“Isn’t it blasphemy to invent a religion?” my student asked with concern.
Every semester, in the comparative religion class I teach at a local community college, I ask my students to divide into groups and create a religion from whole cloth.
“All religions were invented at some point,” I offered, reminding him that while Jesus may have assigned Peter to be the rock upon which the church would be built, it was up to everyone else to determine the details.
It’s fascinating to watch the young (with a smattering of older) students invent a new belief system. I give them some guidelines: their religions must include some common elements such as doctrine, dogma, symbols, music, rituals—and most importantly, reformers.
A few of the groups have had fun with the assignment, coming up with religions like The Church of Charlie Sheen, that could rival anything the Pastafarians have come up with.
But last semester emerged as a perfect case study of millennial religion—a portrait of this generation (those between the ages of 18 and 30) in which one in four call themselves “atheist” or “agnostic” or “nothing in particular.”
Most of the religions my class invented incorporated Eastern religious ideas like meditation— especially meditation used for psychological growth or personal fulfillment—as well as ideas like reincarnation and karma. When Western religions were included, the pieces taken from them were such things as pilgrimage, like the hajj to Mecca required by Muslims, or rituals like prayer. But the prayer was of a particular stripe, always centering on personal—or even material—enrichment.
There were several components of religion that were glaringly absent. Not one of them had career clergy who were in charge of services, rituals, or care of the congregation. There were, for the most part, no regular meetings of the faithful. Some had monthly or annual gatherings, like conferences, but most were very individualized religions, centering on personal growth and enrichment away from a physical community.
So, right off the bat, this generation has dumped its religious leaders, its priests or gurus, and has dispensed with the obligation of coming together each week as a community. I guess, if there’s no one there to deliver a sermon or wisdom talk, what’s the point of gathering together once a week?
The most intriguing thing for me, however, was the fact that not one of the religions crafted by the student groups included a concept of hell, or any form of punishment for not following the prescriptions of the religion.
“What happens if somebody transgresses from the beliefs of your religion?” I asked after one presentation.
“They can find another religion,” was the answer.
“You mean you would excommunicate them from your religion?” I asked.
“No,” they said, “they’re always welcome to come back.”
The tales of their “reformers” were not much more forceful. Other than tinkering with one or two doctrines or ideas, the reformers they imagined for the assignment were just as “feel good” about the religion as the original founders.
I asked the class after the presentations why they all chose to eschew the idea of hell.
“Religion today is so … judgmental,” one student offered.
“Yeah,” another agreed. “We don’t need some church telling us what to do when they don’t practice what they preach.”
Here they were utterly consistent with an oft-cited poll of a few years ago, in which many millennials said they found the church too judgmental or hypocritical.
Ultimately, what the class presentations revealed most clearly to me, as a teacher, is how distant this generation is from a full-featured understanding of religion.
These students held a romantic view of the idea of meditation, reincarnation, pilgrimage and other elements of major world religions. They like the idea of quiet meditation, especially if it can make their lives less chaotic and more balanced. They like the idea of reincarnation—you get another chance even if you mess this one up! Pilgrimage sounds fun, too. Road trip!
But, what they miss about all of these religious practices is that deep within each of them lie the core ideas of human suffering, the concept of discipline, and the very real threat of punishment.
For Buddhists and Hindus, meditation is not just a way to calm the mind, it’s a vehicle for enlightenment. Meditation, and other yogic/ascetic practices, are not meant to make you simply feel good.
Similarly, reincarnation isn’t an invitation to take another ride through life. You must go back around to learn the lessons you didn’t learn the last time. In that sense, reincarnation is not something to seek out, it is something to avoid.
Pilgrimage, too, is a way of seeking a way out of suffering. Christians walk the Via Dolorosa, for example, not to revel in Jesus’ sacrifice, but to understand, in a deeper, embodied sense, his suffering.
By ignoring the question of suffering of humanity, and role of religion in addressing that suffering, I am afraid that this new generation is denying itself the opportunity to truly connect not just with the divine, if that’s their thing, but with each other.
Unless they can acknowledge suffering—either their own or that of others—all the feel-good religion in the world will not be much good.
Which brings us right back to what all these millennial religions lacked: leadership, community, discipline and a sense of a larger mission for their invented sect. It would be unfair to say that millennials do not appreciate discipline or that their actions have consequences; I found many of my students to be smart, industrious and willing to work hard.
The problem, as I see it, is not with the lack of imagination of this new generation, but with religious institutions themselves—many of which have allowed their leaders to become rock stars, their communities to become clubs of like-minded believers, and their doctrines to become rigid, with an over-emphasis on discipline and damnation for things (like homosexuality) that millennials see as simply judgmental and unfair.
If organized religion can’t renew itself from the inside, this new generation will switch to a new platform—even if they have to invent it for themselves.