It’s a Monday afternoon in January and in an ironic twist of fate, it’s my boyfriend who’s dragging me to the local shopping mall. While here’s here to find new athletic wear (he teaches tennis), I’m left meandering through gaggles of teens and clearance aisles.
There’s nothing I want here. I’ve seen it all before. Except, as I walk through Urban Outfitters and Francesca’s, I notice an expanding array of seemingly useless objects. Crystals. Gemstones. Astrology guides. Books like “Practical Magic” and “Everyday Tarot.”
And surprisingly, one of these — “The Wild Unknown Tarot Deck and Guidebook” — has even sold enough copies to become a New York Times bestseller. But who’s actually buying these? Not me, not anyone I know, and certainly not most people.
Or maybe I’m wrong.
According to Instagram and Amazon, thousands of millennials are obsessed with these products. But why? North Dakota State University Professor Clay Routledge, who has studied “human quest for meaning” for over 15 years, thinks he has an answer.
According to his new book, Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World, over a third of American millennials are unaffiliated with any religion.
“Young adults in particular are abandoning what they perceive as culturally outdated religious organizations and instead opting for a more individualized approach to spiritual matters,” writes Routledge.
“Some young people reject formal religion simply because they find it boring. They seek experiences that feel fresh and exciting, and religion isn’t something that checks that box,” he writes.
As religion loses its grip on millennials, young people turn to books, magazines, and the internet for new ways to explore what Routledge calls “the human quest for meaning” and their own “religious-like identity.”
“People can entertain any supernatural idea they want to without approval from a religious hierarchy or institution, and this freedom allows them to pursue existential needs in a variety of ways,” Routledge writes.
In an interview with PJ Media, Routledge, who is also a columnist at Quillette, argued that the millennial obsession with these types of things may not be so silly after all.
“These types of supernatural ideas have been around in different forms for thousands of years,” said Routledge. “Obviously, people vary in how serious they are about these interests, so for some they are very superficial and faddish curiosities. But others are very serious about them,” he added.
But while he says that millennials are turning to these supernatural beliefs in search of meaning, millennials aren’t necessarily getting what they bargained for.
“Research from my lab indicates that witchcraft and astrology are driven, in part, by the need for meaning,” said Routledge.
“However, it is unclear if some of the alternative spiritual practices young adults are attracted to can have the same benefits as traditional religious beliefs and practices. For instance, in a new study our lab hopes to publish soon, we find evidence suggesting that these alternative beliefs are not doing a good job of actually providing meaning,” said Routledge.
According to Routledge, this isn’t exactly surprising.
“Traditional religious beliefs and practices are successful at promoting psychological and physical health because they bring people together in a powerful way by promoting a social and moral duty to others. They also benefit from having a very established institutional and doctrinal scaffolding that helps people organize their lives, access a community support network when needed, and find personal inspiration to overcome life’s challenges and uncertainties.”
But astrology and related practices don’t typically serve these functions.
“Buying books of spells, collecting gemstones, and thinking about the compatibility of people’s astrological signs might be fun curiosities or even feel meaningful in the moment. However, if these interests do not meaningfully connect people in an enduring way to others by inspiring goals and behaviors that create and preserve long-lasting moral communities, they are unlikely to sufficiently fulfill the psychological needs that inspire them.”
Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and The Power of the Invisible World was published by Oxford University Press.
Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen.