Holy iPhone: Social Media Is Sparking Spirituality in Millennials
Technology is powering the rise of new forms of faith as millennials move away from established religious institutions and in-person worship.
The novelist Arthur Koestler, writing in 1949 of his enchantment with communism, which would eventually curdle into disillusionment, said: “I became converted because I was ripe for it and lived in a disintegrating society thirsting for faith.”
Koestler’s “thirst” might resonate with today’s millennials, who are increasingly practicing spirituality away from priests and pews as established religious institutions are dwindling in membership.
Evidence is emerging that social media — which many mental health experts view as fuel for today’s “disintegrating society” — is actually powering new mediums of religious connection.
A study from the University of Waterloo discloses that between a quarter and a third of millennials are consuming and posting social media content that emphasizes individual improvement and spiritual wellbeing.
“Millennials often have a negative view of religion because they see it as everything that’s wrong or evil in the world — this external authority that tells you what to do,” a researcher on religious behavior who led the study, Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, said.
As the popularity of mainline Protestant denominations has fallen, millennials have found internet chat rooms and spiritual entrepreneurs on platforms like YouTube espousing unconventional religious traditions, Ms. Wilkins-Laflamme explained.
Forty percent of surveyed millennials do not engage in either spirituality or religion, but a sizable chunk, 30 percent, practice digital religion as a supplement or a replacement to in-person worship.
These trends suggest that America is not experiencing a complete secularization, but rather a decline in religious consensus, a researcher on the intersection of technology, religion, and culture, Paul McClure, argued.
Millennials boast high levels of religious diversity and their belief in life after death is as high, with 83 percent expressing faith in god, according to the 2018 general social survey of the U.S.
Mr. McClure’s research has found that though screen time is negatively correlated with religious commitment, especially among adolescents whose parents are religious, it is positively correlated with religious synchronism, “a cut-and-paste mentality on religion that goes counter to religious orthodoxy or coherent religious traditions,” he said.
“Technology can undercut religious orthodoxy by presenting or trafficking in rival belief systems and messages that people would otherwise not receive,” he added. At the same time, it can expose users to a melange of practices and creeds.
Many religious groups — especially megachurches with large memberships that offer a variety of educational and social activities — are offering both in-person and digital services, like streaming religious services on Zoom, to facilitate younger membership.
“A lot of religious groups have all this new technology and expertise about how to do digital religion that they didn’t have before the pandemic,” Ms. Wilkins-Laflamme explained, predicting that this hybrid model will become even more common.
However, some digital religion practices will be “recalibrated when people find that in-person, religious communities and face-to-face interactions still very much matter,” Mr. McClure said. “Religion is not going to vanish. But it is changing and fracturing and moving in different and interesting directions.”
Millennials’ “thirst for faith” represents an age-old search for meaning and purpose beyond one’s own life, Mr. McClure said. “We all are looking for our tribes and our groups where we can feel a sense of belonging, and technology is becoming one of the primary means by which people seek out community.”