Yahia Eldeib, 20, grew up in a devout Muslim family: Both of his parents pray five times a day, abstain from eating pork and refrain from drinking alcohol. He and his family have alternated between living in Egypt and America, providing him the experience of two vastly different religious and cultural landscapes. While religion was once something he embraced for its own sake, it now plays a more cultural role in his identity. Editor's note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What role does Islam play in your life today?
A: I still try to practice Islam, but just a lot, lot less. I wouldn’t say practicing Islam has a lot of weight in my life. I do try to practice it by not eating pork or drinking, and sometimes I pray to God just because I don’t know what else to do. Like, right before an exam, if I want a bit of extra help, I’ll pray. Sometimes, I wish I made faith more of a priority, but that’s only when I’m praying for something, because that might increase the chances of it happening.
Q: How did the way you view religion change throughout your lifetime?
A: When I was younger, practicing Islam was more of an obligation. As I grew up a bit more, I was willing to do it and started to learn more about it. But then as I grew up even more, I strayed farther away and practiced it less. In college, I pretty much stopped. There was no one to encourage me to go to temple, and sometimes I’d just be too busy to do the Islamic practices I used to do. And when you’re not actively practicing, your faith decreases. It’s hard to get back into it when you’re already far from it.
A rising junior at the University of Florida, Eldeib is working toward a degree in computer science.
Q: Did you ever try to become part of a Muslim community in college?
A: Not really, I got into other things: I got into rowing, which took up a lot of my time. If I had the option to choose between a rowing event and an event in the Islamic community, I’d 100% choose the rowing event. That’s the community I got into as soon as I started college, and I think it’s the main reason I never got into Islamic events. And the community – I never saw myself fitting in with them.
Q: Why didn’t you see yourself fitting in with the local Islamic community?
A: It’s different from what I was used to, especially compared to when I lived in Egypt. In Egypt, there are more people practicing religion, but no one is really that extreme about it. It’s more casual. You’re definitely associated with either Christianity or Islam, but no one really cares about how much you practice. But here, there’s a lot less people, and the people who do practice it are very strict about it. Since the group is so small, they’re very firm in their beliefs. The attitude is that if you associate with the religion, you should be full-on practicing. And I’d say they’re a little judgmental toward those who aren’t fully into it.
Q: Have negative attitudes toward Islam affected the way you associate yourself with the religion?
A: No. There are extremists around the world, but I don’t associate myself with them. I don’t really believe that they believe in the same religion as me. When I see what they do, I see them doing bad things in the name of Islam. They’re not practicing it right, because what I practice is something that doesn’t encourage violent activities. They must either be understanding it wrong, or just whatever they’re practicing is for sure different from whatever I’m practicing.
In his room, Eldeib keeps this plaque above the workspace on his desk. It reads: "God saved me from the evil eye."
Q: How do you envision yourself practicing in the future?
A: I see myself practicing Islam more in the future. Especially when I start a family, because I want to encourage my children to practice it. However, after college I do plan to study Islam and other religions to see what my personal opinion is. I think so far my belief in Islam has been based more on what has been told to me, rather than what I have learned on my own. Based on how my research into religion goes, that will decide if I practice religion more or not.
Q: What do you think is the fate of faith in America?
A: I think if you were to put a level to it, it is decreasing. But I don’t think it will ever be zero. I think people who still practice it a lot and are firm about it will stay firm and, for the people who are not firm, their faith will decrease a lot. If there was a graph of it, I’d say it’s more of a curve instead of a line.
Upuli Anuradha considers herself a “third culture kid.” At 27 years of age, she’s already lived in Boston, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates and Gainesville.
For all her travels, though, no set of traditions stuck quite like those of her
native Sri Lanka. Growing up, Anuradha’s parents educated her in the
practices of their Sinhala Kandyan roots. From Theravada Buddhism to
local folklore and witchcraft, Anuradha was exposed to a variety of
beliefs; ones that, to this day, grant her a sense of connection to her roots.
But despite identifying as a Theravada Buddhist, the medical sciences
graduate student doesn’t use religion in the conventional sense.
“I identify with the philosophy aspect of Buddhism rather than its ritual practices,” Anuradha said. “Buddhism allows for that approach, as all rituals are simply different learning tools to aid in the understanding of the philosophical concepts presented in the teachings.”
She isn’t alone. For her and other millennials, religion is less of a hands-on activity and more of a passive presence in their lives.
And while the generation isn’t as devout in the traditional sense, faith still constitutes a central part of their cultural identity.
Millennials are among America’s most lukewarm religious practitioners. Data published by multiple sources proves as much: According to a 2014 study conducted by the Barna Group, more than half of all millennials haven't attended church in the last six months. Furthermore, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed that 43.2 percent of respondents from the age group considered religion either “somewhat” or “not too important” to them.
However, faith still plays a role in their lives. The same survey found that 24.7 percent of millennials use religion as a source of guidance on what’s right and wrong — the second-highest used resource behind common sense.
It also functions as the ultimate fallback plan. Yahia Eldeib considers himself Muslim: He refrains from drinking alcohol, goes to mosque when he can and occasionally fasts during the holy month of Ramadan.
But despite spending his formative years in Islamic Egypt, living with a pair of devout parents, the computer science student has a tenuous relationship with his religion. He’s questioned the existence of God — as recently as a month ago — and prefers working to find his own solution to his problems.
Despite his trepidations, he considers Islam a part of his identity; if not for daily reassurance, then because of its presence when all else fails in life.
“It’s my last resort,” Eldeib said. “(Without prayer) I would just feel there’s no hope. … You still have hope that God can fix things.”
A FRESH INTERPRETATION
In concordance with a cultural emphasis on religion, many millennials are not turning to religious passages as often or as seriously. Rather than taking passages in a literal sense, these individuals view them more as a figurative guide to living a better life.
According to Pew’s data, 27.7 percent of millennials consider scripture the word of God, but say that it shouldn’t be taken literally. This figure paces Pew’s study of five generations.
For Chelsea Richards, religion had always been more of a cultural affair. The 23-year-old mechanical engineering graduate enjoys the traditions, food and community that underpin her Jewish faith, but she does so on her terms.
Raised a Reformist Jew, Richards rarely attends temple and doesn’t keep kosher. She considers Judaism more of a cultural factor than a spiritual one in her life, and primarily uses it to inspire herself to perform good deeds.
While she believes that having a spiritual foundation teaches important moral lessons in a unique way, she doesn’t see anything wrong with millennials’ casual practice of religion.
On the contrary: In her eyes, it offers the potential to effect positive change — spiritually as well as globally.
“Religion has been around for so long and has seen so many different societal constructs, yet it hasn’t changed with the times,” Richards said in an email. “As we become more accepting of others and more scientifically advanced, I think it's important to take religion less literally, actually consider what you believe and agree with, and how it fits into and enhances society.
“Millennials seem to be doing that, which I think is positive.”