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Traditional religion in an atomised age

The last century has witnessed unprecedented and fundamental religious change in the western world, radically influencing all aspects of our lives. Such intense change over such a short period of time is not sustainable, and we are now beginning to see the fallout materialised in the behaviour of this generation, and we will continue to see it in the next. This article will explore how worship of the material and the fleeting is starting to be resisted by the children of today and tomorrow, who are remigrating to traditional religion.

A recently published survey by YouGov shows that definitive belief in a God in the ‘Gen Z’ 18-24 age bracket is at 23%: a stark and interesting difference to that of the ‘Millennial’ 25-39 bracket which sits at only 19%. More interesting still, the ‘Gen Z’ bracket rose by 2% from a similar survey conducted by YouGov a year before, whereas the ‘Millennial’ fell sharply by 5% from 24% in the same period. This is a change which challenges modern perspectives of religion and atheism in the West and the idea that atheism represents progress, and religion decline.

There is a lot that can and has been said about these statistics and of course they do not sit in a vacuum, isolated from the events of the last year – undoubtedly the pandemic and intermittent lockdowns which have restricted access to religious buildings have affected these results. In history, there are some years which seem to contain within them the most catalysts for change, and it is obvious that the most recent one, with its focus on introspection and mortality, has great potential for influencing the individual’s perception of God. Statistics aside, that ‘Gen Z’ is turning to religion in droves, turning away from the atheism that marked the mental world of the ‘Millennials’ that came before them, is no new observation to make, and has been commented upon for a number of years.

To alter one’s entire belief system takes far more than the simple appropriation of a belief system as an aid to coping with a crisis like the pandemic. Turning to or away from religion involves the adoption of whole traditions and ways of living that are completely alien to the way one lived before, and not something that is done easily or on a whim. I believe, then, that there is something fundamental within society that is causing the younger generation to increasingly turn to religion in a way which runs against the grain of the previous generation and was never expected to occur in the 21st century.

It is often easy to slip into dangerous terminology when discussing such a profound and diametric rift within society – the language of ‘culture war’ is never far from being adopted when such topics are discussed in public forums. While there is some semblance of truth in the culture war paradigm, it is not the most helpful way to frame the narrative. Ultimately, religion should sit above the realm of politics into which this debate is often dragged and should not be exploited as a weapon in such a debased arena.

Nevertheless, the current rhetoric of the ‘Left’ and its no-prisoners approach to those who try to challenge their inexorable and far-reaching transformation of society’s moral and cultural mores, has created the conditions needed for a culture war, whose rhetoric is easily accessible for those who comment on religious change. It is easy to see why some wish to create a fortress of the ‘Right’, free from the tendrils of liberal progressivism, and secured behind tradition and scriptural authority. That is not to say that I discount those individuals who are disenfranchised or disillusioned with the over-zealousness of the liberal march and who look to the veritable immutability of traditional religion for comfort and unwavering morality. Such conversions, which will continue to grow in number as the framing of our societal norms are constantly shifted while more moderates see their personal "line in the sand" crossed, are typically sound of heart, though more often sound of mind.

For me, however, and in the words of Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, the issue of conversion falls definitively under those things which are God’s, whereas politics remain in the court of Caesar. To make the point more clearly, if we are seeing an exodus of the young to religion – and traditional religion at that because so-called “spirituality” is covered in a different category of the survey – this goes far beyond the confines of a ‘culture war’. Maritain, writing in 1968 and acutely aware of the shift society was undergoing, urged Christians to push past innate human tendencies towards ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ and to concern themselves with the issues of the world, and with society as a whole.

This, I believe, points to the root cause of the current conversion we are witnessing. For the first time we are seeing the results of a generation which has grown up surrounded by an inescapable reliance upon technology, relentless individualism, and, above all, disposable culture.

It is not exclusively to a ‘leftist’ screed that our daily lives are exposed to when scrolling through the soapboxes of Facebook or Twitter. Our wardrobes and very self-image is influenced by how others may numerically react to us on Instagram, and romantic pursuits must be subjected to the superficial and degrading scrutiny of dating apps like Tinder or Hinge. The new generation is the first to live in a society where our daily lives come under the surveillance of not just the state but each other, made possible by the corroding influence of social media. Materialism and worship of easy satisfaction through the endorphin generating apps all children are now reared on has replaced a societal focus which was once reserved for God. It is now becoming clear just how damaging sustained exposure to this environment is. It's a view which has been consistently articulated in the writing of the French intellectual Michel Houellebecq. His books describe with disdain and melancholy the hedonism and indulgence of today’s atomised world which he suggests lay the groundwork for a return to religion of all kinds. Despite the rather miserable ending to Submission (his 2015 bestseller), many will greet this religious reawakening with great enthusiasm.

Therefore, the numbers of young people now assured in their belief in God demonstrates a deliberate turn away from the disposable and materialistic culture with which they have been surrounded throughout their lives. Organised religion offers the disillusioned an unchanging truth and the hope that there is more to existence than how we superficially perceive each other. Religion, as an alternative lens with which to view the world, holds different things to be significant, and looks away from wealth and material success. We will therefore continue to see these numbers grow over the next few decades, as more young people react against an age of increasing materialism and yearn for an eternal love and appreciation that society can no longer afford them.

In light of this, we are not witnessing a political struggle as traditionally defined, and to frame it as such risks misunderstanding and confusing the phenomena. In both camps of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ there will continue to grow a resentment against a system which exploits and reduces people to pictures on a screen. The pressures on us all to conform to the bland spiritual desert of materialist modernity is not merely a political compulsion, which is why the breaking of these strictures is such a significant shift for the new generation to be taking.

While the numbers reflected in the recent survey do not seem ground-breaking, they are indicative of a coming reaction against the materialist and all-pervasive culture into which young people have been born. It is impossible to predict accurately where this will go in the coming years, but it is undoubtable that the ramifications will be far-reaching for how society comes to view social media, disposability, and materialism in the generations which follow.


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