Astrology, Witchcraft, Community: What Millennials Trade Religion For

From astrology to CrossFit, Millennials are seeking to fill a church-sized void through other means.

By Liberty McArtor Published on October 24, 2017

Millennials are leaving organized religion in droves. What are they taking up? Spirituality of various kinds.

As Market Watch reported Monday, they’re into astrology and witchcraft. The article cites 2014 report revealing that more Americans believe astrology is science than in recent years. And it notes how the psychic service industry grew 2 percent between 2011 and 2016. According to the report, businesses like Mystic Lipstick and astrology app Co-Star have also seen a major boom.

Melissa Jayne, who owns a “metaphysical boutique” in Brooklyn, spoke with Market Watch. Lately she’s seen a jump in interest in the occult, especially among 20-somethings.

In 2012, Pew Research Center found that a third of millennials have no religious affiliation. But that doesn’t mean they’re atheists. Of that group, one third identify as spiritual but not religious (SBNR). One in five pray every day. Two-thirds believe in God. Over half feel a “deep connection with nature and the earth.”

Politics, Meaning and Capitalism

Matthew Hedstrom said most people leaving religion are leaving Christianity. He’s the Associate Professor of Religious Studies at UVA. Hedstrom thinks the exodus is related to controversies like the Catholic sex abuse scandal and same-sex marriage. Millennials reject “the perceived political entanglement with religion,” he said in 2015.

But millennials still want meaning. “They also want to be a part of something larger — a spiritual belief … a movement to improve the environment, or social justice.”

He added that he doesn’t see college students as “shallow or selfish.” Rather, he sees anxiety and concern about “life’s big questions.”

“It’s a growing group that feel like they have been left behind by religious institutions.” — Casper Ter Kuile

Jayne also attributes the SBNR movement to political tension. She named things like “oppressive governments” and “toxic social structures” that Gen Y grew up with. Things “too big to change.” She believes practices like spell-casting and meditation “can be incredibly attractive” for millennials.

Some experts point to a relationship between the SBNR trend and the market. “Spirituality is what consumer capitalism does to religion,” Hedstrom said. “Consumer capitalism is driven by choice.”

In 2011, Dr. Siobhan Chandler said that “there’s a way to blend the objectives of capitalism with spirituality. You can have it all, you can be rich, beautiful, wear high heels and be an authentic person with a meaningful life.” Today, Chandler runs SpiritualButNotReligious.ca, where she studies the movement.

Non-Church Community

But it’s not only astrology and witchcraft millennials turn to.

In March, PBS News Hour featured Casper Ter Kuile, a ministry innovation fellow at Harvard Divinity School. The 30-year-old is a religious “none.” He explained how millennials are filling that void with other forms of community.

“We aren’t young people who hate religion,” he said in March. “It’s a growing group that feel like they have been left behind by religious institutions.”

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As examples he named The Dinner Party, which brings people together to share a meal and grieve a lost loved one. He also mentioned CrossFit. The fitness brand has communities across the nation. In June, The Atlantic talked with Ter Kuile on how CrossFit and other gyms function like a church.

Ter Kuile said these kinds of communities are more than “simple entertainment.” He noted how members help each other in times of need, much like a religious congregation.

People are “hungry for connection,” Ter Kuile said. And “these communities offer the experience of being part of something bigger than themselves.”

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