Tarot readings, healing crystals, witchcraft, and astrology… these practices have seemingly taken over our online and IRL spaces. But not only are these factions of spirituality on the rise – they seem to be replacing organized religion. But is this shift from religiosity to spirituality an aesthetic choice? Or, do these spiritual practices reflect how, even as traditional religion declines, new generations still need to find frameworks that make sense of our troubled times?
Tarot readings, healing crystals, witchcraft, and astrology…these new practices have seemingly taken over our online and IRL spaces – embraced heavily by millennials and Gen-Zers. But not only are these factions of spirituality on the rise – they seem to be replacing organized religion.
Christianity is still the most popular religion in the United States – but even that has gone from accounting for about 90% of the population 50 years ago, to 64% in 2020. And the number of Americans who say they have no religious affiliation has grown at about the same rate. Young people are forgoing these “outdated” modes of finding answers and meaning in their lives and are instead turning to more fun practices that come with less rules and authority.
Keke Palmer: “I’m a Virgo, Cancer rising, Sagittarius moon, that’s where the pizzazz comes in.” -Wired
But is this shift from religiosity to spirituality an aesthetic choice? These new age ideas come with beautiful imagery, perfect for a generation that lives on TikTok and Instagram. Or, do these spiritual practices reflect how, even as traditional religion declines, new generations still need to find frameworks that make sense of our troubled times?
Here’s our take on the rise of spirituality, and how it shows that even as young people become skeptical of religious institutions, they still want something to believe in.
Many of the spiritual practices that have taken off in recent years are not new – they’ve just gotten an Instagram-friendly makeover.
Bee: “Hop onto my Instagram live here in about 10 minutes. I’ll be on there for about 20 minutes doing free readings.” -@Bees_Witchery/TikTok
Tarot cards, for example, have been used for over 500 years, but in the last five years, US Games Systems has seen sales of tarot decks double – and they even tripled during the pandemic. Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok are full of videos of young influencers unboxing specialty tarot sets or doing generic readings for their audience. Part of the reason tarot has become so popular is because of how open the cards are to interpretation. These mass readings feel relevant and useful to viewers because tarot isn’t about rigid lessons or strict prophecies – they’re fluid images that can help guide the questions you bring to the reading.
Astrology is similarly aesthetic and adaptable. The idea that the planets and stars impact our lives is thousands and thousands of years old, but it’s gotten a modern makeover recently. In 2019, revenue from astrology apps hit nearly $40 million. These apps combine the ancient wisdom of astrology with algorithmically curated social media culture, offering personalized advice tailored to each individual user. And sometimes this advice is trusted to make some pretty big decisions. A LendingTree survey found that 20% of Americans have made a financial decision based on their horoscope. Of course, relying on astrology to make legitimate life decisions can be a harmful practice – but it seems like the majority of people use it more as a source of comfort or as an outlet for a bit of whimsical fun.
Caroline: “People ask me ‘Caroline why don’t you wanna have kids?’ It’s simple. I’m a Leo. I love attention. I don’t want to share the spotlight with some child- even if it’s mine!” -@caroline_easom/TikTok
And it’s not just tarot and astrology – some even more fringe spiritual practices have seen a recent surge in interest. Having first risen to popularity during the 1970s, “crystal healing” has made a huge mainstream comeback – even amongst celebrities. And according to Pinterest, pins relating to witchcraft were up 281% among Gen-Z in 2018. More Americans identify their religious practices as Pagan or Wiccan than ever before and that number is on the rise. Videos posted to WitchTok, the TikTok sub-community of witches, educate viewers about spells, folk magic, and Wiccan history, to the tune of millions of views.
Modern day witchcraft is related to – or an extension of – the self-care movement…it’s flexible and individualistic. New witches can choose to do any number of things that improve their own lives and relationships – whether it’s meditating, charging their crystals, or setting intentions and manifesting what they desire through spellwork.
These old ideas are being repurposed for the new generation, as a way to explore what spirituality means to them, and use it in a way that can be of most personal benefit. Rather than adhering to strict rules and dogmas, this spirituality is underpinned by a sense of freedom.
Why do these more individualized spiritual practices have such an appeal to younger Americans? Millennials and Gen Zers aren’t inherently selfish generations – they’ve been leaders in the movement for more labor unions and the resurgence of mutual aid. So it may seem odd that advocates for connection and community in those ways would turn away from organized religion – which has historically been a major tool in community-building. But perhaps it’s that very desire to help each other that has Gen Z turning its back on religion.
