Millennials are embracing digital worship, but not at the expense of faith IRL

Photo by Samantha Borges (via Unsplash)

RNS) – A lot of millennials have been introduced to the personal technology that takes care of their tamagotchis during recess for the first time. It wasn’t until later that the internet revolution, smartphones and social media invaded every aspect of their lives, from relationships to health to music and faith. Today’s meditation podcasts, TikTok sermons and live broadcasts of Friday prayers (Jumah) are available to everyone.

A study in Canada suggests that this latest generation to experience a smartphone-free childhood still has a firm foothold in the real world, at least when it comes to religion.

The study, led by University of Waterloo sociologist Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, found that a sizable minority of millennials in the US and Canada (32%) turn to religious or spiritual pursuits digital at least once a month. But only 5% said they did so without engaging in forms of religion or spirituality in person once a month or more.

“For the most part, people are both involved in person and complementing that through digital religion,” Wilkins-Laflamme explained.

The findings will comfort religious leaders who fear technology is replacing religiosity, said Pauline Cheong, a professor at Arizona State University who studies religion and communication technologies but was not involved in the Canadian study. “(Digital religion) is not a disruption or a huge tear in the social fabric,” Cheong said. “There are a lot of savvy religious users who use it to complement existing links (with religion).

Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme.  Courtesy picture

Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme. Courtesy picture

A millennial herself, Wilkins-Laflamme set out to assess the extent to which her generation, which is less likely to participate in organized religion than previous generations, engages in online religion. She surveyed 2,514 respondents in March 2019. (So the study doesn’t take into account how the pandemic may have changed the digital habits of millennials at a time when many places of worship were online.)

“The general conclusion for me was that digital religion is definitely a thing, but it’s something that only a portion of the (millennial) population does,” Wilkins-Laflamme said.

Millennials also participate in digital religion to varying degrees. Wilkins-Laflamme left the definition of digital religion largely to respondents; this can include anything from using a Bible app to viewing a spiritually-themed Instagram reel. Forty-one percent of US respondents said they passively consume any type of religious or spiritual digital content at least once a month, while only 32% of US respondents take the time to post about religion or spirituality on social networks each month.

Millennials in Canada, where the population is less religious overall, were active at lower rates, with 29% taking digital religious content and 17% posting it.

It is not yet clear whether Generation Z, who are more digital natives than millennials, will engage in real-world religion as much as their elders. Paul McClure, a sociologist who studies religion and technology at Lynchburg University, applauded the Wilkins-Laflamme study but noted that his own research shows that greater internet use is associated with higher levels inferior in religiosity.

Photo by Nathan Mullet/Unsplash/Creative Commons

Photo by Nathan Mullet/Unsplash/Creative Commons