Why Millennials Are Flocking to Buddhism

  • Dr. James Emery White Serioustimes.org
  • Updated May 20, 2024
Why Millennials Are Flocking to Buddhism

A recent story by the Associated Press (AP) noted that religious belief in South Korea has been on the decline for years. In 2021, just 22% of South Koreans in their 20s identified as religious, compared to 45% in 2004. “But that might be changing,” the AP article continued, “as social media fuels an uptick in interest in Buddhism among young people.”

It's not just in South Korea.

I’ve come to a cultural conclusion about the influence of Eastern religious in the West: While Hinduism dominates our theology, Buddhism dominates our practice.

Why Buddhism Is True, by Robert Wright, became a best seller in 2017. Four in 10 American adults now say they meditate at least weekly, and the majority practice some form of “mindfulness” meditation, which originates in Buddhist teachings. Major companies like Google, Apple and General Mills have adopted Buddhist meditation programs for their employees.

This means Buddhism will win the popular mind. Why? There’s an old Latin tag, lex orandi, lex credendi. It literally translates “the law of praying, the law of believing.” The idea is that what is prayed paves the way for what may or will be believed. While Hinduism marks the philosophy of everything from The Matrix to Star Wars, Buddhism is what we increasingly practice. Or, more to the point, pray.

In an article for the Atlantic Monthly, Olga Khazan writes about why so many Americans are turning to Buddhism. Short answer? Mental health. And to be sure, mental health is the new holy grail of our inner world. She writes that it’s not about “spiritual enlightenment or a faith community, but rather hoping for a quick boost of cognitive healing.” People have run out of options. “Mental health disorders are up in Western societies, and the answer doesn’t seem to be church attendance, which is down. There’s always therapy, but it’s so expensive. My meditation class was $12.”

The allure of Buddhism, as noted by Khazan, is worth quoting at length:

The ancient religion, some find, helps them manage the slings and arrows and subtweets of modern life. Many people are stressed out by the constant drama of the current administration, and work hours have overwhelmed the day. There’s something newly appealing about a practice that instructs you to just sit....

What’s different—and perhaps reassuring—about Buddhism is that it’s an existing religion practiced by half a billion people. Because relatively few Caucasian Americans grew up Buddhist, they generally don’t associate any familial baggage with it like some do with, say, the Christianity or Judaism of their childhoods. 

Much like “cafeteria Catholics” ignore parts of the religion that don’t resonate with them, some Westerners focus on only certain elements of Buddhist philosophy and don’t endorse, say, Buddhism’s view of reincarnation or worship of the Buddha. Call them “buffet Buddhists.”

Taken out of their Buddhist context, practices like meditation “become like a dry sponge,” [David] McMahan said, “soaking up whatever values are around.” 

Yes. And that is the appeal of Buddhism. It gives us the easy appeal of spirituality without accountability. The Tibetan mountaintop monasteries, the shaved heads, the flowing robes, the exotic locations, the meditation… it all seems to hold the promise of the experience of the spiritual. Yet you don’t have to join anything or really believe in anything. As one person put it, “As a Catholic, I struggle with some of the religious concepts, but it doesn’t prevent me from adopting the Buddhist techniques and philosophies.”
But that’s not real spirituality.
It’s little more than your own voice.
James Emery White 

Sources

Juwon Park, “Young South Koreans Are Increasingly Drawn to Buddhism Via Social Media-Savvy Influencers,” Associated Press, May 15, 2024, read online.
Olga Khazan, “Why So Many Americans Are Turning to Buddhism,” The Atlantic, March 7, 2019, read online.
Hannah H. Kim, “The Meditation Industry,” Sage: Business Researcher, January 29, 2018, read online.

Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Jed Adan

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on XFacebook, and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.