Faith’s evolving nature: an era of change

Image courtesy of the PEW Research Center's report on Religion Among the Millennials
Image courtesy of the PEW Research Center’s report on Religion Among the Millennials.

How we define faith and how we define being religious today is evolving, changing the paradigm for future generations.

Millennials are moving away from moderately conservative religion toward opposite ends on the religious scale; secularism and religious extremism.

According to a report produced by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religious & Public Life, Americans ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older Americans, and fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today. This report defines Millennials as members of the generation born after 1980, who began to come of age around the year 2000.

“Organized religion is falling out of favor with more mainline, liberal and more moderate organized religions, but it seems to be growing among conservative organized religions, like evangelical mega churches,” says Dr. Konden R. Smith, assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Arizona.

“With the geopolitics going on and with the economic issues right now, this has a way of boosting up a lot of fears in people,” Smith says. “The Republican Party right now, you have it really boosted up on the politicians who are grabbing that fear aspect, like (Donald) Trump. Those are the politicians who are succeeding. They typify the kind of religion in America that’s growing; those who are answering to those fears and concerns that people have with the anxiety of a shifting society.”

Technology is the New Omnipresent

One of the main problems religion poses for Millennials is that it tends to try and say, “We are the answer, we are the solution, we are the organization,” Smith says.

“Because Millennials have grown up with many different forms of social media and are connected to friends who live all over the world, they have almost this inability to fathom that anything can monopolize,” he added.

Image courtesy of the PEW Research Center's report on Religion Among the Millennials.
Image courtesy of the PEW Research Center’s report on Religion Among the Millennials.

According to the Pew Research Center, only 64 percent of young adults today say they are absolutely certain of God’s existence, and they are less inclined than older generations to view the Bible as the literal word of God.

“Two of the biggest causes for the changing definition of being religious are technology and geography, the two going hand-in-hand,” Smith says.

Today, Millennials are surrendering the community acceptances that come from organized religion. “Before social media, you would go to church and that was your community,” he says. “Now, you can log onto Facebook or Instagram and feel a part of a community without ever leaving home.”

“The sense of geography has completely evaporated,” Smith says. “The sense of physical community has evaporated. People don’t need it anymore.”

Image courtesy of the PEW Research Center's report on Religion Among the Millennials.
Image courtesy of the PEW Research Center’s report on Religion Among the Millennials.

Adds Smith: “Before, traditionally in Catholicism, you went to a geographic location because that’s a very sacred space. Even the building itself is sacred and housed with relics and sacred power. But now, you have a new generation who don’t understand that power of geography.”

Geography is no longer part of the equation. “If you take geography out of religion, the idea that God went to certain places and those places are special, it doesn’t make sense anymore,” Smith says.

You can log in and find God.

Up until the 1970s, if you wanted an education, you went to school to learn. If you wanted to be religious, you went to church.

Today, the idea that a building serves a specific purpose is benign. You don’t have to go to school to learn. You can go online. You don’t have to go to church to pray. You can log online. You don’t have to meet up with friends to socialize. You can log online. Technology is the new omnipresent.

That’s secularism,” Smith says. “You can physically go to church or you can go online. The options are endless.”

Image courtesy of the PEW Research Center's report on Religion Among the Millennials.
Image courtesy of the PEW Research Center’s report on Religion Among the Millennials.

The Pew Report states that, for adults under 30, only 45 percent say that religion is very important in their lives, and 25 percent do not affiliate with any religious tradition and describe their religion as “atheist,” “agnostic” or “nothing in particular.” About 54 percent of adults ages 30 to 49 believe religion is extremely important in their daily lives, compared to 59 percent (ages 50-64) and 69 percent (over 65).

 Organized Religions Attempt to Adapt

How religion and faith are connected to other aspects of daily life is also changing.

“The idea of a divine being is not just assumed today,”Smith says.

“When you leave organized religion, all kinds of barriers come down. Those can include sexuality and homosexuality, abortion, foreign policy, politics.”

In their social and political views, Millennials are much more accepting than older Americans, the Pew Research Center says. In Pew’s 2008 General Social Surveys, the percentage of Millennials who said homosexual relations were wrong was increasingly lower than in prior generations, and the percentage of young adults who said abortion should be legal is higher than in generations past.

The more reformed sections of religions are trying to emphasize education to avoid scaring off younger congregants, Smith says. “By talking to the younger generations about what’s going on in pop culture and what’s going on in the world today and incorporating their respective religion, they’re allowing those younger generations to make informed and educated opinions about extremely important aspects of life,” he says.

Defining Religiousness and Faith Today

On one end of the spectrum, organized religion is being replaced by individual spirituality and religion. Today, many Millennials are identifying themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” as a way to still have ties to religion while establishing their independence outside of these main organizations, Smith says.

