cience and crystal healing. Atheism and tarot. Frozen eggs and horoscopes. The commingling of secularism and spirituality is bound to be a defining element of the millennial zeitgeist. While the current culture embraces the affair, I often struggle to square the growing New Age earnestness of my peers with their other qualifiers: atheist or agnostic and skeptical. They seem to be proclaiming, “God isn’t for me, but also, I can’t make it to happy hour because I have to recharge my obsidian after work.”
The growing trend toward “spiritual but not religious” has spiked in recent years, surprisingly resonating with the very same demographic most likely to reject the notion of a god — liberal academics. Horoscopes, aura readings and beautifully illustrated tarot decks are common in the homes of many of my friends who fit this very description.
Spirituality has a sprawling history, but as New Ageism developed in the West in the 1970s, some of the storied context was lost. Today, with the internet offering unlimited access to information — cultural, historical and scientific — spirituality is becoming freckled with modern nuance. Wrapped up in ancient methods and novel technology, it’s reaching new (albeit splintered) heights alongside the burgeoning wellness movement. Contemporary generations may be shifting further from the pew, but there is a notion that seems to linger in even the most secular people — a longing for something less corporeal.
I’ve often wondered if this yearning to tap into a higher plane is a response to the times: unchecked student loan debt, the revelation that our government is more oligarchy than democracy and a higher rate of anxiety than previous generations. Perhaps this cultivation of mystic routines echoes The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino’s interpretation of the modern skincare craze as a “psychological safety blanket.” A gentler understanding may hold merit, too: that spirituality is just an element of what it means to be human, like having skin or using memes to soften the revelation of deep existential truths.
This framing helped remove the pesky contradiction from my mental block, but as someone who doesn’t subscribe to the godless spiritualist moniker, I wondered what I might still be misunderstanding. Turns out, quite a bit. I asked six American women why they broke from their families traditions in search of a different kind of spirituality.
Katie is a 31-year-old software engineer who enjoys a spiritual aesthetic.
I went to Catholic school in the 6th grade and it was a nightmare. Everyone picked on people who were different, which seemed really contrary to good Christian values. Also, they were revving us up hard for the year 2000 and its impending apocalypse. I was pretty convinced I’d have to see all of my family die for some unknown sins. When that didn’t happen, I decided right then that all of it was a bunch of bullshit and stopped participating.
I remember hearing a discussion once that all scientists should be atheists since there is no proof of a higher being. But then someone mentioned a scientist friend [who] was totally religious — [who suspected] it was most likely a bunch of bullshit, but as a human chose to believe because it made shit easier for them day to day. I think that’s awesome. Anything you can do to make your life more fun or comfortable seems great as long as it isn’t hurting anyone.
I like horoscopes, crystals, superstitions, ghosts and aromatherapy. I don’t know a lot of facts about them, but I kind of purposely let myself believe in whatever. It may be a placebo, but if charging my fluorite once a month helps me feel like my ADHD is better under control, it seems harmless enough.
I got my current job possibly through some candle juju. I was at my best friend’s bachelorette party in Miami when I found out that I had made it through the second round of interviews and was ready for the final step — an interview with the CEO. You better believe I bought a yellow candle for success [ed. note: spell candles are an element of the Celtic pagan tradition]. When I got home, I burned it every day while working. A few days later, I had my interview with the boss and he made me an offer right away. It ruled.
Ellen is a 30-year-old artist and app developer who practices Buddhism, moon worship and astrology.
I grew up Christian. Unlike a lot of my childhood friends who aggressively pushed it away after begrudgingly completing their confirmations, I never felt like I had an intentional break. I was fortunate to grow up in a church that was progressive, affirming of gay marriage with little guilt or fire and brimstone. I never hated church, I just grew out of it. As a child, it gave me a context to think about difficult things like God, death, suffering and inequality, as well as the value of community, generosity and volunteering. It showed me that we are spiritual and physical beings, which I think set me up for being open-minded about that kind of thing in general.
I think there’s value in being part of a religious or spiritual community, developing an interior life and having a community to lean on. As I got older though, I was turned off by the patriarchal nature of Christianity.
I’ve gone through phases of being pretty into Buddhism and meditation. Buddhism seems to include a lot of elements I like about Christianity — regular in-person gatherings, engaging in ritual and tradition and compelling, intellectually sound conversations on challenging topics —but without the parts of Christianity that turn me off.
I also have a yoga practice that has ebbed and flowed for the last decade. At its height, I completed a 200-hour teacher training and was practicing daily, studying the yoga sutras, etc. There were aspects of yoga that were highly spiritual to me. I had teachers who would chant or play the harmonium in class, and that kind of thing would regularly move me to tears. Yoga helped me create a healthy relationship with my body and confirmed without a doubt that body and spirit are inextricably connected.
I regularly read my horoscope on chaninicholas.com. I’m not super into astrology, but Chani’s writing really resonates with me. Her horoscopes are empowering, helping me find patterns in my life that I might not have otherwise noticed.
I’m also on the moon bandwagon, which I’m fully aware is an Instagrammy trend. But it also contains elements of science and feminism and has a kind of ancient, primeval quality that really appeals to me. Moon worship has been around since earliest recorded history, usually associated with fertility and femininity. If the moon controls the tides, affects crops, etc., it seems logical that it has some sway over us too.
In most cases, I’m able to draw a pretty straight line from my spiritual practices to things that I know intellectually to be true. I am definitely more compelled by a spiritual practice if it is congruous with a scientific understanding of the world. That said, with both science and spirituality, I think we have to embrace a healthy dose of mystery and uncertainty. I don’t think science and magic are necessarily mutually exclusive.
