December 17, 2020

Young Adults Reimagining Religion

As observance wanes among young people, some try new approaches to keeping the faith

As a 31-year-old rabbi, Ilana Zietman usually spends her days bouncing from coffee dates to classes to hosted meals and community events across Washington, D.C., chatting with young Jewish people about their Jewish identities. As is common among young Americans, many of them are less religious than their parents. It’s a fact that she says worries a lot of older people but not her.

"Young adults are definitely still excited about being Jewish, they just value finding their personal ‘why’ behind Jewish rituals and traditions before necessarily committing to any kind of observance, and even then, they want to make it their own," Zietman says. “Jews are not necessarily joining synagogues in the way that they were, but that doesn’t mean that Jewish communal life is over. It’s just going to be different.” 

Millennials, those Americans born between 1981 and 1996, are much less religiously observant than older generations. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, just 28% of younger Millennials attend a weekly religious service — compared to 38% of Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. And only 4 in 10 of the youngest Millennials pray daily (compared to 6 in 10 Baby Boomers).

28%
of younger Millennials attend a weekly religious service, compared to 38% of Baby Boomers

For a young religious leader like Zietman, the declining observance of young adults in religious practices is a call to adapt.

Robert Christian, a 37-year-old editor in Rockville, Maryland, says he doesn’t know many people his age who attend Mass regularly like he and his wife do with their children.

“Few Millennial Catholics see Catholicism as a deal with God in which they attend Mass, God checks their name on a list, and they therefore will get to go to heaven when they die,” he says. One of the ways Christian sees young Catholics expanding their practice is through the internet, which is why he runs an online journal and blog called Millennial that features the writing of Catholics of his generation.

Molly Tolsky is the editor of Hey Alma, a Jewish digital magazine, and she says these nontraditional religious practices — whether they’re online publications, Twitter accounts, or events unconnected to religious buildings — can be a way of making religion more relevant to young people.

“There’s lots of talk in the Jewish community about the future of Judaism and how big of a problem it is that young Jewish people aren’t affiliated with a synagogue or keeping kosher or going to High Holiday services,” the 34-year-old Tolsky says. “There’s a lot of hand-wringing about how the younger Jews don’t care about our identity. And I would say that we absolutely care, just not necessarily in those traditional ways.”

There’s a lot of hand-wringing about how the younger Jews don’t care about our identity. And I would say that we absolutely care, just not necessarily in those traditional ways.

Molly Tolsky

There are of course some young Americans for whom traditional practices are still very important.

“I often joke that I'm more religious than spiritual,” says Andrew Lavin, a 32-year-old Christian in Chico, California, who says that he doesn’t spend much time on Bible study but does go to church regularly and takes the communal aspects of religious life very seriously.

Lavin says that, for him, the central tenets of religion are “a faith in the Kingdom of God and a yearning for it to come, a hope that evil will be redeemed and that all hope is not lost even in our darkest hours, and a community of people committed to caring for one another.”

But for many young people, figuring out exactly how that community manifests can be complicated in today’s world.

Christian says that though he’s active online, “digital communities cannot replace face-to-face interactions and community — as the pandemic is making crystal clear. I have seen Millennial Catholics who are not able to go to Mass creating online liturgies and taking faith groups online, but the hunger for stronger, thicker communities remains.”

Digital communities cannot replace face-to-face interactions and community — as the pandemic is making crystal clear.

Robert Christian

Nikhil Mandalaparthy, 23, has fond memories of the boisterous Hindu temple he grew up attending with his parents, who emigrated from India to the Seattle suburbs when he was an infant. As he grew up, however, some parts of the religion started to make him uncomfortable, including that only men of a particular caste (the religion’s strict social stratification system) could perform religious rituals in most temples.

He’s found an alternative as part of Sadhana, a social justice–oriented Hindu organization that has events in Hindu temples and a Unitarian Universalist church in Brooklyn, New York, and encourages anyone to lead ceremonies.

“It’s a very creative thing, reimagining what Hindu ritual practice could be like without the constraints of being in a temple space,” Mandalaparthy says.

It’s a very creative thing, reimagining what Hindu ritual practice could be like without the constraints of being in a temple space.

Nikhil Mandalaparthy

In August, Sadhana hosted a digital celebration of Janmashtami, a Hindu festival for the birth of the deity Krishna. The event raised money for a Christian organization that works with migrant families in detention centers, noting that Krishna is said to have been born in a jail cell and then separated from his parents.

It wasn’t an interpretation of the Krishna story that Mandalaparthy had thought of before, but it made sense to him.

Lavin sees similar parallels in his own faith.

“I seek to uplift voices that seem to me to speak my understanding of the message of Jesus as good news for the poor, the downtrodden, and the outcast, while seeking to rebuke those that twist the message into something that is comfort to the powerful and privileged.”

For Mandalaparthy, this feels closer to the kind of religion he wants to pass on to future generations.

“It's not completely throwing away everything we grew up with,” he says. “It’s just casting away the aspects we don’t want to pass down to our own kids.”

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