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Do Liberals Have a God Problem?
How therapy has replaced religion on dating apps—and everywhere else.
I hate dating apps. I went on one online date earlier this year, my first since 2014 (the only other time I went on an online date). Both dates were perfectly fine. But overall, it’s just not for me. Nevertheless, I’m still on the apps. I still scroll, and I still see men that I’m sure are interesting and worth meeting.
One thing I’ve noticed is the prevalence of talking about “going to therapy” as a means of demonstrating one’s ability to self-examine. I see plenty of profiles saying things like “one thing you should know about me is I go to regular therapy,” or, “we’ll get along if you’re also in therapy.” It’s enough of a trend to merit a write-up in the New York Times.
One thing I rarely see on the apps, however, is an open profession of religious faith. Someone might say they are Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, but rarely anything more. “We’ll get along if you also go to church on Sundays,” or “one thing you should know about me is I’m a committed and practicing Muslim” are two sentences I’d be shocked to see.
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Let me be clear: in no way am I doubting the benefits of therapy and how it helps people manage past trauma and present-day difficulties. If that works for you, that’s great. I’ve even gone before myself. But in recent weeks, I’ve been struck by how therapy seems to have become a secular faith for many of my peers. And for me, anyway, it doesn’t feel like therapy can possibly fill a gap in my life that I have only recently begun to grapple with.
In 2021, I wrote a piece (first published here at Wisdom of Crowds) that talked about my Greek Orthodox upbringing in Utah surrounded mostly by members of the Mormon church, and what that has meant for my identity and sense of belonging. The piece centers on culture as the foundation of identity but shies away from a real excavation of my own faith, beyond talking about how being Greek Orthodox gave me a community I wouldn’t have otherwise had growing up.
The religion itself is not something I stuck with as an adult; I don’t go to church on Sundays, and I’m not part of the Greek community here in Washington. For Greeks, names are a mark of our culture. The fact that my first name is of Hebrew origin and my last name is Italian has always made it harder for me to be easily recognizable as Greek. In a sense, maybe that difficulty is what has kept me away as I’ve gotten older. But it feels like something more than that. Maybe my name is what I’ve internally used to justify not being closer to Greek Orthodoxy. Or maybe something with Christianity just doesn’t click with me. I’m trying to figure that out.
For the past couple of months, I have found myself thinking more deeply about my faith and my personal relationship with God. I went to my first seder this year, and I read the Quran. I’m trying to ask myself questions. Why am I here? What is my purpose? What is my path? I know I’m a “believer.” But a believer in what, exactly?
In the past, when referring to faith, I always used the term “the Universe” rather than just saying the word “God.” Whenever I found myself in a moment for which I was particularly grateful and wanted to give thanks, or I needed guidance, or I felt like I just needed to talk out loud to someone or something unseen, I would always consciously turn to “the Universe.”
But somewhere along the way, probably in the last few years, something switched for me. Let’s just call a spade a spade: I realized I’m not talking to the Universe, I’m talking to God. It’s prayer.
In a similar vein, I can make sense of situations that are confusing, painful, or deeply challenging through the belief that it’s part of whatever path that’s been laid for me. This suggests a belief in predestination, which then, naturally, leads to questions about whether humans have free will.
I guess I think the two are complementary rather than contradictory. We can rest easy with the choices we make, even if they lead to personal pain and suffering, because we know that what we have chosen is part of our path. We can also make sense of the things that happen to us, especially those that are outside of our control, by also believing it’s part of our path.
I hear variations of these general themes all the time, but it’s how people express them that I find interesting. Saying something like “it wasn’t meant to be” or “it just wasn’t in the cards” is a lot easier for most people than saying “God has a plan for me, and this particular thing wasn’t part of it.” Why is that? I wonder if it’s because one requires outwardly professing faith in something bigger than us, and the other doesn’t.
I am a millennial, and I’ve lived in an overwhelmingly liberal city for a decade now. I consider myself a liberal. But I’m beginning to wonder if, in liberalism, godlessness has somehow become a mark of personal evolution. Just look at the numbers: According to a recent Gallup poll, “belief in God has fallen the most in recent years among young adults and people on the left of the political spectrum.” Today, only 62% of liberals, 68% of young adults, and 72% of Democrats believe in God.
There is also a growing movement of those who are “spiritual but not religious,” who “reject organized religion but maintain a belief in something larger than themselves.” At the same time, for many liberals, the mark of self-examination and “doing the work” is going to therapy. Young adults in the U.S. have the highest numbers seeking therapy: the numbers for those between the ages of 18-44 rose to above 23% in 2021.
It would be interesting to know how many young liberals in therapy are also active members of a faith-based community. Is therapy replacing faith, and is talking to a therapist the new confession?
I recently hosted a few friends over at my house for dinner, and we got into a deep discussion about the role religion plays in our lives. It’s the first time I had insight into how some of my closest friends relate to prayer, faith, and God. I hadn’t known any of this before because, among liberals, it’s not something we readily talk about.
I think, eventually, some people have crises or experiences (bad or good) that make them rethink their faith — or at least their relationship to it and how they practice it. For one of my friends, an accomplished professor of Buddhist philosophy, it was a sexual abuse scandal that rocked her Tibetan Buddhist community, which then made her rethink compassion practice. For some it could be a near-death experience and the sudden realization that we aren’t promised tomorrow.
For others, it could be exposure to friends’ faith communities through social media. During Ramadan this year, for instance, I felt a sense of envy when my Muslim friends would post pictures of themselves breaking their fasts with close friends, talk about going to the mosque for prayers, and tell me about the deep religious conversations they had during the month.
In May, I was lucky enough to be the emcee at an interfaith Iftar dinner hosted by the Embassy of Qatar here in Washington. It was stunning: 600 people—Christian, Muslim, and Jewish, all packed into a giant room at the Waldorf Astoria and joined in a meal together. That night, for a few hours, I was part of something I hadn’t been part of for a long time: a community brought together by a belief in God. The whole evening felt, ironically, like therapy.
Maybe a simple belief in God isn’t enough. Maybe having a faith-based community with whom to experience those things is what we all need.
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