Religion is Dead, Long Live Religion!

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The Pew Research Center released their recent study, and the results paint a bleak picture of our religious future in America. It is clear: God’s poll numbers are down across the board, and especially among Millennials. Immediately, frantic media headlines prophesied the end of religion as we know it.

Is this fate? Are we destined to live in a non-religious world? I don’t think we are doomed, unless we keep doing the same things we are doing now. If we want to reverse the trend, we need to reverse course. Suggesting change in religious circles is often taboo. It reminds me of one of my father’s oft repeated (aren’t they all?) jokes. How many Ultra-Orthodox rabbis does it take to change a lightbulb? [beat] Change?!

We believers think God gave us our religions. They are not ours to be tinkered and toyed with on a whim.sf Thus, many believers exclaim that people are abandoning religion because we have become too flexible, too apologetic, too concerned with popular opinion and trends. Their solution is fundamentalism, as it was for the Puritans after the Renaissance, premillennial dispensationalists after Darwin, and Evangelicals in the 80’s after the sexual revolution.

Unfortunately, post-modern fundamentalists are making a fundamental mistake. Most Millennials will never be fundamentalists. Above all, they reject the idea that there is only one universal truth. Where hippies rejected authority on principle, Millennials reject appeals to authority because there is no such thing as an authority of ideas. For my entire lifetime of active learning, I’ve been able to fact check anything asserted by an authority as fact. I have never needed to trust authority or rely on the opinions of one person. Self-guided research, diversity, and subjectivity are native to the Millennial generation.

When presented with fundamentalist ideas, we don’t find the “all or nothing” packages attractive. Some of the ideas that are preached by fundamentalists have merit, but that does not translate into adopting fundamentalism. It did in the 80’s. Evangelical Christianity and the Jewish “returnee” movement were massive movements that took hold in the 80’s, and both remain in their own shadows from that time. More fundamentalism is not the answer. In fact, it’s part of the problem.

Traditionally, the non-fundamentalist option has been to change. When the rules get tough, change the rules. If some of the theology is at odds with modern ideals, just rewrite it. By drawing a target around the arrow after it is lodged in the tree, liberal religious groups can make participation effortless and guiltless. The appeal of change is that is promises everything, but the reality is that this sort of change completely undermines religion.

Millennials flock to authentic experiences. Burning Man is a perfect example of this.  A Burning Man experience is powerful, unique, and above all, authentic.  Similarly, artisanal foods are quintessentially Millennial. No Millennial is trading fine French cuisine for a Big Mac. We want the real thing. We want meaningful experiences.

A counterfeit religious experience is no religious experience at all. It might keep families together at church and synagogue for a few more years, but without authenticity and engagement, nothing will connect Millennials to the experience. It’s hollow. When the structural shell is removed, nothing remains.

But all is not lost. I think there is an alternative approach that respects tradition, does not compromise authenticity, and works for Millennials. The first part of my proposal is that religion is actually a collection of beliefs and practices which ask us to struggle in the tension they create. There is beauty in tension. Ambiguity and doubt are key ingredients to great art. Poetry, music, theater, visual arts, culinary arts, love, and beauty are all ambiguous. They are all open to interpretation, and they all ask us to insert our struggles into the space they create for creative understanding.

We must stop preaching certainty and begin preaching doubt and struggle. Find beauty in the tension, instead of satisfaction in certainty. Religious leaders must be honest, and publicly acknowledge their own struggles and doubts. Instead of occupying the space of certainty that is anathema to Millennials, religion must occupy the space of subjectivity, ambiguity, and struggle. Religion is not the answer to life’s questions. Religion is the tool for exploring the big questions.

We can tolerate mistakes, difficult challenges, unanswered questions, and tension between tradition and modernity. We will not tolerate platitudes, over-confidence, false bravado, and apologetics. Be honest. Acknowledge the problems. Admit your own struggles. Then, invite the Millennials in your life to join you for an authentic experience of engaging with life’s struggles through the lens of religion. The Biblical heroes were flawed and they struggled. Let’s emphasize those stories and animate those Bible passages in our teachings.

