Are you there Margaret? It’s me, God.

American millennials are considerably less religious than generations before them. What are they gaining, and what have they lost?

November 26, 2018

Sitting down to write this, I felt good. Confident. The story I wanted to tell was clear in my head: do not force your religion on your child. After 17 years of forced Christianity and church attendance, I’m qualified to talk about religion in the context of my entirely negative experience. Right?

Probably. But that’s not what I wrote.

Each Sunday like clockwork, my family goes to church. One hour every week for 17 years is 884 hours of Christianity under my belt, which has led me to the conclusion that this religion is not for me.

I was fully prepared to talk about my negative experiences; religion that you encounter only through the efforts of someone else is not religion worth partaking in, and in this case made me despise it completely. Back and forth rumination over days and days of thinking about my experience lead me to realize that my experiences weren’t entirely negative – not at all.

I do not consider myself Christian. I have known the religion isn’t for me for years, but that is not to say nothing came of these hours spent in a pew: they have taught me something crucial that is often ignored in this discussion when we paint religion with a broad brush. The ways I benefited from my experience with Christianity – which at first seemed to be nonexistent – became increasingly evident.

In the same vein, spiritual wellness is not what first came to my mind when we discussed wellness in health class, but it is an often overlooked aspect of having a healthy body and mind. It refers to having a strong sense sense of meaning or purpose, as well as concepts like compassion and capacity for love and forgiveness.

According to Pew Research Center, 25% American millennials are unaffiliated with a particular religion. This is up considerably from previous generations — 20 percent of Generation X were unaffiliated, and only 13 percent of Baby Boomers. Religion doesn’t equal spiritual health, but there are many overlaps. Necessary concepts for spiritual wellness are often common religious themes. So when we take religion out of our spiritual diet, we become nutrient deficient — in ways less visible to the eye, but still key to our development and health. Religion isn’t the only way to get your protein; God or bust isn’t the subject of today’s sermon. It’s when you don’t realize that you aren’t getting your protein in the first place that problems can arise.

According to the University of California, Riverside Wellness Program, “If you are a person engaged in the process of spiritual wellness, you are willing and able to transcend yourself in order to question the meaning and purpose in your life and the lives of others. In addition, you seek to find harmony between that which lies within and the social and physical forces that come from outside.”

Sound like anything familiar?

Despite the similarities, spiritual wellness is not synonymous with religion; I found that when we covered wellness and health this area needed the most improvement in spite of my regular attendance at my parents’ church. I was not alone; in the class, when we separated into groups based on which wellness area needed improvement, by far the biggest circle was spiritual wellness.

After I identified the problem, my diagnosis of my need for spiritual wellness looked a little like this: I should be more compassionate (love my neighbor as myself, maybe). My capacity for forgiveness? Definitely lacking. I felt myself missing a sense of purpose: as I grow up I feel increasingly unmoored, and I don’t have strict scruples or a higher power to pull me back.

I could address this in many ways, but more often than not I find myself wishing for something that looks suspiciously like religion. Since starting to write this, I haven’t been to church in probably two months, and that makes me feel strange. Sometimes I might even miss it.

I don’t know what this means for me. But I want to find out.

I tend to hear a common critical narrative of religion: the wars started and horrible events rationalized because of it. There is undeniable truth in that, and I have repeated this narrative many times, but no matter what I argue it holds no weight if I do not acknowledge the other side. Ignoring all but that which furthers my argument gets me nowhere in the end. I do not consider myself a Christian, but through years and years of Christianity I have learned lessons about guiding principles like compassion and sacrifice that make me realize that those years weren’t a waste. Not by a long shot.

Maybe I should go back to religion with an open mind, be ready to learn. Apparently God so loved the world that he gave his only son. The least I can give is my time.

And here we have it: millennials are less religious than past generations. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the value of a spiritual foundation that religion can provide should not be overlooked. Whether developed through religion or in other ways, that foundation is a crucial addition to life.

Don’t just take my word for it: you’ll see it when you believe it.

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