“Time is always against us,” Morpheus informs Neo in The Matrix. Of course, this is a paradigm for life spinning out of control, an allegory of having been taken over by forces against which there is no defense. It surprises no one that as time continues its inexorable march there will be generations that see the same phenomenon in very different ways. In last week’s Time, Nancy Gibbs’ essay addresses the differences between the millennial generation and those of us who are, well, not to put too fine a point on it, older. Her observation on their religious sensitivities is worth noting: “millennials” are just as religious but less conventional, with 1 in 4 having no religious affiliation. They nevertheless remain a deeply spiritual bunch.
Neurologists continue to study the “hardwired” aspect of religious belief, finding that human brains possess a genuine need to believe in something. Why not god? It is, after all, our cultural matrix. As I read this I reflected on ancient religion. Often students ask me what ancients believed. We don’t really know. Religion as a belief system only arises when monotheism emerges: if only one religion is correct, then it is possible to believe in the wrong one. There is no empirical way to test religious claims (yet) and so modern people equate religions with belief systems.
Ancient folk were much more practical. Religion was a matter of praxis, not belief. If you did what your local gods demanded, you’d get along for another day. Modern people peer deeply into the divine realm and make long-term plans based on the assurance of correct belief. Neither method, however, ultimately works. The millennial generation may be on the right track back to that old time religion. According to Gibbs what they’ve lost is faith “in the institutions that claim to speak for [God].” The idea of an all-powerful guy out there purposefully keeping us guessing while refusing to demonstrate the truth plainly for all to see is strangely outmoded. Religion becomes a matter of correct practice, as the old children’s song goes, “Be careful little hands, what you do – for the father up above is looking down in love, be careful little hands, what you do.” Millennials may rightfully wonder who this “father” is, but there is no question that there is someone out there watching what they do. Or else our own neurons conspire against us. The more we learn about the nature of religion, the less we know.