More than 200 volunteers, of all ages and different faiths, work to remove dead brush, weeds and trees at Balboa Park in San Diego during the Day of Service 2009. Photo by Matthew Parker/Creative Commons

Millennials: get over your faith phobia

(RNS) — More than 1 in 3 millennials (ages 22 to 37) identifies as religiously unaffiliated. That makes us far less connected to organized religion than older generations.

We are less likely to attend religious events compared to our parents, and scandals such as child molestation in the Roman Catholic Church have increasingly eroded our confidence in religious institutions. However, as a practicing Muslim, I can assure you that religion still plays an important role in many of my fellow millennials’ lives.

Although many of us are nonreligious, millennials are also the most diverse generation, and we’re religiously varied too. Among my friends, I can count Wiccans, Baha’is and Zoroastrians along with Christians, Jews and Hindus. Many of us regularly attend faith-based events and imagine ourselves marrying someone who shares our religious convictions.

Meanwhile, we puzzle over the fact that religious identity seems to be overlooked in our conversations. While we routinely discuss cornerstones of modern identity politics such as race, gender, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status, we still tiptoe around religion.

Perhaps our hesitation stems from negative media coverage of religion. For every story about faith leaders putting aside their differences to serve the common good, it seems there are 10 others about extremist militias, draconian blasphemy laws or other subjects that cast religion in a dim light.

We Muslims are all too familiar with negative coverage. Many millennial Muslims growing up in the United States share a common story. As children, we practiced our faith without notice from the general public. After 9/11, we were expected to become walking Islamic encyclopedias and answer the age-old question, “Why don’t Muslims speak out and condemn terrorism?”

Muslims are viewed less favorably than other groups, even atheists, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey. However, many of us believe that religion can serve as a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division.

Faith-based institutions are some of the largest providers of charitable services in the United States, and there is huge potential for interfaith cooperation in solving pressing social problems. For example, as a medical student, I have witnessed houses of worship hosting health fairs that serve religiously diverse populations. They help patients manage conditions as varied as depression, drug addiction and diabetes.

Interfaith service projects can take many forms. The project does not need to be interfaith at its inception; it just needs to address a pressing problem in the community. This might be poverty, homelessness or environmental degradation. Virtually all religious and nonreligious traditions value volunteer work. Choosing a salient issue will automatically attract service-minded individuals from a variety of avenues.

The next step is to identify helpful partners for the initiative. Chances are, some service groups might be already working on the problem. In that case, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. These groups will often welcome additional volunteers. After this, target outreach toward faith or nonfaith communities that are interested in the project. You can bring people of diverse backgrounds together while focusing specifically on the issue that needs to be addressed.

Volunteers sort food during an interfaith project at Atlanta Community Food Bank in September 2012. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

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When the project begins, attempt to create diverse working groups. Ensure that participants are meeting people from a different faith background. Interfaith conversations might happen organically as participants discuss why they care about the issue at hand. If this is too difficult, you can create safe spaces for interfaith dialogue by having reflection or debrief sessions throughout the day — preferably with food. Free food attracts people of virtually every background.

Volunteers are apt to leave the event feeling positive that they have made a difference in the community, while making new friends across lines of difference.

Interfaith work isn’t about watering down our religions. It’s about building relationships so we can together serve others. Yet this spirit of cooperation across lines of differences seems sorely missing from our society.

In seeking a better way, we have no better American role model than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who as a young Christian pastor worked with Muslims, atheists, Jews and many others to achieve his dream.

Rather than becoming permanently nonreligious, perhaps millennials are just looking for religion that effects social change.

(Aamir Hussain is a medical student at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine and Harris School of Public Policy. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)