In the 19th century, sociologist theorists begun to formulate various theories on religion, most of them emerging towards the common agreement that religion with its cults, liturgical rituals or sacred practices was entrenched in the past and would soon decrease in importance (Norris & Inglehart, 2003). Emile Durkheim, the sociological founder of functionalist theory, linked religion to a social role of creating cohesion among society, departing from its spiritual connection with God and supernatural (Turner, 2011). Although his theory on the functionality of religion was shaped in the 19th century, it finds echoes in the way the Generation X and Generation Y perceive religion.
Generation X, referring to individuals born between 1960 and 1980, respectively Generation Y, comprising individuals born between 1980 and 2000 (“Generation X, Generation Y”, 2013) defines, from a millennial point of view, two different social categories, differentiated primarily in terms of age, and secondarily in terms of their social behaviors, perceptions or lifestyles. As lifestyles change across time, what was actual and relevant for the Generation X may seem obsolete for the Generation Y. However, Generation X and Generation Y are considered to be a unity, as they are united by common characteristics regarding the perception on faith (Johnstone, 2013). The 19th and 20th century sociologists made assumptions regarding how the future generations (including Generation X and Y) will respond to religion, most of the theorists forecasting somber predictions about religion’s sustainability.
Emile Durkheim’s functional theory on religion formulated in the 19th century assigned a significant importance to church, as the binder of the believers who shared the same religious values, forming a communion that would gather at the same place for exercising their faith (Johnstone, 2013; Turner, 2011). The Generation X and Y, on the other hand, put a great emphasis on the privatization of religion, assuming their right of practicing religion outside the church, in an individualistic manner, rather than in a shared community (Johnstone, 2013). Durkheim’s theory on religion held that religion was not a matter of privatization of belief, explaining that believing in the sacred nature of a totem was not an optional or private choice, reinforcing his thinking that religion was the interpretation of “a collective classification of reality” (Turner, 2011, p. 287). The western societies nowadays depart from the shared religion perspective, witnessing a generational trend of individualization of the evangelicals, influenced by either the enlightenment, the protestant reformation or more pragmatic, by the American capitalism, all promoting individualism and/or rationalism (Johnstone, 2013). In this context, although members Generation X and the ones of Generation Y are differentiating from one another in terms of age, they are united by the common practice of the individualistic religion. Individualistic religion is entrenched in the western societies for ages, since the Middle Eve Enlightenment or Protestant movements and anchored in the present through the prospects of capitalism, which makes Durkheim’s social religion theory obsolete and less relevant for the 21st century western Generation X and Generation Y.
As a natural effect of the Enlightenment, sociologists founded the theory according to which the metaphysical and supernatural characteristics that described religion in the Middle Eve were in fact rational and could be demonstrated based on scientific research. Max Weber was a significant proponent of this school, which led to the minimization of the religion’s mystery and even to the loss of faith, through the pragmatic interpretation and confrontation of the Biblical teachings with scientific arguments, such as the Darwinian theory of evolution (Norris & Inglehart, 2003). Durkheim also embraced the scientific truth, considering sociology a science, advancing to the point wherein the sociologist states that religion does not need God, as God is not essential to religion, and religion can surpass divinity through the gathering of human collective forces (Monivas, 2007). While this affirmation was partially sustained by the practice of Buddhism religion that lacks a God, Durkheim’s claim that religion does not need a God seems less relevant for Generation X and Generation Y of the western societies, at first sight. God is still the essence of Western religions and the religious discourse is still heavily entrenched in the Old and New Testaments that praise the acts of God and Jesus Christ. What indeed has changed from Durkheim’s time is the way in which people believe. Initially the concept of believing in God meant committing to serving God through facts and behaviors that God would worship, while in the modern western world, the concept of believing has shifted to having an opinion about something, in this case, about God (Johnstone, 2013). Therefore, a shift in the way Generation X and Generation Y practice religion has occurred. According to Johnstone’s interpretation of how people believe nowadays seems to confirm Emile Durkheim’s theory that religion does not need God.
Unlike the philosophers and sociologists who sustained the superiority of science to religion, Durkheim’s work was focused on demonstrating that religion is a science, one that serves the purpose of human cohesiveness (Monias, 2007). Like this, Durkheim founded its functional religion theory on the minimization of spirituality for emphasizing religion as having the social role of providing a “unified system of beliefs and practices” through church (Durkheim, 1961, p. 62). On the contrary, Generation X and Generation Y change the poles of Durkheim’s theory, attributing more emphasis to spirituality and less significance to religion as a unified system of belief, practiced mostly within a church (Johnstone, 2013). Durkheim did notice the shift towards a decay of the religious traditions and ceremonial practices that started with the industrial times and he predicted that the role of religious institutions (church in essence) that officiated rituals such as births, marriages, deaths and special holidays will lose ground (Norris & Inglehart, 2003). Nevertheless, religion, through the implication of church in people’s significant life events, still plays a major role in the western societies, for both Generation X and Generation Y. Children are still baptized in the church, marriages and deaths ceremonies are still conducted in church and special events such as Easter or the Birth of Christ, to name just a few, still gather believers in the Western churches. Johnstone (2013, p. 8) defines Generation X and Generation Y as a generational unit that “shares an orientation towards church that gives it a central place in the life of faith”. Therefore, although Durkheim predicted that the role of the church will diminish, it still represents an intrinsic essence of the Western society. What the Western societies experience through the Generation X and Generation Y is more closely related to Peter Berger’s theory, which sustains that without God and his commemoration people would live in forgiveness and would form amnesic societies (Johnstone, 2013). Even in the modern societies of the western world, the concept of God is still transmitted from generation to generation, as it had been transcended from Generation X to Generation Y, who continue to engage in religious rituals that are still centered around God. However, as the French sociologist forecasted, the role of religious institutions have declined in the modern societies. As Durkheim explained, the decline was a consequence of the replacement of the traditionally linked cult institutions with welfare institutions, such as the publicly – funded schools, the welfare offices for unemployed or elders or the heath care institutions, which have formed in the 19th – 20th centuries (Norris & Inglehart, 2003).
The changes that occurred in western society across time generated the evolution of religion into how Generation X and Generation Y practice it nowadays. From the Enlightenment and Protestantism to capitalism, the shared religion that composed Durkheim’s functionalist sociologist religion has transformed into a more individualistic religion, with people developing private ways of believing and expressing their religion. While Durkheim theorized that religion departs from spirituality for embracing the common function of gathering people together for a shared religious experience, Generation X and Generation Y engage more in spirituality, but individualistically. On the other hand, Durkheim’s theory on religion is confirmed by the nowadays practice that seems to develop a religion wherein God may not be central to religious activity. This change has occurred as a result of embracing the scientific findings that rationalize life and deconstruct evangelical dogmas. Nevertheless, religion continues to be a significant aspect in the lives of individuals from Generation X and Generation Y, as the religious values continue to be transmitted from generation to generation in the western cultures.
Generation X, Generation Y, Generation Z, and the Baby Boomers. (2013) Retrieved from http://www.talentedheads.com/2013/04/09/generation-confused/.
Johnstone, C. (2013) Embedded faith: the faith journeys of young adults within church communities. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Monivas, J.R. (2007) “Science and religion in the sociology of Emile Durkheim” European Journal of Science and Theology. Vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 17 – 30.
Norris, P. & Inglehart, R. (2011) Sacred and secular. Religion and politics worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Turner, B. (2011) The sociology of religion. New York: The Sage Handbook of Sociology.