of isolation, loneliness and depression continue to rise. As traditional religion struggles to attract young people, millennials are looking elsewhere with increasing urgency. And in some cases, they are creating what they don’t find.

Case studies include fitness-centered Crossfit, which is more about culture of ‘fitness, empathy and reach’, and Soulcycle, which is branded by ‘find your soul’ not about spinning.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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