How Do Millennial New Yorkers Think About God?

I talked to hundreds of people in the Big Apple about God. Here’s what they said.

I spent six months traveling around New York City interviewing a cross-section of people about their thoughts on God. These are pieces of their stories. For more, check out my book God in New York.

Traditional Structured Believers

Make up 23 percent of the city. Has kept the faith of their childhood and is defined by a strong and active belief in a personal god who they tend to approach through the structure and rationale of an organized religion. 

“God is almighty. I pray, praise, learn the Bible every day. I’m Christian, go to the Korean American Church every week. God not speaking actually direct to me. Just what I read in the Bible verse. I open it to me and I think, ‘Oh yeah, God says it like that. I have to do something to help somebody. I have to tell about Jesus to somebody.’ Sometimes we gathering together in church members, and we make some brochure about the Jesus and then give it to them saying, ‘God loves you.’”

 — Anna C., 30s, Queens

“I was brought up in a very religious Catholic family, so we believe in Jesus Christ and God the Father, and that one day we will meet God, and we still go to church every Sunday as a family. I have a lot of friends that influenced me in different ways, but this is something that they haven’t influenced me in — it is something that I keep to myself. It is my own belief.”

 — Chenette, 20s, Queens

“If it wasn’t for the help of God to my mom, probably I would still be in Jamaica. It was hard because my mom is a single parent. My dad passed away. My mom had 12 kids — I’m the last one out of 12. My mom came here by herself to work. She didn’t easily give up. She’s a constant go-getter. So if she wasn’t believing in God and have the faith, I probably wouldn’t even be here. So I felt God when I come off the plane at the airport.”

 — David B., 20s, Bronx

“Look around everywhere, there’s a system. Somebody create it; somebody think it. Everything is under control. For all religions it’s the same God, but different people think different ways. I think everybody should have a religion because that helps control your life. You are Christian, you are Hindus, you are Muslim, it doesn’t matter, but you have to believe in a God.”

 — Nuzz, 20s, Queens

 Traditional Heart Believers

Make up 13 percent of the city. While they still firmly believe in a personal god of an established religion, they tend to approach their god emotionally and experientially.

“I was brought up as a Jehovah Witness. I’m not so much into the religion. I grew up and went my own way. I go every now and again to the Temple. I haven’t stopped going completely — I still go. I got back into it now, but there’s been a time where I was in my own world. But growing up believing in God, you know it balances you out — it gives you a form of being, an existence. It gives you an understanding of where you came from.”

 — Akani, 30s, Bronx

“When I was getting a divorce, God was with me. I had the support of my family, but at that period of time, I needed to feel . . . I mean you feel it with your family, but you feel it more with God. You have a moment, you’re by yourself, and you’re crying by yourself, you can feel it. I felt it, the strength and the power. So yes, at that time, the hardest time of my life, my family was there, and also God was there.”

 — Christina, 30s, Manhattan

Independent Adaptors

Make up 14 percent of the city. Tend to have a high level of conviction and activity and be more emotional in their approach. They believe in a personal god that has been adapted from an established religion, usually the faith of their upbringing without all of the doctrines. 

“I think church is, I don’t want to be blasphemous, but church is just a house, understand? I think you can worship God right now standing on the corner doing nothing.”

 — Casey, 20s, Bronx

“I have the utmost respect for the lovers that are in all religions, those people inside that religion who know what love is. They’re not trying to make their dad or their mom happy, they’re not trying to make society happy, they’re trying to love the creator and humans because they feel it’s a legitimate conviction. I meet these beautiful Buddhists, beautiful Hindus and beautiful Muslims. There’s people that have the light everywhere. So I’m cool with any religion as long as those people are there.”

 — Jesse, 20s, Brooklyn

“A lot of religions are similar. They have the same foundation, and I believe in the foundation. It’s all the same God, all the other stuff is religion. So I find God by myself at home, through reading the Bible and praying, versus going to a church which is religion.”

 — Vener, 20s, Brooklyn

Independent Spirits

Make up 10 percent of the city. A diverse and heterogeneous group that tends to have a high level of conviction and activity, be emotional in their approach, and believe in a god that may or may not be personal, but is not a god of any established religion.

“I always used to say it’s kind of a cop-out if you say you’re spiritual but not religious, but I kind of feel that way because I feel that there is some kind of a being. Not a being . . . some kind of a force out there that kind of directs things. But it’s not that picture of God as a bearded man up there pulling the strings. I believe it is more of a cosmic force, and I believe that there is good and evil and it is a struggle that these forces tend to go between.”

 — Cory, 30s, Manhattan

“At some point along the way, I realized that organized religion and the idea of God are not necessarily two things that I wrap together.”

