Will the Search Be Undertaken?

Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

Leigh Stein’s “The Empty Religions of Instagram,” appearing in The New York Times, identifies a multi-layered problem. This past year we’ve experienced isolation due to the pandemic, we’re addicted to our phones, and we long for connection, meaning, and transcendence. It turns out we are human after all.

But many millennials and Gen-Zers are not affiliated with a religious tradition. Emerging generations either did not receive formation in a religious tradition or have disaffiliated with the tradition of their youth for various reasons. Ms. Stein is one of those millennials. She substituted political activism for a stretch. Social media has been an outlet.

But both have come up short. Ms. Stein writes:

I have hardly prayed to God since I was a teenager, but the pandemic has cracked open inside me a profound yearning for reverence, humility and awe. I have an overdraft on my outrage account. I want moral authority from someone who isn’t shilling a memoir or calling out her enemies on social media for clout.

Left-wing secular millennials may follow politics devoutly. But the women we’ve chosen as our moral leaders aren’t challenging us to ask the fundamental questions that leaders of faith have been wrestling with for thousands of years: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What should we believe in beyond the limits of our puny selfhood?

The whole economy of Instagram is based on our thinking about our selves, posting about our selves, working on our selves.

Her perspective turns following a conversation with a person of an older generation:

My mom is an influencer in the old-school sense — at 72, she still works full time as a psychotherapist, she’s a lay minister at her church, and she fills her free time with volunteer work. Her sermons are a combination of therapeutic tips, references to current events, and lessons from scripture about having compassion for the other even during times of intense polarization.

I told her that I find myself craving role models my age who are not only righteous crusaders, but also humble and merciful, and that I’m not finding them where I live (online). Referring to the influencers who have filled the void religious faith has left for people like me, she said, “They might inspire you to live your best life but not make the best use of your life.”

And her conclusion is an outright stunner:

There is a chasm between the vast scope of our needs and what influencers can provide. We’re looking for guidance in the wrong places. Instead of helping us to engage with our most important questions, our screens might be distracting us from them. Maybe we actually need to go to something like church?

Contrary to what you might have seen on Instagram, our purpose is not to optimize our one wild and precious life. It’s time to search for meaning beyond the electric church that keeps us addicted to our phones and alienated from our closest kin.

But where will she, and others like her, ultimately land?