Millennials reject organized religion but still find meaning in Christmas

Steven Kunze of Roseville was baptized Roman Catholic. He said he was once a very religious person, but has become an atheist.

That won’t stop him from celebrating Christmas by giving plasma, as he did last year, and donating food to a homeless shelter.

“Empathy isn’t exclusive to religion,” said Kunze, 19. “There’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to do something good.”

Organized religion is losing young people, but even though they don’t frequent formal houses of worship, many still find meaning in Christmas.

The Pew Research Center, which regularly studies Americans’ religious attitudes, surveyed 1,500 Americans from Nov. 29 to Dec. 4 and found that a dwindling number of people celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. Only 46 percent of those surveyed said they viewed Christmas mainly as a religious holiday, down from 51 percent in 2013. A third of respondents said Christmas was a cultural holiday for them, while others view it as a mix of cultural and religious celebration. Eight percent of those surveyed said they don’t celebrate it at all.

This trend was particularly pronounced among members of the millennial generation, defined by Pew as those born after 1980. Just 32 percent of millennials surveyed said they viewed Christmas as mainly a religious holiday.

They weren’t particularly bothered by the so-called “war on Christmas,” which has become a hot political topic for conservatives. Fifty-six percent of the 18-to-29-year-olds surveyed said they didn’t care wither a store greeted them with “merry Christmas” or “happy holidays.”

The findings dovetail with studies by Pew and other research organizations that show a growing number of Americans don’t affiliate with a particular church or religion.

A 2014 Pew survey found that 35 percent of millennials don’t identify with any religion, compared with 17 percent of baby boomers and 23 percent of those in Generation X.

California leads the nation in the flight from church. About 35 percent of the state’s adults told surveyors in 2011 that religion was very important to their lives, according to Gallup. By 2016, that percentage had fallen to 31 percent, well below the nationwide average of 38 percent.

The total share of California adults identifying as Christians of any stripe fell by 8 percentage points between 2007 and 2014. Slightly less than two-thirds of the state’s adults identify as Christians.

Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism each claim about 2 percent of the state’s adults, while 1 percent of the state’s adults practice Islam, Pew figures show. Meanwhile, Hindu and Muslim temples fueled by immigration have experienced a slight growth.

Declining religious conviction doesn’t mean America is abandoning Christmas. Eighty-eight percent of millennials told Pew they plan to celebrate the holiday this year, just slightly less than the 90 percent of baby boomers who plan to do so.

Elizabeth Jolene, 33, lives in Sacramento and works as a lawyer. She said she no longer identifies as Christian, but this is still her favorite time of year.

“No matter what resentments we have, let’s put all that aside (and) sing a holiday song,” Jolene said. “I like playing carols. It gets me in the mood.”

During a recent Christmas, Jolene said, she made three turkeys – one for her family, one for her boyfriend and one for one of her professors who lives alone in the Bay Area. “I drove to the Bay Area and I’ll never forget how happy she was,” she said.

Jolene hasn’t given up spirituality, either. As a teenager, she remembers crying to God to keep her parents from fighting, praying, and seeing it not work. She attended her mother’s Baptist church and then her dad’s Catholic congregation, but found more comfort praying on her own when she felt lonely and without purpose.

“I appreciate teachings from all religions, but I don’t personify God,” she said. “I treat God as an energy we should all strive to have in our hearts,” she said.

Meem Mohsin, 22, is a UC Davis graduate and a recruiter for Northwestern Mutual. She said she also celebrates Christmas, even though she and her family are Muslims from Bangladesh.

“I love the idea of Christmas,” Mohsin said. “My family doesn’t celebrate it, but we love baking, shopping, giving and getting gifts.”

Mohsin said one of the main misconceptions about Muslims is they don’t believe in Jesus. “We understand that it’s his birthday, we see him as prophet but more of a messenger of God rather than the son of God,” she said.

As a teenager, Mohsin said she resisted her faith until 11th grade. “It was a pretty rough year, and I caught myself praying when I was in need and desperate for help,” she recalled. “I was distressed, unhappy, I had no goals, no purpose. Every day you wake up, go to school, come home, do homework and repeat.”

Mohsin said she had long refused to go to Friday prayer at the mosque, but she began to pray silently in Arabic with her mom, starting at 5:30 a.m., even though she doesn’t understand Arabic. She prayed by herself in her bedroom.

“I climbed onto my green prayer mat because it’s my favorite color.” she said. “I love to start my day knowing I have some sort of help along the way. You’re checking in on God, you owe him that much – you’re blessed with all these things.”

Along with her Arabic prayers glorifying God, Mohsin said she also offers a “Dua,” a specific prayer in English for specific things, such as safety from harm, good grades and better relationships with her family. “I had to put in the work at school and then I got the help, I did better in school and started communicating better with my family.”

Millennials may no longer attend the houses of worship their parents attend, or subscribe to religious dogma, but experts say they are looking for meaning and purpose in their lives.

“Whenever there’s trouble, everybody goes to their church, even those who claim to be atheists or agnostics go looking for answers,” said Jon Fish, president of the Interfaith Council of Greater Sacramento, spanning about 400 congregations. “When there’s not trouble, active participation dwindles.”

The Sunday after the presidential election, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento had a full house, said the Rev. Lucy Bunch. “We’re at our highest membership in 10 years and average about 300 people.”

The new members include millennials from a broad range of religious traditions who talk openly about their need to find a community and help the vulnerable, Bunch said.

Her church offers support programs for refugees, the homeless and gay congregants. “There’s an urgency now,” Bunch said. “People need to find others to share their values, they need spiritual sustenance, they want to feel connected and they want to make a difference.”

Whether millennials venture back to church or organized religion may hinge on a growing X-factor – they are starting to become parents. Veronica Delgado, 33, fondly remembers Mexican-American Christmases featuring tamales, animated family gatherings and midnight Christmas mass in Sacramento. But about 10 years ago, her grandparents were gone and her family had moved on to other ways of celebrating. So Delgado went to midnight mass alone.

“(I) left crying because it was so sad I was by myself,” she said.

Then, 15 months ago, she and her fiance had a baby. Dominic Raphael Rodriguez will experience his second midnight Christmas mass this holiday season.

“Christmas was and is about community,” Delgado said. “I look forward to going to mass with Dominic and my Catholic sister-in-law. We’re really just starting our own tradition.”

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini

Related stories from Sacramento Bee