In recent years, a spotlight has been pointed towards the ways religious institutions have abused their power over communities to harm some of the most marginalized members of society. And there’s been a significant rise in those stories onscreen. Recent shows like Pray Away, Unorthodox, and Under the Banner of Heaven explore how religious institutions cover up scandals rather than protect their community, exclude and abuse queer people, and push women into restrictive social roles. Even as religious institutions have begun to acknowledge some of the harm they’ve done, for many victims of these abuses, it’s too little too late – their trust in these institutions has already been completely eroded.
Catherine: “They do not care at all about the fact that I was assaulted. They just care about who I’m gonna tell.” -Hillsong Hell
So part of the appeal of spirituality is the absence of a strict hierarchy. These newer practices are more flexible – there’s no right way to use tarot or astrology or witchcraft – and it makes sense that that “open to interpretation” freeness resonates with young people.
Our modern stories about faith reflect this idea of the individual spiritual journey, even when they’re centered around Christianity. In Minari, Monica searches for a spiritual connection as the family tries to assimilate into a new community. But when they go to the local church, her family are regarded as outcasts, and there’s an awkward tension between them and the rest of the congregation. Instead, they end up forming a strong connection with their farm-hand, Paul, who practices Christianity on his own terms. We see Reuben go on a similar journey in Sound of Metal. His struggle with the loss of his hearing has spiritual undertones, as his newfound sober deaf community encourages him to embrace his new life and identity. The final scene of the movie is Reuben sitting in silence after hearing the Church bells, finally one with the stillness.
Joe: “Those moments of stillness. That place, that’s the kingdom of God..” - Sound of Metal
And often these stories about identity and spirituality reflect the newer generation’s shedding of any reference to Abrahamic religion. Instead of looking to a church for spiritual solace or comfort when grieving, they can look inwards and to nature – like Kate Ballard in The Last Mountain, who climbs the mountain of Nanga Parbat to feel connected to her brother and mother who died at that same peak.
Spirituality can provide individuals with a sense of identity, purpose, and a connection to nature, but it can also provide community, even if it’s not exactly the same as traditional religious communities. Because spirituality is not just an individual practice – it’s also a cultural movement. In a time when Christianity is being weaponized to strip people of their bodily autonomy – these alternative spiritualities are a form of rebellion and resistance.
It’s impossible to separate this rise in witchcraft from the threats made to women’s rights in recent years. Witchcraft itself has always had anti-patriarchal, female-empowering roots – and at protest marches for women’s rights, it’s common to see signs exclaiming “we are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn” or “hex the patriarchy”.
HexMarie: “The witch trials were a turning point and a pivot where women’s rights were increasingly stripped away.” -@hermarie/TikTok
So, there seems to be a practical, real world application given to these spiritual beliefs. The structures and rituals of witchcraft are being used as a way for women to further explore or understand their own power. As Marie-Claire Chappet writes: “Witchcraft has always been synonymous with the independence of women; the accusation of ‘witch’ most commonly levied at females who deigned to live outside the remits of society; without a husband or male guardian.”
This is also not the first time there’s been a spiritualism movement in the United States. The Spiritualism movement of the Victorian era was pioneered by women, many of whom were also politically active in the suffrage and abolition movements. Victoria Woodhull was a suffragist, the first woman to run for President of the United States, and one of the first female Wall Street brokers… and she got her start in the public eye as a clairvoyant and fortune teller. So it’s not all that surprising that witchcraft is celebrated at political protests for civil rights, and that today’s WitchTok influencers are disproportionately young women and queer people.
Sedona: “I think paganism and feminism go so well together. Because paganism is about the balance of masculine and feminine…” -@sedonatheswampwitch/TikTok
There was another uptick in spirituality in the 60s – a time of political and cultural upheaval – when eastern influences started seeping into American life. Spiritual practices like yoga and meditation became part of the zeitgeist and there was a marked shift away from organized religion – or really, authority of any kind. Younger generations today, like their groovy 60s counterparts, seem to be bucking “the man” and seeking deeper meaning in these troubled times.
Younger generations are turning to spirituality to reconcile these things and find their own way through. Spirituality may not provide answers, but it doesn’t promise any either. Instead, it offers us ideas for how to deal with the big questions in life and flexibility to do so on our own terms… and when we share it with each other, it has the potential to be pretty transformative.