In Western society, Christianity no longer exerts a powerful centrifugal dynamic as in the past. We find ourselves in the midst of a major cultural metamorphosis marked by the advent of other ways of appropriating sacredness.
Between 2010 and 2050, the number of non-believers is expected to rise from 59 to 111 million in the United States and from 140 to 162 million in Europe.
While the “leaving religion” phenomenon is not new – it was already visible in the 1980s – its concrete manifestations such as the rates of churchgoing, religious affiliation and belief in God have never been so palpable in Western society.
In the U.S., 25% of adults under 30 no longer have any religious affiliation and prefer to identify themselves as atheist or agnostic. The Barna Group, a U.S. research institute specialized in cultural and religious trends, found that atheismhas doubled among Gen Z (born between 1995 and 2015), calling it the first “truly post-Christian generation”.
Tracing religious apathy
According to a Barna Group study released in 2018, “for Gen Z, ‘atheist’ is no longer a dirty word”, the percentage of U.S. teens self-identifying themselves as atheists is double that of the general population (13% vs. 6% for adults), and, while 75% of Boomers that say they are Christian (Protestant or Catholic), only 59% of teens make a similar claim. These developments are indicators of a break with the country’s historic tradition of religious faith.
More than any other previous generation, Gen Zers do not claim a religious affiliation.
Recent books have taken a closer look at this growing disaffection with religion, notably “The Coming Post-Christian Tsunami: Connecting with an Increasingly Unchurched Culture” by pastor and “church planter” Jon Perrin and, in France, “Comment notre monde a cessé d’être chrétien” [how our world stopped being Christian] by Guillaume Cuchet, professor of contemporary history.
What accounts for this change in paradigm?
Barna asked non-Christians, including young people, about their biggest barriers to faith. Two responses, in addition to the age-old issue with intrinsic evil and injustice in the world, help explain this trend:
1 – Christians are perceived as hypocrites, which goes counter to Gen Zers’ aspirations to inclusiveness.
Gen Z is attentive to particular political issues LGBTQ+, poverty and immigration policy. The Trump administration, influenced by the religious right, has given cause for concern to a generation that adheres to collective and community values, including co-working, open spaces and design for all.
2 – Truth seems increasingly elusive.
In this age of relativism marked by a lack of trust many adolescents doubt that truth is knowable.
More than half of the Barna study respondents – teens (58%) and adults (62%) alike – agreed with the statement: “Many religions can lead to eternal life: there is no “one true religion”. Among Gen Z, there is a feeling that what’s true for someone else may not be “true for me”.
There is also a quest for horizontality and decentralization which, according to sociologists, reflects an unprecedented desire for self-determination and emancipation from the traditions that helped shape the modern age. Hence the concept of post-modernity, the subject of investigation by sociologists like Michel Maffesoli.
While this new generation continues to be drawn to things spiritual, their point of departure differs from that of previous generations, which also helps explain their relationship with consumption.
Presentism, mystery and community: new spiritual markers in today’s society
A closer look at the culture and motivations of this generation reveals that they have their own take on sacredness and their own “shrines”.
“Presentism” in a variety of forms – e.g. zen revival, holistic retreats, hypnotizing techniques and shamanism – is back, characterized by spirituality codes that signal a new negotiation with discontinuity. The aim is to get out of oneself to be more receptive to the inner self.
This is manifested by the “charismatic” slant taken by interior life concept, and more cross-cutting phenomena like the generalization of humor in market offers, and the many market offers focusing on positive energy and self-awareness, e.g. #moodfood, #moodtravel (Soulcity) #moodbeauty (MoodBeli), and #moodclass (The Good Mood Class).
Key words: introspection and the innovative potential of slowing down.
In parallel and going counter to the modern-day “comfort space”, brands are reassessing their market offers in light of emerging codes of magic, mystery and uncertainty.
This movement has made its way into in the travel business, where premium providers like 700’000 Heures or The Extraordinary Adventure Club are featuring destinations that are secret or about which little is known, capitalizing on the “thrill of the treasure hunt” and the unseen.
In another twist, Nike has even partnered with Martine Rose on a collection of Nike Air Monarch footwear, track suits and soccer jerseys, brought out in part by real people on Craigslist.
As for luxury, many brands have embarked upon a “spiritual mutation” centered on the idea of community. For instance, Gucci no longer refers to “vendors” but to “connectors” or “active agents” to highlight the high quality of their interaction.
The concept of collective emulation is key to the new “human connection” rationale and can, for instance, pave the way for the creation of rituals, including with an initiatory or esoteric aura.
This could be a way to evolve and refresh events in the luxury sector, a way to have people gather together and progressively develop a common history.
Cover © Luca Baggio