Ame­ri­cans are less and less for­mal­ly iden­ti­fying with and en­ga­ging in the prac­ti­ces of or­ga­ni­zed re­li­gi­on. Mil­len­ni­als es­pe­ci­al­ly, aren’t mo­ving away from re­li­gi­on so much as they are “re­mi­xing” it.

"The keys pas­sed in­to the ot­her di­men­si­on." I laug­hed, thin­king my Airbnb host was ma­king a joke about lo­sing the pre­vi­ous set of keys. "Re­al­ly," she said.

While she could on­ly of­fer va­gue and ad­mit­ted­ly spe­cu­la­ti­ve desc­rip­ti­ons of this ot­her di­men­si­on, her be­lief in anot­her re­alm see­med sin­ce­re enough. It was unc­le­ar what led her to be­lie­ve in such a re­alm. But as the sub­ject chan­ged and I con­ti­nu­ed to le­arn more about my Airbnb host, I soon le­ar­ned that she de­fi­ni­te­ly did not think of her­self as re­li­gi­ous. In fact, she see­med rat­her put off by re­li­gi­on, per­cei­ving it to be judg­men­tal and mo­ra­lis­tic. She was more con­cer­ned with being a good per­son, being en­vi­ron­men­tal­ly cons­ci­ous, and being he­alt­hy (she had a strong be­lief in the he­a­ling po­wer of herbs and plants).

Yet this clear be­lief in ot­her di­men­si­ons of re­a­li­ty out­si­de of our sen­se per­cep­ti­on rai­ses the qu­es­ti­on: Is such a be­lief "re­li­gi­ous" or spi­ri­tu­al? Is it "se­cu­lar"? Should this per­son be un­ders­tood as non­re­li­gi­ous, spi­ri­tu­al, or what?

Though that en­coun­ter took place in Fin­land, I of­fer the anec­do­te to point to some of the dif­fi­cul­ties that ari­se re­gar­ding the dec­li­ne of re­li­gi­on in Wes­tern so­cie­ties, inc­lu­ding the US. There is plen­ty of pol­ling and re­se­arch to sug­gest that though fe­wer and fe­wer Ame­ri­cans, and yo­un­ger ge­ne­ra­ti­ons es­pe­ci­al­ly, are no lon­ger af­fi­li­a­ting with a re­li­gi­on, it may not be ac­cu­ra­te to desc­ri­be them as "se­cu­lar" or "non­re­li­gi­ous".

Of cour­se, pre­ci­se­ly what we mean by "re­li­gi­on" is a cru­ci­al qu­es­ti­on in this dis­cus­si­on, and one I've exa­mi­ned in my re­se­arch. Like ne­ar­ly any con­cept of so­ci­al, po­li­ti­cal, or scien­ti­fic im­por­tan­ce, it is fun­da­men­tal­ly con­tes­ted. Suf­fi­ce it to say that the idea of "re­li­gi­on" as a dis­tinct trans­cul­tu­ral ca­te­go­ry and phe­no­me­non of hu­man so­ci­al life is fair­ly re­cent – and fair­ly Wes­tern. My aim here is not to wade in­to that de­ba­te so much as point to the comp­lex re­a­li­ties and re­cent trends of Ame­ri­can re­li­gi­ous life that add nu­an­ce to the no­ti­on of "dec­li­ne."

One thing that is clear is that ins­ti­tu­ti­o­nal re­li­gi­on is dec­li­ning in Ame­ri­ca. That is, Ame­ri­cans are less and less for­mal­ly iden­ti­fying with and en­ga­ging in the prac­ti­ces of or­ga­ni­zed re­li­gi­on. But Ame­ri­cans have not ne­ces­sa­ri­ly stop­ped see­king me­a­ning, com­mu­ni­ty, or ri­tu­als, nor the “col­lec­ti­ve ef­fer­ves­cen­ce” that Émile Durk­heim, a French so­ci­o­lo­gist, thought de­fi­ned re­li­gi­on. So where are they tur­ning?

Religion Remixed

In 2020, the jour­na­list and the­o­lo­gi­an Tara Isa­bel­la Bur­ton pub­lis­hed Stran­ge Ri­tes: New Re­li­gi­ons for a God­less World in which she do­cu­ments Ame­ri­ca's chan­ging re­li­gi­ous lands­ca­pe. She wri­tes about how, ac­cor­ding to pol­ling data, a sig­ni­fi­cant per­cen­ta­ge of Ame­ri­cans, and mil­len­ni­als es­pe­ci­al­ly, aren't mo­ving away from re­li­gi­on so much as they are "re­mi­xing" it. They "en­vi­si­on them­sel­ves as cre­a­tors of their own bes­po­ke re­li­gi­ons, mi­xing and matc­hing spi­ri­tu­al and aest­he­tic and ex­pe­rien­ti­al and phi­lo­sop­hi­cal tra­di­ti­ons."