Why? Because religion is portrayed extremely negatively in pop culture, Smith says. “Religion has been defined in popular culture as kind of the super structure that’s keeping you diluted and incapable of transcending beyond yourself.”

“Today, the word ‘secular’ can have the definition of simply having more options than one,” Smith says. Millennials have more options than any preceding generation. “Today we can use ‘secularism’ not to mean ‘anti-religion,’ but to show us that because we have so many options, there is a lot less pressure to pick the right one.”

In fall 2012, the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) was formed at the University of Arizona and has since been the only recognized club on campus for atheist and other non-religious students.

“SSA is an amazing place for students who are non-theistic, maybe whose families aren’t as accepting, or for anyone with a similar mindset looking to find more people like them,” says Janet Landry, current president of the SSA.

SAA’s mission is to provide a safe space that fosters intellectual conversation and meaningful social connections that aren’t necessarily based around religion, she says.

“To me, faith is something that you can hold on to when things are great or when they’re really tough,” Landry says. “It’s something that gives you hope, and even though things may suck, you know in the end everything’s going to be OK. I just happened to know that without really adding religion to the mix, and that’s cool with me.”

Breaking Mormon; The Story of Miranda Beck

Miranda Beck strayed from her Mormon roots, but she never lost sight of her faith.

Beck, 21, is a senior at the University of Arizona, and will be graduating in May with a Bachelor of Arts in Dance.

She was active in the Mormon community throughout her freshman year of high school. Sophomore year, she became involved with other school activities and made new friends, causing her to attend church less frequently.

“I started to feel kinda guilty about it,” she says. “I kept pushing myself, but I wasn’t very consistent.”

Beck says she identified as religiously Mormon until her junior year of high school. Sitting in church one day, she thought, “I don’t have any friends there, I don’t feel comfortable here. I just feel like I’m kinda forcing it.

“That was my ‘ah-ha’ moment.”

Beck and her father after a dance performance at the University of Arizona
Beck and her father after a dance performance at the University of Arizona.

Up until that point, Beck says she never had that “ah-ha” moment, when church really clicked with her. “My family was the same way,” she says. “We never felt like it was what we wanted to do, what we were meant to do. It always felt like it was what we were supposed to do.”

Although she began to move away from identifying as Mormon, Beck says she still held onto much of what she was taught growing up religious. “I chose a path of being a righteous person and being a kind person,” she says, “instead of ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’.”

“I found a way to implement what I think is the foundation of all religion into my daily life while still making myself happy.”

Growing up in Salt Lake City, where most of the population is Mormon, it was difficult to be different, Beck says. “Everyone was Mormon, so you felt like you needed to be too,” she says.

Beck says that attending the University of Arizona was important to her transformation and credits the change in location to her becoming secure in her decision to no longer identify as Mormon.

“Coming to college helped me to realize that I am able to make really big decisions on my own.”

While some of her friends were very supportive, others posed important questions. “I hate to say that because I got questioned, I started questioning myself, but it’s true,”Beck says. “If I couldn’t give them firm answers as to why I was doing the things I was, I felt like I needed to look into it for myself.”

“My friends always joke that if my time at U of A were a reality show, it would be called ‘Breaking Mormon’.”

When talking with her parents, who have been very supportive of her change in religion, she asked if they had noticed a change since leaving Mormonism behind. “My dad said he hadn’t really noticed a change because I was still the same happy person with a good heart that I had always been, but now it seemed like I had my head on straighter and was able to make decisions — all good things. ”

Today, Beck considers herself a non-denominational Christian.

“There are still some ideals in Mormon scripture that I believe in and identify with, but they’re more basic Christian ideals,” she says.

For Beck, church has never been an extremely spiritual place.

“I never really felt God when I was in church,” she says. “When I’m out in nature or doing good deeds, that’s when I feel the presence of a higher power. Accepting that has helped me to develop my own type of spirituality and faith.”

Since coming to the University of Arizona, Beck has been able to distinguish the interpersonal relationships between religions and non-religious students. “I’ve seen my friends who aren’t super religious get along with each other really well,” she says. “I definitely have noticed that those who are super into their specific religion have a much harder time getting along with those who aren’t. They’re very set in their ways and if something disagrees with it, they have a harder time adapting.”

Beck is in favor of Millennials straying away from organized religion. She believes that within the newer Millennial generations there could be less religious stigmas and that people would get along better.

“Today you see bumper stickers with all different religious symbols, and that’s a strong thought, but I think we’re still far from it,” she says. “Us older Millennials are more open-minded than generations before, but we’re also super stubborn.

“If I’ve learned anything during my transition, it’s that religion can be important in our daily lives, but it’s much, much more important to just be a good person. I hope, in the future, everyone can figure that out, too.”

Elana Roeder is a reporter for the Arizona Sonora News, a service of the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona.  Contact her at 

Click here for high resolution photographs featured in this story.

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