Alexandra is a 27-year-old graphic and UX designer who practices meditation.
I was raised Catholic, both baptized and confirmed, but I never quite felt comfortable in the church. During college, I studied multiple world religions in the hope of increasing my empathy toward worldviews that differed from my own. I realized that so many religions are about the same things at their core: being kind, believing in something bigger than yourself and fighting for what you believe is good and right.
My past experience with Catholicism resulted in a lot of latent guilt though. I held a lot of confusion about who I was supposed to be, what I was supposed to do with my body and how much shame I was meant to feel. In exploring spirituality, I was able to tap into a more open-minded space that allowed for mistakes.
I practice meditation and self-reflection. While I’m not sure how much trust I have in horoscopes, tarot or past-life regression, I’ve practiced them before and believe they provide an avenue for a deeper understanding of the self.
My mom is a practitioner of astrology and tarot reading, so they have always been a part of my life. Aside from a fun touch of the mystical, they were a way for me to better explore the world around me. If I agree with something told to me during a reading, it’s not that I believe it to be the final truth, but I’m able to say, “Yes, that’s right. I have been anxious about something lately, and it would benefit me to give that thing some attention.”
When I tell people that I meditate and sporadically practice tarot and past-life regression, they tend to believe that I trust these methods to be real. That’s not necessarily the case, and I often find that the predictions feel phony. However, I believe that anything that makes you a kinder, more empathetic person and allows for deeper self-reflection is a valid practice.
It does feel weird practicing something that can’t be proven by science, given how big of a role science plays in my life. However, my past experiences have taught me that there are mysterious things in the universe that haven’t yet been explained. If you look to theoretical physics, the field is rife with mysteries not yet understood. To me, unusual phenomena are just a truth of our existence.
Cassondra is a 25-year-old who works in creative production and practices general spirituality.
I’m religious-less for now but open to anything that feels honest. Horoscopes are fascinating and I have my birth chart memorized, but I don’t rely on the alignments for reasoning. Energetic awareness that helps guide or change a thought pattern can be very healing. I try to prioritize empathy and self-love as much as possible. Listening and asking myself what my mind or spirit needs is the practice I’ve fallen into lately. Aside from self-reflection, I’ve found my deepest mediations through conversations with loved ones. My community teaches me so much, and that is an evolving practice.
Sometimes I wish I really believed in someone I could look up and pray to. But I end up reminding myself of the multiple present forces at work. I start reminding myself of the things I can’t control, like things in the natural world and how they influence my energy. I can be alone in the forest and know that the tree I’m touching is giving my physical self healing properties like oxygen. At the same time, I know that same tree has wisdom and intangible energy that I can absorb to help reset my spirit. I believe in the astrological patterns, the weather patterns, the daily grind/work-life balance patterns, the higher consciousness and the other scientific dimensions I haven’t explored yet. To believe in all of this at once is overwhelming, and maybe silly? Maybe one larger contradiction? But for me, for now, it feels right. It feels honest.
Rebecca is a 30-year-old program manager and practicing Wiccan.
I grew up in a non-religious household, although we celebrated Hanukkah and my mother identified as Wiccan.
My current practice revolves around crystals, moon phases and energy manifestation. In my younger years, Wicca was also a way to rebel and threaten patriarchal norms. Wicca doesn’t recognize any authoritarian hierarchy, instead stating that all people are equal. It also touts the belief that people have feminine and masculine sides that support and balance one another, eliminating sexist notions.
Overall, Wicca allows me to be in tune with nature and myself, having awareness and gratitude for the earth, nature and our environment. I think it makes you appreciate not only life, but the natural world you live your life in.
Cailyn is a 22-year-old high school art teacher and witch.
My mom and dad told my sister and I about the idea of the Christian God and Jesus, but they never enforced it. Praying to a god always seemed weird to me. I couldn’t find any logic in praying to something that had no physical proof of existence.
In my own “ritual healings” that I developed through study in Wicca and Satanism, I’ve found that my mental health has improved, I have a greater passion and connection to nature and I have developed a greater confidence in my body and in embracing my femininity.
The most common misconception about being a witch is that I worship the devil. It’s inevitable for people to assume that as a Satanist, I worship Satan. What they don’t realize is that Satanism is not actually a religion that revolves around the belief in and idolization of Satan, it’s a philosophy that ridicules organized religions that worship a diety with supposed higher universal powers. As for Wicca, its only defining idea is that as long as what you do doesn’t inflict harm upon others or yourself, go for it.
I love the philosophy behind Wicca, and I love its homeopathic practices, but I’ve never believed in the worship of deities and could never bring myself to try. Satanism gave some logic to my ritualistic practices. Satanism understands that there is a human need for ritual sometimes referred to as “psychodrama.” Even though there is a ritual practice that involves sacred objects, drink and bindings, the understanding is that it’s done as a release that the body/mind needs. There is no omnipotent god figure attached to it.
Just a bit of advice if you’re looking to dive into magick: Take everything with a grain of salt. If you get too deep into it, you might stray too far from who you truly are. Also, have fun with it! I love being a witch, and I have no problem identifying as one. As far as anyone truly knows, you only get one life, so why not find a philosophy that gives you better appreciation for it?
While Westerners may be leaving their family traditions for a variety of reasons, it seems that the desire for a spiritual outlet still burns brightly. Have you maintained the religion you grew up in, or are you searching just like the above six women for something that resonates more deeply? Do you ever feel a contradiction between a secular self and a spiritual self? If so, how do you balance those two sides? Feel free to add your thoughts below, if the spirit so moves you.
Collages by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.