A Pew Re­se­arch Cen­ter study from 2018, for examp­le, in­di­ca­tes that more than half of those who do not af­fi­li­a­te with a re­li­gi­on be­lie­ve in a hig­her po­wer or spi­ri­tu­al for­ce ot­her than that desc­ri­bed in the Bib­le. New Age be­liefs are slight­ly more com­mon. Around 60 per­cent of the unaf­fi­li­a­ted be­lie­ve in at le­ast one of the fol­lo­wing: ast­ro­lo­gy, rein­car­na­ti­on, psyc­hics, or spi­ri­tu­al ener­gy in phy­si­cal ob­jects. (The per­cen­ta­ge for Chris­ti­ans is, surp­ri­sing­ly, the same – but that's a to­pic for anot­her ar­tic­le.)

Bur­ton sug­gests that the ca­te­go­ry of "No­nes" – i.e., those who do not iden­ti­fy with a re­li­gi­on – is too broad gi­ven the va­ried be­liefs, prac­ti­ces and af­fi­li­a­ti­ons of this group. Mo­re­o­ver, it's not en­ti­re­ly ac­cu­ra­te, as some No­nes do have some type of re­la­ti­ons­hip with or­ga­ni­zed re­li­gi­on. This is why she ins­te­ad used the term "Re­mi­xed", which she says is com­po­sed of three sub-ca­te­go­ries for those who aren't ne­at­ly af­fi­li­a­ted with a re­li­gi­on but are neit­her ful­ly "se­cu­lar".

The first group of the Re­mi­xed are the spi­ri­tu­al but not re­li­gi­ous (SBNR), who as of 2017 were 27 per­cent of the US po­pu­la­ti­on. (One furt­her comp­li­ca­ti­on is that many in this group – more than a third – ac­tu­al­ly iden­ti­fy with a re­li­gi­on. A cont­ra­dic­ti­on? Per­haps.) Then there are the "faith­ful no­nes" who be­lie­ve in some kind of hig­her po­wer but do not af­fi­li­a­te with a re­li­gi­on. Un­li­ke SBNRs, they don't turn to tra­di­ti­o­nal com­mu­nal spa­ces or prac­ti­ces for events like mar­ri­a­ges or fu­ne­rals, pre­fer­ring to find al­ter­na­ti­ve forms of mar­king these oc­ca­si­ons. Fi­nal­ly, there are re­li­gi­ous hyb­rids, who will af­fi­li­a­te with one (or more) re­li­gi­ons but with mix and match as they see fit.

Bur­ton cha­rac­te­ri­zes the Re­mi­xed as see­king "in­tui­ti­o­nal" re­li­gi­on which, in cont­rast to tra­di­ti­o­nal "ins­ti­tu­ti­o­nal" re­li­gi­on, is pri­ma­ri­ly about ac­tu­a­li­zing the self and its felt needs. Some of the Re­mi­xed are tur­ning to the overt­ly spi­ri­tu­al, like witchc­raft, oc­cul­tism or New Age thought, or dra­wing on ele­ments of Eas­tern re­li­gi­ons. Ot­hers are fin­ding me­a­ning and be­lon­ging in fan­dom and ga­ming com­mu­ni­ties that take on qu­a­si-re­li­gi­ous qu­a­li­ties. Re­se­arc­hers have poin­ted to how fit­ness phe­no­me­na like Cros­s­fit or Soul­cyc­le ope­ra­te as "se­cu­lar" re­li­gi­ons. In­te­res­ting­ly, Bur­ton ar­gu­es that "self-care" and wel­l­ness cul­tu­re - think Gwy­neth Palt­row's Goop - has an imp­li­cit the­o­lo­gy, pro­vi­ding et­hi­cal no­ti­ons of the self and a me­tap­hy­sics (of­ten cen­te­red around "ener­gy"), along with as­ce­ti­cal prac­ti­ces. The the­o­lo­gy is one of di­vi­si­on: "We are born good, but we are tric­ked, by Big Phar­ma, by pro­ces­sed food, by ci­vi­li­za­ti­on it­self, in­to li­ving so­met­hing that fal­ls short of our best life. Our sins, if they exist at all, lie in in­suf­fi­cient self-at­ten­ti­on or self-care: fal­se mo­des­ty, un­de­ser­ved hu­mi­li­ties, re­fu­sing to shine bright."

Be­cau­se of the dif­fi­cul­ties in es­ti­ma­ting the size of the va­ri­ous groups, it's hard to know pre­ci­se­ly how many Re­mi­xed Ame­ri­cans there are. Yet by cob­b­ling to­get­her the va­ri­ous data that exists, Bur­ton es­ti­ma­tes that – con­ser­va­ti­ve­ly – at le­ast half of Ame­ri­ca fits in this ca­te­go­ry, and li­ke­ly much more. Bur­ton sum­ma­ri­zes by sa­ying that "the mar­ked rise in 'spi­ri­tu­a­li­ty' as dis­tinct from re­li­gi­on tracks clo­se­ly with a dec­li­ne in or­ga­ni­zed re­li­gi­ous af­fi­li­a­ti­on. On­ly a tiny per­cen­ta­ge of pe­op­le are mo­ving away from spi­ri­tu­a­li­ty al­to­get­her."

