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The Rise of Do-It-Yourself Religion
Secularization was supposed to make people more rational. Instead, it made us more polarized and superstitious.
Within a few blocks of the University of Washington in Seattle, there are not one but two establishments offering psychic services. At one or both, you can obtain palmistry, fortune-telling, aura cleansing, crystal readings, dream analysis, chakra balancing, psychic aura readings, past life regressions, and tarot card readings. Every American city has similar listings in Google Maps for professional psychics, including 20 in Philadelphia, 17 in Memphis, and 18 in St. Louis. The Pew Research Center reports that fully 41% of all Americans believe in psychics.
The same surveys indicate that 29% of Americans believe in astrology, and many of them seek astrological guidance for their lives. They can easily download the sophisticated apps promising personalized advice that have replaced the simple horoscopes earlier generations read in newspapers. Co-Star, one of the leading apps, says it “uses NASA data, coupled with the methods of professional astrologers, to algorithmically generate insights about your personality and your future.” According to a brand promotion company, the “mystical services market”—which includes but reaches well beyond astrology apps—totals $2.1 billion in the U.S.
The continuing appeal of mysticism gives fodder for perennial debates about religion and what, if anything, can be known beyond the limits of science. More than a half-century ago, Time contributed to these debates through its famous cover story, “Is God Dead?” Subsequent developments vindicated the magazine’s efforts to grapple with the consequences of a secularizing America. The share of Americans holding no religious affiliation has risen from 6% in 1991 to 28% in 2021, while weekly attendance at worship services has dropped by more than a third.
When we dig more deeply into the data, however, the simple label of “secularization” does not adequately capture these trends. Most Americans unaffiliated with a religion nevertheless believe in some type of a God or universal spirit. Research from the University of Kent in the U.K. indicates that even atheists do not consistently uphold the scientific rationality many intellectuals anticipated as a replacement for religion. Specifically, the research finds that most atheists in the U.S. and several other countries embrace at least one from a set of beliefs encompassing astrology, karma, supernatural beings, and a handful of other supernatural and mystical phenomena.
The other side of the religious spectrum is also internally inconsistent. In a development that would make any fundamentalist preacher want to scream, one-fifth of evangelicals now believe in reincarnation. Other evangelicals draw religious sustenance from online sources with a dubious connection to any historical Christian teaching. Works in political science and sociology show that Christians of all stripes often read their political allegiances into the Bible rather than using the Bible to guide their political stances.
Instead of pure secularization, then, we have seen a shift toward what could be called Do-It-Yourself religion. Some people still attend worship services, but they mix and match their beliefs and practices according to personal taste. It’s not just “cafeteria Catholics”—we have cafeteria evangelicals, Muslims, and Jews. Meanwhile, the people who have abandoned organized religion entirely often explore the paranormal even as they retain a belief in God.
DIY religion, it should be noted, is not a new phenomenon. People living in a polytheistic society engage in it almost by definition, because there are so many choices available for which gods to worship. Even in a monotheistic culture, ordinary folks often mix unapproved beliefs and practices with whatever their religious leaders pronounce as orthodoxy. During the Middle Ages, for example, the Catholic Church worked assiduously to stamp out all the pagan elements that Europeans combined with Christianity.
What has changed in modern America is not the existence but rather the prevalence of DIY religion. The twentieth century was a high point for organized religion, which not only structured lives but also wielded cultural influence. Today, with religious adherents attending services at lower rates, and with many Americans claiming no religious affiliation, there are greater possibilities for people to blend ideas from different sources. The remaining churchgoers who seem conventional nevertheless often combine the instruction of their pastors and priests with the endless stream of unorthodox material they encounter online.
This movement is heightened among young people. Many social trends gather steam initially in the young, and that is certainly true with respect to religion. Within Generation Z—generally defined as people born after the mid-to-late 1990s—the percentage who do not affiliate with a religion has reached an all-time high. Among those who do hold a religious identity, attendance at worship services has fallen off a cliff.
Young people are also disproportionately represented among the enthusiasts for astrology, Tarot cards, and various forms of New Age mysticism. They frequently pair their excursions into the paranormal with standard religious activities such as prayer. To put it simply, DIY religion has meant for young people a substantial retreat from religious participation in an organized community but no major withdrawal from religious and mystical belief.
What difference does this distinction make for the lives of Generation Z? Many research studies have found that active participation in a religious community improves a person’s health, happiness, and social stability. A community of like-minded others can take care of a person when they’re sick, provide leads on job opportunities, and give them social support that contributes to mental health. Once statistical models account for a person’s religious participation, however, religious belief per se does not systematically bring additional benefits. In other words, Generation Z has lost the best part of religion: its ability to connect a person with a community that will provide friendships, structure, mentors, and meaning.
These are difficult times for the members of Generation Z. Their lives are documented and publicized on social media, where the danger of ostracism for saying or doing the wrong thing is legion. They have grown up amid economic uncertainty, racial reckonings, student debt, political strife, and—most recently—a pandemic that has disrupted social interactions of all kinds. Not surprisingly, rates of anxiety, depression, and self-harm have skyrocketed. At the same time, most members of Generation Z lack the protective blanket that religious communities offered for previous generations.
All of these developments point to the complexities of secularization. For many decades, intellectuals pined for a decline in religion, which they assumed would usher in an era of reason, science, and better lives for all. The experiences of Generation Z demonstrate that religious and mystical beliefs can persist even as participation in a religious community drops.
In principle, other forms of community could replace what people can obtain through religion. For example, people can join online discussion groups based on shared interests. But in practice, organized religion has many advantages over its alternatives in tying people together. It can offer shared rituals, doctrines, and practices through the face-to-face interactions human beings evolved to need. Whatever else they might accomplish for a person, DIY religion and online forms of community cannot easily duplicate what organized religion once provided.
The decline of organized religion has opened a space for other means to find meaning and purpose. For many people today, and especially among the young, politics fills that void in ways that fuel polarization and tribalism. When a person holds their political commitments intensely, the stakes can come to feel existential. The country will literally cease to exist, it seems, if the “other side” prevails.
Historically, of course, religion itself has often stoked political controversies. One might have predicted that weaker religious attachments would therefore make it easier for people to unite behind a common political project. Reality has not worked out that way, giving us one more reason to rethink longstanding assumptions about the process of secularization.
Mark Alan Smith is a professor of political science and an adjunct professor of comparative religion and communication at the University of Washington. He is the author of Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics.