Jessica Roy at “LA Times” writes an interesting piece on “How millennials replaced religion with astrology and crystals”. To be fair to Gen Ys, they are of course not the only ones to be big into alternative spiritualities; it was their parents, the Boomers, who after all have come up with the whole New Age and the Age of Aquarius jig, rediscovering everything from Tarot to Atlantis, the supposedly occult knowledge of our far ancestors as well as our tribal contemporaries. None of the mumbo jumbo has exactly disappeared since its 1970s apogee, though twits and turns of popular fashions have played vagaries inside the Chamber of Secrets. Being a bibliophile I can tell you for example that the whole genre of books on supernatural, be it ancient civilisations, UFOs or psychic powers, has been but a pale shadow of its former bestselling self since the golden age from the mid-60s to the late-80s. To some extent the Internet has replaced the traditional publishing industry in this regard and is certainly making the Newer Age more accessible to everyone again, not least the most tech-savvy generation so far.
What’s really pushing the Millennials into the other realms is the great disenchantment with traditional religions:
Millennials increasingly identify as “nones” when asked about their religious affiliation, according to a 2017 Pew survey: They are atheist or agnostic, or say they are “spiritual but not religious.”
But yes-or-no survey questions don’t tell the whole story, says Diane Winston, the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at USC. Just about every society throughout human history has developed traditions and practices. That’s not a coincidence. she said: “People are inherently religious or spiritual.”
Today, young people still seek the things that traditional organized religion may have provided for their parents or grandparents: religious beliefs, yes, but also a sense of community, guidance, purpose and meaning. But it can be hard for young people to find those things in their parents’ religions. So they’re looking elsewhere.
It was this section, however, about the astrologist Chani Nicholas, that has particularly caught my attention:
Young people have grown up contending with a major recession, climate change and a more general awareness of seeing a political and economic system that many feel hasn’t benefited them, Nicholas said, so it’s not surprising that they’re pushing back against those systems at the same time they’re exploring nontraditional religious beliefs and finding ways to integrate it all.
Nicholas was raised Jewish and still practices the tradition of honoring the new moon, which she brings into her astrology practice — what she calls “a way of being ritualistic that isn’t dogmatic, isn’t sexism, doesn’t have this history of empirical violence.”
“I think that it’s a yearning to return to something. There’s a rejection of things that don’t work,” Nicholas said. “Socialism isn’t new, and astrology definitely isn’t new, and earthly spirituality or living in accordance with the earth’s rituals isn’t new, it’s ancient. I think we’re yearning for something that technology cannot give us, that capitalism cannot give us.”
Firstly, it strikes me as interesting to link the political, economic and social upheavals with the rise of alt-belief. While many consider the Middle Ages to be the time of superstition and darkness (“a world lit only by fire,” as William Manchester titled his popular history of the period), it is ironically the gorgeous and sumptuous Renaissance, which saw the explosion of occult beliefs throughout Europe, not to mention of course the witch hunting craze and other popular mass delusions. It was not simply a matter of rediscovering the antiquity and its supposed occult secrets and beliefs, though it no doubt provided some new material; the original New Age was a consequence of and a response to earth-shattering developments like the advent of printing (the first internet), the beginning of the age of exploration, which brought Europeans face to face with all the other cultures and civilisations of the world, and the splintering of the western Christendom in the age of Reformation. It’s not too difficult, if slightly too simplistic, to see the turn of the millennium as a similar period of dislocation and disorientation brought about by technological, social and economic change – and with similar consequences in the realms of belief and spirituality.
But secondly, I’m reminded of the famous quote, erroneously ascribed to Chesterton (others have made a similar point too) to the effect that when a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything. Hence that “yearning to return to something” that Nicholas speaks about. While she is being quite serious and sincere, I think she is unintentionally ironic when in one sentence she lists off astrology, earth spirituality – and socialism. Marx, the self-professed scientist, must surely be rolling in his grave to have his theories of the dialectic, historical materialism and class struggle compared by implication with the beliefs in the influence of planets as well as nature on human affairs. Nicholas herself probably does not think that Marxism and Gaia worship are intellectually related, merely that they both represent the rejection of and an alternative to the status quo “which doesn’t work”. And yet, out of the mouths of the babes… (in the pre-popular culture sense and not an assessment of Nicholas’s hotness) For, to put it short, socialism, astrology and earth spirituality are all unscientific bullshit. They’re based on thin air and simply do not work – or rather work the same way that any other spiritual belief does; by giving comfort and solace and meaning without actually being able to bend the reality into its image.
There might indeed be things that neither technology nor capitalism can give us, but if you think they don’t work you clearly have not experienced life in a reality built around socialism or astrology, and I hope you never will. But maybe the Millennials should – as long as we can quarantine them as they do so – while the rest of us sit back and enjoy our free market computers.