Better to believe than to have to face up to it

When people talk today about the “new religiosity” of young people, what they say often has a religious character itself. People often act as though they can understand, explain, and assess the phenomenon intrinsically – from “inside the protagonists” – as something that has “come out of the blue.” But it did not “simply occur” to young people to become more interested in the Church, Catholicism, or the Pope. Rather, they are subjected to a dynamic of strong psychical forces which I would like to characterize under three terms: ritual, passion, meaning.


Young people need, love, and seek rituals. Every adult who raises children is familiar with them, the rituals of getting up, washing, sorting out toys, doing schoolwork. The desire and need for an at least partly ritualized life will never disappear completely. The TV broadcasts from Rome about the death and burial of John Paul II as well as the selection and inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI were perpetual advertising free of charge for a perfect ritual that has matured over centuries. As opposed to earlier times, when antiquated customs were dropped or at least condemned for the sake of modernity (above all in the 1970s and 80s), today we are touched by the actors’ Medieval seriousness and certainty that God exists. These things convey the message a a better world, because of the steadfast belief, and thus a world stable enough to face the future.


Our psychological research with young people has yielded a central finding: the increasing erosion of sensory, real qualities that can be experienced and “lived through.” Young people (again) long for a “passionate life.” But they live in a world in which in practical terms passion and suffering can only be experienced in a conveyed or consumable form: as a cinema spectacle, fun sport, or self-experience event. Today “being posh” normally has the upper hand over “fate.” The pain and suffering of the dying Pope invoked these empty spots in young people’s own lives. It moved young people and made them want to share and participate in the Pope’s fate. The trip to Rome – whether in actuality or only via TV – took them to an unknown world of true (or to be precise: “truer”) feelings.


All of us – and especially younger people – thirst for meaning in life. That is, for an explanation of the world and a description of the future which interpret life today as being fulfilling or at least capable of being fulfilling. For many, therefore, the façade of the Papal Palace is a projection screen for central life issues – with a paradoxical effect: life seems more worth living when one deals with ultimate questions and values. With the election of a German Pope, a further chapter in the search, conveyance, and promise of meaning has now begun. Of all countries, our shaken and not very hopeful society is allowed to present the Pope. In the eyes of many it is no coincidence that with Joseph Ratzinger an extremely conservative man took the helm of the Catholic Church. It seems as though an especially strict, but also just and kind “Papa” can give our fatherless society new meaning. His visit to Cologne during World Youth Day will show how strong the longings and hopes are that are directed toward and projected on him.

Thus, the question of a new religiosity in the young generation can be answered from a very earthly perspective with few spiritual transcendent qualities: a veteran authority offers meaning by not showing or admitting doubt about the rightness of his message. More and more people – especially younger people – prefer to believe rather than run the risk of having to face up to their fate in a meaningless secular world. One can, but doesn’t have to, call this “new religiosity.” It can also be interpreted as an alarm signal and appeal to earthly authorities who have nothing comparable to show and offer.

© 2015 rheingold