The second part of my proposal is found in the tension between nostalgia and relevance. So much of our religious instruction and experience is nostalgic. We try to recapture something magical from our childhood, or a latent memory from a place and time that tugs at us. Millennials love nostalgia, and it’s a valuable tool when, but religion cannot subsist on nostalgia alone.

Our world is so different from the world of our Biblical heroes. Our lives are virtually nothing like the lives of the centuries of interpreters and teachers of religion. We must continue to lean on the eternal teaching they have bequeathed to us, but their teachings felt contemporary to their direct audiences. When we retell their teachings, they may feel nostalgic at best and irrelevant at worst. We must continue to write and create teachings that resonate with us and tell our story.

The Bible is an incredible canvas. Religious texts offer innumerable opportunities for modern interpretation. Not the kind that strips religion of its precepts, rather, the sort of modern interpretations that bring ancient teachings to life. When we explain our rituals, we must choose explanations that add meaning to our lives today. Take ownership of our religions. We can’t expect Millennials to be spectators of their religion. Millennials want to participate with mind, spirit, soul, and body. Relevance is key to hooking religion to our lives, and not merely relegating our traditions to museums and mausoleums.

I believe in God. I believe in religion. I believe in Millennials. This is fixable problem. Let’s fix it. Acknowledge our struggles. Live in the tension. Make religion relevant with new and modern interpretation. Live a life infused with religious meaning. When the results of the next Pew report on religion in America are released, we can shock the world.

See also: Finkorswim Live on the Stunt Show: The Decline of Religion in America

Edited by Elisheva Avital. Hire her!

“Religion is Dead” – Everyone after Pew Research Center demonstrated the dramatic decline of religion in Millennials.”Love Live Religion!” – Me. (See below)

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Monday, July 13, 2015

  • Holy Hyrax

    Seems you are putting the ‘dagesh’ on religion changing its ways. Doesn’t anything fall on Millennial to change on their part?

    • More than that, the millennial mindset has no room for revelation, since that implies that someone, once, may have had an objective view of Truth.

      Similarly, the mindset has no room for morality, only ethics, since no one’s conception of right or wrong is more valid than another. So what exactly are the lessons of religion they are open to?

      Your goal is to create something that is inherently paradoxical. It’s not that there are things about religion that Millenial’s don’t like, it’s that they have become such relativists that there is no room for a belief system. If anything you can’t prove to others is less real, there are no grounds to commit to a religion.

      • alfie

        thats why all you need to do is plant the seed of tension and doubt in their beliefs of relativism and subjective morality and you have them equally as curious to what your offering as wtvr it is they have capitulated to.

        • That’s an approach. I don’t think it’s as easy as “all you need to do” through. But I see no way of getting Millennials to buy into religion without chipping away at post-modernism. Our host disagrees, although he hasn’t replied to my comment for me to know why.

          • Starter Kit

            Rabbi – there’s nothing wrong with us millenials, there’s something wrong with religion. In fact, everything is wrong with religion. It’s racist, homophobic, xenophobic and mysoginistic at it’s core. It’s rotten. It brings no moral value to the world, just sad Duggars who lecture everyone else while molesting children in the dark.

            For religion, it was simply the incumbent, and since most people are sheep, they just followed. But now we’re reaching a new age of enlightenment, where crusty old white men like yourself, are now ridiculed and not listened to or respected.

            The warm mitzvos and avodas hashem that you wrap yourself in are simply you and your ilk wasting your precious lifetime in service of a myth made by your crusty old great grandparents to control the people around them.

            Me and my kind watch with gratitude as the world catches up to the molesting rabbis and cheating pastors, shining a light on the hypocrisy that is ingrained in each and every crusty old page of the gemarah you hold as you shuckle on into the night. Good bye.

      • Kenneth Perkins

        I don’t know if it’s about relativism, though. “One should be free to do what one wants, as long as one doesn’t harm other humans” isn’t a relativistic position, it’s one that attempts to create an objective standard for what should or should not be considered permissible/moral, according to which driving to McDonald’s and buying and eating a bacon double cheeseburger on Saturday, October 4, 2014, or consensual same-sex acts, is objectively moral, and preventing women from maximizing their spiritual potential in religious settings, or opposition to same-sex marriage between consenting adults, is objectively immoral.