 — Gregorio, 30s, Manhattan

“I guess prayers are heard. I say them part for me and part for putting it out there into the universe. I think it’s to focus me on tapping into that something that we don’t know. Maybe that is why I talk them out loud.”

 — Meredith, 30s, Queens

Independent Thinkers

Make up 10 percent of the city. Tend to be rational in their approach looking for reason, highly active in their questioning and pursuit of the question, and have almost all changed from their upbringing, but they largely believe in some form of god, though not usually a personal god.           

“I feel a sense of being connected to the rest of the world and that’s what I consider to be that magical, wonderful thing that everybody looks and reaches out for. Like when you’re trying to make a plant grow, when you plant a seed, and you watch it mature. I think that’s what happens when you try to reach out to other people, you reach that same potential. You’re reaching out to the divine.”

 — Anna A., 30s, Queens

“I would like to believe in something more. I don’t have any concrete proof of anything, but I would like to believe. I would like to think that spiritually there’s some type of post-human life, and that that entity, whatever that power source is for all humans and life, is out there. But it is not attached to a supreme being, just to the idea of power and nature. The atoms, I guess, are somehow allied. When you die, your spirit that has been created lives on in some fashion. I hope so. I’m still a little bit cynical, but I would like to believe in that.”

 — Dan, 20s, Manhattan

“I believe God knows you, only in so far as you can remove a personality from knowledge. Personification is a mechanism that makes it convenient for people to digest this big thing, but it’s really beyond our comprehension.”

 — Serge, 30s, Manhattan


Don’t Care and Accept

Make up 12 percent of the city. Defined by their passive attitude to any pursuit of the question and a middle-of-the-road approach to most issues. They tend to be younger and largely have not changed from how they grew up, and they somewhat believe in a god who is probably personal.

“I was brought up to be a Catholic, forced into it, before I could actually understand it, but I don’t follow all the rules like going to church all the time and doing good things just to go to heaven. I believe in doing good things just because it feels good.”

 — Cluny 20s, Brooklyn

“Well I used to be an atheist, and now I’m not quite so sure of myself. My family were Episcopal, but church was irregular. When I was a kid, I was an atheist. I believed there definitely was no God, with the certainty that only a child can have. Then I became uncertain, and I now accept the possibility. It doesn’t have anything to do with the nature of divinity, just an acknowledgment of the limitations of my own perception.”

 — Michael, 30s, Brooklyn

“I believe there is something out there, but it is hard to say what it is. I haven’t really searched. Instead of searching, I’ve done maybe day trips, never anything very deep.”

 — Wally, 20s, Manhattan


Don’t Care and Reject

Make up 10 percent of the city. Largely defined by a low level of conviction, rejecting any faith they were brought up with, and being largely inactive in any pursuit of the question.

“I don’t think about it, but when I do, it’s like it’s manmade — the whole idea. I was brought up Islamic, my whole family believes, but I changed. When you’re gone, you’re gone. You just stay in the ground.”

 — Farrah, 20s, Queens

“I don’t really follow any theology at the moment. I sort that off into some corner of my brain to think about later. I guess at some point I’ll think about it, and maybe some switch will flick and I’ll understand the meaning of existence, but for now I don’t really know. At this point in my life, I’m not ready to seek out answers.”

 — Kelly, 20s, Manhattan 

Confident Atheists

Make up eight percent of the city. Largely defined by a high conviction, low belief in any form of the divine, particularly any form of a personal god. They approach the question from a highly rational standpoint.

“I don’t judge anyone based on the kind of gods they have. I feel whatever works for them. I don’t lean towards God or anything. Right now my current state is I believe what I see. People make good and bad things happen. The choice is always up to them. The decision is up to them, and the ideas are their own.”

 — Frankie, 20s, Brooklyn

“In my opinion, God is something that people invented so they will have context, the big picture. Quite a few of the religious people that I have met seem to be in need of something like that to make sense of their lives. It’s an escape. I think it’s giving up responsibility, because it is God, so I don’t buy into it. I really don’t. There’s no answer to why we’re here. What is a cat here for? What is a dog here for? What are they here for? They are here.”

 — Joe, 30s, Brooklyn

“I understand the use and value of the notion of a God, and I have faith in some kind of collective something to improve the world, in something that is bigger than yourself.   Essentially if you remove the anthropomorphic qualities of God and you just distill it down to what God is supposed to inspire in people, I think it looks the same as civilization or arts and you will get the same effects day-to-day in individuals.”

 — Sean, 20s, Brooklyn

Image courtesy of Namphuong Van

Rikki Tahta
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  • James Early

    Thank you for sharing these responses you got from such a wide range of young people in New York. Very enlightening.