Capstone Project: The Fate of Faith in America

When I sat down next to my fellow classmates for a Capstone Project meeting in the fall of 2017, I didn't really know what was going on. In truth, I was clueless: I had to pitch a concept to a team of program advisors, and had barely given my idea any thought.

Thankfully, Tori Rubloff had. And I thought her idea was the most fascinating of all. 

Tori, Lindsey Lutz and I spent the next half-year working on what would go on to be known as The Fate of Faith in America project. We interviewed rabbis, priests, imams and secularists; spoke with millennials from across the religious spectrum; and wrote, shot, filmed and willed this thing into existence, all in the hopes of painting a clearer picture of — well — the fate of faith in America.

What started as the final requirement for our graduate program — the most intensive assignment any of us had ever ventured — turned into something more. And I think it's safe to say that this is easily our most proud accomplishment from our year together at the University of Florida.

We learned some pretty remarkable things while working on this. We think you could, too.

One article has been reproduced below. To view the project in its entirety, follow this link.

Lindsey Lutz / Fate of Faith in America (Splash image credit: The Journalism School at The University of Florida)

Lindsey Lutz / Fate of Faith in America (Splash image credit: The Journalism School at The University of Florida)

In some regards, Zac Farnsworth is like most other 23-year-olds. He balances his computer science studies at Stanford University with pick-up basketball and Rocket League. He enjoys examining things, hoping to understand why they are the way they are.

Dig a little deeper, though, and differences begin to emerge. Farnsworth doesn’t drink. He’s a bit older than his classmates — he suspended his education for two years to aid a mission in Trujillo, Peru. And ever since his dad’s ancestors followed Brigham Young from upstate New York to Utah, his family has been fervently religious.

Farnsworth identifies as a devout Mormon, seemingly an outlier in a millennial generation that has a reputation for irreligiosity.

However, he’s not alone. For him and others, religion isn’t just a set of guidelines for living — it’s a path to satisfaction.

“I feel happier when I am living the way that I feel to be right,” Farnsworth said. “It just feels fulfilling for me, and I don’t think I’d be able to find that fulfillment outside of religion.”

Although fewer millennials are turning to Him, God is not beyond their perception. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, roughly 52 percent of the generation is “absolutely certain” of the existence of a god, while another 22 percent responded as “fairly certain.” In fact, Pew found that religious millennials still outnumber their irreligious peers over multiple demographic and faith-based measures.

Despite the rise of data and scientific discoveries in the natural world, religion continues to occupy a special place in the hearts of these individuals. Part of that permanence stems from an understanding that science and religion can, in fact, coexist.

In Farnsworth’s opinion, the two are not mutually exclusive and have no bearing on each other.

“In the Mormon church, something that one of the apostles have said is that truth is truth,” he said. “Whether it be from religion or whether it be from science, something that’s true is true, and nothing in religion should disprove something that’s scientifically proven and vice versa."

Furthermore, for this generation, the expression of “true religion” can take place beyond the auspices of a church or congregation.

Growing up, Laura Markham disliked organized religion, considering it hypocritical and overladen with rules. She viewed God as an angry deity, one that could never be satisfied.

Other researchers picked up that Markham wasn't an anomaly. In their 2007 book "unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity... and Why It Matters," authors David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons pointed out that these institutions regularly fail to emphasize personal values that are traditionally important to millennials: tolerance; pluralism; community; authenticity; and open discussion, among others.

But as Markham aged, she came to Jesus on her terms. Now 20 years old, she found that her current spiritual experience differs widely from what she encountered every childhood Sunday at church.

“Religion … was also too much pressure for me. In reality, being a follower of Jesus isn’t boring at all,” Markham said. “Religion says I need to be perfect and do everything right. Jesus says, ‘I love you on your worst days and on your best.’”

On the surface, statistics show that organized religion is falling out of favor. However, the core tenets of faith remain. Modern religion isn’t so much about ritual as it is about community and, in Markham’s eyes, spirituality hasn’t changed.

However, the way people exercise it has.

“I see that millennials are more authentic in their faith," she said. “Many are realizing they don’t need to do all this stuff in order to go to Heaven. Truthfully, it’s simple: Many people make it more complicated than it has to be.”

For Caitlyn Considine, that realization came in an instant. As a teenager, she believed that Catholicism was as simple as adhering to church rules and reading the Bible. She wasn’t sure how her faith was supposed to positively impact her life.

That all changed at 21, when — while studying for the MCAT — she “discovered such a thing as a personal relationship with Jesus.” As Considine pored over her books, she prayed. She listened to worship music. She spent time with her thoughts and felt the presence of something greater than herself.

The experience stuck. Years after her revelation, Considine decided to create a not-for-profit ministry dedicated to helping incoming freshmen stay connected with their religious communities.

Ultimately, that’s where much of the younger generation is finding salvation.

“I think that God works the most in places that people can’t see,” Considine said. “People can say what they want about God and millennials, but God is working for them.”