        • Tuvia

          Nazis, commies had this problem too — they would have not enjoyed your arguments about what constitutes morality at all. they would have put you in cherem, excuse me – sent you to a forced labor camp. CANT YOU SEE THE TRUTH? No? ok — then we must destroy you…or, today, invalidate, ignore, abandon you.

        • It seems to me that “One should be free to do what one wants, as long as one doesn’t harm other humans” comes from being unable to accept with any certainty to decide what is morally wrong. So, what is left is maximize the number of people getting to do what they want the maximum possible amount of time. There is no value placed on the action other than weighing “I want” against “he doesn’t want”.

          It doesn’t come from believing in a reality of moral space, that religion studies a topic as objectively real as science, although less tangible.

          Ironically, the next step in this progression is to judge conservatism as a negative because by believing in objective values, the conservative is implying a judgement of someone else’s “I want”. Judging some actions taken by other people to be morally wrong reduces that total autonomy. And the judgment needn’t even be imposed or even confrontationally expressed for conservatives to be vilified for the chutzpah of just having a moral code. Just for it merely implying judgment of others’ actions. Most recently: the rampant cry of “homophobe”.

          There is a difference between uncertainty and plurality. Both accept other opinions as equally valid: one because they can’t assess which is right; the other because they believe there are multiple right approaches.

          There is also difference between tolerance and plurality. On can be tolerant and even warm toward others without considering all their beliefs, values and decisions are options in a plurality of right answers. The liberal I characterized above as ironically being judgmental of those to his right doesn’t get that. Because his tolerance comes from uncertainty, or at best plurality, he cannot picture someone who values others even while believing they’re in the wrong.

          In the international sphere this ends up translating into Might Makes Wrong. After all, we cannot judge the merits of each side’s narrative. The fact that one is historically false is deemed irrelevant — it’s real and motivational to them. And so, if that false narrative motivates terrorism, well, it’s justified in their eyes — so even that cannot be judged. Whichever side has the might to gets its way more than half the time is oppressing the other, even if it’s the one defending itself against that terror.

          Yes, not every mitzvah is a moral issue. But what about Noachide Laws?

          • Kenneth Perkins

            I don’t think that you’re giving enough credit. The non-harm principle *is* a moral claim, i.e., actions that don’t violate it are *moral* (or at least don’t have any more moral valence than the decision whether to wear a white shirt or a blue one or a Borsellino vs. a baseball cap) and actions that violate it are *immoral.* The “immoral” category would include things either perpetrated by ostensibly religious people (e.g., throwing rocks at people for driving on Saturday, covering up abuse) or required (circumcision of infants, preventing a woman from being able to initiate a legally effective divorce that would permit her to remarry) or condoned (slavery, ethnic cleansing) by religions/religious texts.

            But it goes beyond this. Based on their political beliefs, most Millennials probably have moral beliefs about what kind of affirmative obligations should exist in society (e.g., that increased minimum wages or expanded government control over health is moral and that it’s immoral that we have billionaires while some people are struggling to make it and can’t afford health care). That the average Millennial’s morality doesn’t have a moral stance on the kinds of issues that are the domain of traditionalist Abrahamic religions doesn’t make them relativistic, it just means that its premises about what constitutes morality are based on an incompatible frame of reference (which is why I think that many forms of LWMO/OO, who take a lot of contemporary secular ethics/values as givens around which Torah/halakha should be reinterpreted, will prove unstable).

            • As R’ Aryeh Klapper put it in https://moderntoraleadership.wordpress.com/2015/07/03/chok-mishpat-and-obergefell/

              “… One core premise: let us identify it with the Noachide commandment against forbidden sexual relationships, or arayot—that is no longer intelligible to many Americans is that sexuality can be evaluated in non-utilitarian terms, that a sexual act can be wrong even if no one gets hurt. We have replaced sexual morality with sexual ethics. Conversations on topics such as chastity, masturbation, and adultery are wholly changed from what they were even two decades ago, and tracts from back then can seem less contemporary than prehistoric cave art.

