A few weekends ago, I went on a misadventure-filled camping trip with my temple’s youth group. I returned home brimming with stories of ill-fated hikes, tipped kayaks and rain-drenched sleeping bags. My friends, on the other hand, were less interested in my camping tales of woe and more intrigued by the fact that I still participate in youth group events.
“Why are you still going on those?” one friend asked. “I stopped going to church when my mom stopped forcing me to go.” They saw my temple involvement as uncool, as something to be ashamed of. The conversation quickly shifted to full-out religion-bashing, when all I had intended to talk about was the raccoon I’d seen while peeing in the bushes.
My friends’ hostility has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. I’m not taunted specifically for being Jewish but rather for practicing a religion in general — any religion. It’s not my Judaism that makes my friends uncomfortable, it’s religion in itself. Youth culture today is disenchanted with religion; in my community, it is almost frowned upon, viewed as unfashionable and conformist.
Young adults first extensively study the significance of religion on the historical stage during high school. Having previously been sheltered from the more severe atrocities of World War II and the bevy of religious wars in the thousand years prior, teens are understandably left with a bad taste in their mouths.
One need not look only at history to feel unsettled about religion. Skim through almost any newspaper and you’re sure to find news of hate crimes, extremists and religious wars — realities of the world that are all fueled by religion. These are admittedly extreme examples, but when the late-night news is plastered with images of human hardship and suffering as a result of religious disagreements, it’s hard not to despise the root of the conflict.
One cannot write off good ol’ rebellion when trying to solve the religion disenchantment puzzle. Pushing kids in one direction often has the unintended result of pulling them in the exact opposite direction, like matching poles of a magnet. When kids resent their parents for making them attend church every Sunday or fast on Ramadan, chances are they’ll begin to resent the religion itself. Of course, this is not always the case, but increasingly often, young adults steer their religious beliefs away from those of their parents.
Capitalism and the emergence of new wealth and entrepreneurship also play heavily into this sentiment. Capitalism isn’t just an economic model but a way of life, the American raison d’etre; why not pledge allegiance to the gods of capitalism rather than that old guy up in the clouds? Religion and capitalism, in their purest forms, aren’t as compatible as the Tea Party says they are: One relies on the belief that a higher power controls our destinies; the other preaches that to attain the American Dream, all one needs is cunning and a little elbow grease. Although most Americans today are able to reconcile the two in a way that works for them, it can be nonetheless confusing to navigate one’s spirituality under such paradoxical circumstances.
Privileged children in comfortable homes can often afford to live by the belief in hard work over destiny, that trying one’s best will eventually allow one to reap the ultimate reward. This optimistic and can-do attitude, which many young adults have been raised on as gospel, doesn’t prepare the future generation for the inevitable bumps along the way. You don’t pray to God when the road is smooth, straight and visible; you pray to God when you’re stuck in a pothole and your map blew away.
Young adults today aren’t prepared to fail, but if and when they do — an outcome that seems inevitable in today’s job market — they likely will want a supernatural, superhuman force to believe in. People characteristically turn to religion after experiencing death or catastrophe, so for young adults who have thus far not experienced hardship, religion doesn’t seem necessary.
People have turned to religion throughout history because they sought an explanation for their miserable lives, which no amount of hard work and diligence could change. Young people who have yet to experience significant adversity are quick to write off religion because they don’t necessarily need to believe in a higher power. And because they believe that religion is folly, they scorn those who are religious.
I do not believe in God. I do believe that humans affect their own destinies. I also know that these convictions don’t make me any less of a Jew. Religion isn’t about submitting oneself to the will of the gods. It is about community and culture, about having a safe place that slightly narrows down the heterogeneity of today’s world. Unlike accidentally melting my flip-flop on the side of the campfire (as I did on the temple camping trip), being religious is nothing to be ashamed of.
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