Atheist millennials are finding spirituality on the therapist’s couch instead of the church pew

Religion and therapy have a lot in common.
Religion and therapy have a lot in common.
Image: AP Photo/Khue Bui
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“I like your generation, but I worry about you,” my psychiatrist told me last year. “You’re very atheistic and agnostic, so I worry about what’s grounding you without a sense of spirituality.”

As a millennial evangelical-turned-atheist, I took this concern seriously. But I also had a ready response. I’d noticed a pattern in the way my friends, former classmates, and colleagues had been dealing with life’s major challenges and where we’d been turning for guidance.

“Most of the people I know are in therapy,” I told my doctor. “I think therapy is our new church.”

It’s clear that millennials are less religious than other generations. According a 2015 survey from the Pew Research Center, a quarter of people born between 1981 and 1996 identify as nonbelievers. Five percent say they are atheist; 7% call themselves agnostic; and 13% identify as “nothing” (meaning that they don’t have any specific religious beliefs, or religion was just not important to them). By comparison, just 16% percent of Generation X identifies as nonbelievers, and only 11% of Baby Boomers.

We don’t yet have comprehensive data measuring which generations go to therapy and which don’t. But based on my own observations and interviews with mental-health experts, it seems that many millennials grappling with the big questions in life want to work them out on a psychologist’s couch instead of a church pew.

Religion and therapy do have a lot in common, according to Rachel Kazez, a Chicago-based licensed therapist and founder of All Along, a service that helps to match clients with a therapist. “Both religion and therapy help us understand our past and our future,” she says. “People talk about it leading to change.” From the structured meeting times—whether it’s 10am on Sunday or after work Tuesday nights—to the ways in which both practices help us accept the fact that certain things are beyond our control, both religion and therapy aim to guide people through life.

But it’s the differences between the two that can help explain therapy’s unique millennial appeal. Whereas religion tends to focus on communal worship, therapy is far more focused on the self. Meanwhile, millennials (and young people in general) tend to be more individualistic than other generations and are more willing to change. The fact that the therapeutic space is designed for self-discovery and thinking through its use of open-ended questions fits these needs perfectly. As Kazez told me, in therapy, many millennials feel they can “cultivate their own sense of things and fulfill their own needs” instead of getting the answers pre-packaged from church.

The ability to search for my own answers was certainly something I sought out in therapy. I’ve contended with depression and anxiety, but I’ve also had to work through the problematic themes my conservative Christian church aggressively instilled into my consciousness—shame over sex, sexuality, and sexism among them.

During the years I spent in church, I internalized a great deal of harmful ideas about gender and “a woman’s place.” Having also become a feminist after leaving the church, I specifically sought out a feminist therapist when I started therapy. I wanted to sort through my problems under the guidance of someone who took the mental harms of sexism seriously, something the church I grew up in certainly did not do.

Above all, therapy has helped me to be comfortable in life’s “gray” areas. My church was all about seeing life in black and white: sinners and the saved, heaven and hell, success or failure. Thankfully, therapy doesn’t work on these terms. There’s room to explore, ask difficult questions, and deal with internal inconsistencies. Pushing back against your own beliefs or those of the therapist is not only allowed, but encouraged. The freedom to think critically and be honest about major doubts has been transformative for me.

That said, the cost of ongoing therapy, and the difficulty of finding therapists who accept in-network health insurance, constitutes a significant obstacle for many young people. Therapy is expensive: Personally, I’ve paid as much as $100 for a thirty-minute session, without insurance. While some therapists are happy to working with patients on a sliding scale, it’s worth noting that my theory about therapy as the new church applies largely to millennials who are liberal, educated, and middle- or upper-class. By contrast, churches, temples, mosques, and the like don’t charge a fee, although donations are commonplace, and therefore often serve as important resources in underserved communities.

There are other ways in which therapy may fall short in its ability to truly “replace” religion among young people. One of these, as Kazez notes, relates to the transience of therapy.

When you’re seeing a psychologist, “you’re working towards an end, you’re working on being done with it,” says Kazez. In contrast, “you go [to church] your whole life, you know the people, you become friends with them.”

It’s certainly possible that as millennials age, more will seek out the comforts of religion. But in the meantime, it’s worth celebrating the fact that today’s millennials have multiple ways to meet their core needs. As Kazez notes, religion and therapy both help people by bringing meaning and order to life. And ultimately, committing to either one is an act of faith.