              “There are many reasons that traditional rationales in the area of sexuality have moved rapidly from self-evident to unintelligible. Here are two: (1) Effective birth control and in vitro fertilization have broken the connection between intercourse and procreation. It is no longer self-evident to speak of intercourse as potential procreation, or as inevitably associated with the risk of pregnancy. (2) Many human beings with homosexual orientations have told compelling personal stories of pain and alienation.

              “In the secular world, the natural reaction to a premise’s social unintelligibility is the repeal of any laws that depend on it. In the Orthodox world, where immediate repeal is rarely a viable option, one reasonable reaction is what I call ‘chokification,’….”

              • Kenneth Perkins

                Here’s another way of putting my point: I’d say that most Millennials hold by Hillel’s formulation of the Golden Rule, without the need for further studying. I don’t think that Hillel’s rule entails relativism.

                • Why don’t they need further studying? Because they understand the Law of Empathy (Hillel’s Rule, the Golden Rule, Karma, and the like) as being about people doing what they want, with no concept of what people ought to want, i.e. would want if they knew what they were made to be, or however you want to base your moral value system… And that’s why I agree with R’ Klapper’s observation that the west traded sexual morality for sexual ethics. (Assuming I understood him. I haven’t heard back from R’ Aryeh Klapper about my riff on his theme.)

                  And I’m adding that it’s the inability to decide that something is reliably true (to translate the word “emunah”) without being able to prove it to other parties that makes for a feeling that moral value has no objective meaning, and what leaves them with an ethical version of the Law of Empathy rather than one that includes objective standards.

                  Look, I understand what you’re saying. I noted in my first post the irony that an illusion of morality emerges, to the extent that I end up on the wrong side of their ethical standards. Hopefully we’ve now reached a point of mutual understanding, and why we fail to agree.

      • Tuvia

        millennials function pretty well in the world (I live amongst many of the hipster variety.) They are pretty impressive, hopeful, and likely have some kind of faith (but likely not a fealty to any particular belief system.) They marry in pretty good numbers I see, and have children (they don’t want to make the mistake of the last generation and push off children and marriage to a too-late age.)

        You seem to fault them — but isn’t more a function of your own need for a strict belief system to guide you? I sort of have the need also — but I don’t subscribe to the tenets of OJ, because OJ has a hard time holding up to scrutiny, almost on a day to day basis I see and feel this.

        But millennials are pretty impressive — I watch them, drink at their bars. They are nothing like the hippies — they are not terribly angry, searching, fearful of adult responsibility. They are very entrepreneurial, faithful to friends.

        Now, many of the BTs I know? Afraid of being vulnerable. Liars about themselves. Former or current (secretly) pot heads. Controlling types. Grabbed on to a Torah life like it was a Louis Vitton suitcase, and won’t let go — it gets them the girl (bad at relationships/emotional maturity issues) a format for married life (halacha — not wimpy “communication” and “honest, open” modern talk with your wife) NO career (have you ever spent a lot of time with serious potheads? No money, no ability to make it, no willingness to concede that they need to do that.)

        Some are not this bad, but many that I know are. And divorce? Good grief. These guys are terrible bets to even their former slut / or equally emotionally retrograde wives.

        (Ok, sometimes the wives are artist types and nice.)

        Anyway — you should raise a glass to millenials. They are not certain the world owes them welfare. They are not forming kiryas joel type boondoggles.

        a little respect for those who pay for the holy ones to have eight kids, no?

        • I didn’t fault them in the comment you’re replying to. (Although I did just criticize a common subset of them in my reply to Kenneth Perkins, below.)

          I just said that the mindset that “reject[s] the idea that there is only one universal truth” for reasons that everyone is right, or everyone is equally in the dark is inconsistent with religion. A religion is a set of ideas about the non-empirical side of things: theology, metaphysics, morality, etc… One of those truths that are being denied.

          Picking and choosing one own’s way through what of various religions, or dialects of Judaism that speaks to oneself doesn’t avoid the problem that the person is collecting ideas they don’t believe are really real. Not just ideas they are less sure about; doubt is normal and healthy. (Someoe who never doubts is someone who never thinks about their alleged beliefs.) They don’t believe in the total reality of the subject.

