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?
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.