Are you there, God? It's me, Generation Y

Generation Y redefines religion.

By Nina Elias

In the same way that we customize our music, our communication, and our technology, the smart and savvy Generation Y is now, more than ever, customizing religion. Forget rules, commandments, and weekly schedules. What we believe, what we’re calling it, and where and how we are or aren’t practicing are all tailored to create our own mix-and-match adaptation of belief and faith.

Welcome to Generation Y.

Our grandparents were the “joiners.” Kiwanis, American Legion, Rotary clubs—with these groups came a gamut of weekly meetings that they attended, er, religiously. Then came our parents—the hippies, the rebellions of order. Peace and love were their religion and, while they may have killed a few too many brain cells on the freedom bus, they eventually grew to be the coddling, Sunday School-pushing helicopter parents of our generation.

Our generation. Born between 1980 and 2000, the Millennials are the most diverse generation in history, according to a study by Reboot, a non-profit organization that aims to “reboot” religious or other traditions to be more accessible to our own unique experience. The survey, aptly titled “OMG! How Generation Y is Redefining Faith in the iPod Era,” helps religious institutions better relate to a “generation of individuals,” according to its introduction.

Beyond our vast diversity (just 61 percent white compared to 73 percent for baby boomers), Gen Y-ers reported less likely to identify as religious since we are less inclined to take part in traditional religious practices. Going to church on a regular basis, binding to a weekly schedule, and feeling guilty after missing a week just isn’t our thing.

Generation Y is divvied up three ways, according to the Reboot study: 27 percent consider themselves “Godly,” or put God and religion at the forefront of their lives. Another 27 percent consider themselves “God-less”—either they don’t affiliate with a certain religion or identify as atheist or agnostic. But the majority of Millennials fall into another category that is as ambiguous as our definition of religion: undecided.

Mike McQuitty, head of the Baptist Campus Ministry at Syracuse University, knows that when it comes to religion, most college kids fall under that “undecided” category.

“It seems to me that college is a time when young people start reevaluating certain parts of their heritage and a lot of their beliefs,” he said, lounging on a futon in his office.

He has a point; whether you’re plucked fresh from Hickville, USA or metropolitan Manhattan, college presents Millennials with fresh new ideas and information, and more of it is about religion than you might think. “Sure, your mom told you Jesus rose from the dead, but all of a sudden you have a lot of professors and friends who don’t believe that to be true...That’s when students start to question and reevaluate their beliefs in God,” McQuitty said.

During his time at SU, McQuitty’s observations led him to believe students usually go one of two ways. “Some will actually become more serious about religion and actually start taking on leadership roles within their campus ministries. But some just take it and put it on a shelf and put it away for a while,” he said. And yes, others outright reject religion.However, the blessing (albeit sometimes the curse) of the Millennials is our inability to see anything as just black or white. As the generation of individuals, the seekers, we’re on a quest to individualize our own religious experience through alternative practice in non-traditional, informal settings.

And it’s happening at SU, on both sides of the spectrum.

Stephanie Hart has always been religious. Raised Roman Catholic, the senior communications design major felt strongly about God, but wanted a better, closer relationship than her Catholic upbringing could offer. “I felt it was restricting, like there were certain expectations of you,” she said. “Why can’t I sit on my couch and talk to God myself? Why do other people have to do it for me?” Ever the Millennial, Hart reevaluated her beliefs—“I consider myself Evangelical”—and found a non-traditional outlet for prayer, worship, and support in the Campus Crusade for Christ, commonly known as Cru.

Cru is a student-run interdenominational and doesn’t even meet in a church. There’s no preaching, no communion—you just talk. And then you go out to eat. It seems pretty laid back for a group of Evangelicals, Baptists, and other serious Christians, but Hart and many others prefer this method of worship.

“Cru is how I get through college,” she said. “It’s so comforting to know there are other Christians on campus that are going through the same things, and they can support me and pray for me, and I can do the same for them.”

Over on the SUNY ESF campus, another organization brings people together, but there’s definitely no praying going on. The Atheists, Agnostics and Free Thinkers Alliance (AAF) at SU/ESF is as Millennial as you can get. This year—its first full one as a recognized club—AAF held a five-speaker series and attracted over 100 members on Facebook. Some members, like its fearless leader James Johnson, simply swear by atheism. A former Jehovah’s Witness, Johnson co-founded the organization based on the need for a place for free thinkers and “closeted atheists” to explore their beliefs. “I got sick of the only people I could talk to about non-religion were people online,” he said.

But not all its members are set on a God-less world. Evan Sweeney, the secretary of AAF, is part of the 46 percent of undecided Millennials. Instead of seeking truth in the depths of Hendricks Chapel, Sweeney is comfortable—for now—exploring life as a free-thinker. “I came to college, and I started getting more information about science,” said the senior majoring in natural resource management. “I started discovering for myself instead of just taking handouts from teachers and other adults.”

Once a dedicated Episcopalian, Sweeney attended four-hour-long services until, after a discrepancy with his home church in Brooklyn, he faced a choice. “I started sleeping in on Sunday, realized what a full weekend was, and I just didn’t see any reason to keep going [to church].”

It has been seven years since Sweeney’s associated with any one religion. And while he doesn’t have answers to the big questions yet, he—like much of Generation Y—defines his beliefs one small step at a time. He constantly seeks new truths and information that will lead him to a comfortable place of belief. “I’m a free thinker, but I also live by the idea that you never stop learning,” Sweeney said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to settle down and say, ‘Yeah, I believe in this one universal truth,’ because next week I’ll find out something completely different.”

Illustrations by Pat Davis.