          • Tuvia

            well — i was stunned when i learned that OJ shared so much in its approach to what is “realy real” with other religions. Growing up secular — I assumed Judaism was the maddening thorn in the side of other religions — no insane baloney messiah ideas, no hell, no concerns about what people do in their bedroom, no certainty that the bible was from G-d, nothing. Talk about everything, no heresy, talk about anything. The Jews discovered G-d.

            Any religion that says these things is obviously true!

            But now it is clear: i was 180 degrees wrong. And OJ is wrong, too, with assertions posing as facts, everything straining reality there; so many ways of twisting reality. I thought Jews were nothing like that. Really hurts.

            • What exactly did you think a religion that didn’t consist of claims about non-empirical truths would look like? An individual could doubt, but that would be doubting the claims of the religion. The religion itself wouldn’t represent that doubt, but the claims being doubted.

              Regardless of particular religions and their beliefs, how can there be any traditions about religious topics if you bar people from accepting religious ideas as actual truths?

              • Tuvia

                i don’t feel anyone should be barred. That’s really the problem. Jews now (not in the shtetl) bar people who don’t have the right beliefs.

                I believe in G-d. I have a couple of friends who are atheists. somehow we can be excellent friends.

                The Jewish community has become so fragile, people are barred (or blocked, invalidated, despised, fired, shidduch or school deprived) for not sharing the predominant view.

                Jews have lost their sense of moral superiority through this. It has become a religion that thinks more about halacha as a tool for power, than as religion that prides itself on discussion.

                I am sure atheist Jews lived fine in the shtetl. But those days are clearly over. Why?

                • See what I said earlier about tolerance vs. plurality. Yes, no person should be barred. However, there is no religious community without a commonly agreed upon set of ideas about religious topics. A limit to the pluralism of normative ideology for a community does not require limiting our tolerance for people with non-normative beliefs.

                  That was the original promise of Open Orthodoxy, an O community that would welcome the non-observsnt and non-believing. (And the current heated debate with right-wing MO is whether to do so they are overly broadening the definition of normative; if they are not only increasing tolerance, but also increasing the plurality — and thereby broadening it to include positions that defy the definition of Orthodoxy

                  • Tuvia

                    i’m advocating a return to shtetl judaism — where there were no loyalty tests. Maybe the shtetl — where no one could leave (and therefore who cared what you thought, or, frankly did) — worked because when walls kept Jews together it was much more of a golden age.

                    I really, truly think OJ is much, much more like pre-Enlightenment religion in the gentile world. And the secular world today is far more like the free-wheeling intellectual world inside the shtetl of old.

                    So what OJ is protecting is truly foreign to most Jews — because their world LOOKS very much like the shtetl, but is very, very goyishe when compared to the what the shtetl actually was like way back.

                    It’s an irony or paradox or something.

          • Tuvia

            also, our forefathers (the American ones, where I live) were pretty skeptical about religion. But they were smart, smart guys (look what they wrought. Incredible.)

            Religion may go; but faith is everywhere. It’s doctrine that people think is sort of screwy. But people today are way, way up there in their moral sensibility. Again, I live with young post modern hipsters — these folks are running businesses, they are decent, they have friends and are good neighbors.

            Also, how do you explain the least corrupt countries in the world — the Scandinavians? Or even Europe — with its low religiosity?

            Now compare them to middle-eastern countries. Or even Israel.

            It’s night and day on corruption.

    • MarkSoFla

      “fall on”

      People and things change all the time. It’s a process, not an obligation. I think the point of the post is that change might be good for those things that claim they never change (and in reality just are changing very slowly, as everything changes).

  • MarkSoFla

    “When the results of the next Pew report on religion in America are released”

    If religion is dying so rapidly, I wonder if they will even bother doing a “next” report.

  • kaloynamous

    you my friend…. are…. well, let me just say, this was very good! a big WELL DONE!

  • Garnel Ironheart

    Religion is not dead. In fact, it’s quite popular. Religion with a deity at its head is what’s in trouble. For their part, however, climate warmers, feminists, and the politically correct are quite religious when it comes to belief and behaviour.