Wither our institutions?

Much could be said about the rise of "bes­po­ke" or Re­mi­xed re­li­gi­on in the US, but here I'll fo­cus what I find most wor­rying. Any he­alt­hy so­cie­ty needs he­alt­hy ins­ti­tu­ti­ons. Ame­ri­cans are inc­re­a­sing­ly skep­ti­cal of ins­ti­tu­ti­ons – not just Ame­ri­can ins­ti­tu­ti­ons, for which there are of­ten good re­a­sons to be skep­ti­cal, but ins­ti­tu­ti­ons as such. In a time of cul­tu­ral frag­men­ta­ti­on and po­li­ti­cal po­la­ri­za­ti­on, what is nee­ded are stron­ger ins­ti­tu­ti­ons, es­pe­ci­al­ly those me­di­a­ting bet­ween the in­di­vi­du­al and the state.

Un­for­tu­na­te­ly, be­cau­se of the cul­tu­ral for­ces and nar­ra­ti­ves sha­ping Re­mi­xed re­li­gi­on – such as the in­ter­net, so­ci­al me­dia, and con­su­mer ca­pi­ta­lism – the prac­ti­ti­o­ners are un­li­ke­ly to be the most wil­ling par­ti­ci­pants, let alo­ne buil­ders, of ins­ti­tu­ti­ons. As Bur­ton says, "the ref­rac­to­ry na­tu­re of these new in­tui­ti­o­nal re­li­gi­ons – each one, at its core, a re­li­gi­on of the self – risks cre­a­ting an inc­re­a­sing­ly bal­ka­ni­zed Ame­ri­can cul­tu­re: one in which our de­si­re for per­so­nal aut­hen­ti­ci­ty and ex­pe­rien­ti­al ful­fil­l­ment ta­kes pre­ce­dent over our wil­ling­ness to build co­he­rent ide­o­lo­gi­cal sys­tems and func­ti­o­nal, sus­tai­nab­le ins­ti­tu­ti­ons."

Re­li­gi­ous ins­ti­tu­ti­ons and tra­di­ti­ons, for all their many fai­lu­res and prob­lems, have been im­por­tant sour­ces of so­li­da­ri­ty and com­mu­ni­ty. They have tur­ned pe­op­le out­ward, orien­ting them to­ward the needs of their fa­mi­ly, their neigh­bor­hoods, their church and sy­na­go­gu­es and fel­low ci­ti­zens. A bes­po­ke re­li­gi­on ins­te­ad pri­o­ri­ti­zes the self and its de­si­res and de­coup­les it from more com­mu­nal res­pon­si­bi­li­ties.

This turn from ins­ti­tu­ti­o­nal to bes­po­ke re­li­gi­on is in some ways en­ti­re­ly un­ders­tan­dab­le. Re­li­gi­ous ins­ti­tu­ti­ons have of­ten been mar­red by se­xu­al abu­se, per­pe­tu­a­ted ra­cism (just ask Mar­tin Lut­her King, Jr.), and sought to pro­tect their own hie­rarc­hies at the ex­pen­se of the vul­ne­rab­le and their own in­teg­ri­ty. Why not avoid all that bag­ga­ge and simp­ly cher­ry pick ac­cor­ding to yo­ur pre­fe­ren­ces?

So rat­her than un­der­go the long and ar­duo­us pro­cess of re­for­ming and re­ne­wing bro­ken re­li­gi­ous ins­ti­tu­ti­ons, many are choo­sing to le­a­ve them al­to­get­her and for­ge their own spi­ri­tu­al path. Yet the va­cuum left by the dec­li­ne of ins­ti­tu­ti­o­nal re­li­gi­on will be fil­led. In pla­ces like Fin­land, the state may oc­cu­py some of that space. In the US, it may be Re­mi­xed re­li­gi­on. It might be po­li­tics it­self, as the rise of woke ide­o­lo­gy and the alt-right mo­ve­ment may sug­gest. We may hope for more hu­ma­ne op­ti­ons for buil­ding so­li­da­ri­ty, but they won't emer­ge wit­hout con­cer­ted ef­fort. And it's dif­fi­cult to see how a "re­li­gi­on of the self" could give us the re­sour­ces for such a pro­ject.


Joel Gil­lin is a PhD stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hel­sin­ki's Fa­cul­ty of The­o­lo­gy re­se­arc­hing post-se­cu­lar po­li­ti­cal thought and plu­ra­lism. He grew up in the Uni­ted Sta­tes and has li­ved in Fin­land sin­ce 2015.