Are Reboots Replacing Religion?: The Curious Spirituality of Nostalgia

Image Credit: ABC

We all know people who claim to be “spiritual, but not religious,” and their proclamation is often met with eye rolls from people who think they’re playing a get-out-of-church-free card. But maybe they really are spiritual. And maybe their “spirituality” includes binge-watching Fuller House, following the Fab 5 from Queer Eye on Twitter, or reading “Only a 90s Kid Would Understand” listicles on Buzzfeed.

Sacred is sacred and profane is profane, and never the twain shall meet, or so we’re told. The nature of holiness requires it to be devoid of profanity. But the post-Boomer generations aren’t much for labels or rules, and it seems retro pop culture is a salve soothing their souls.

Americans have always had a special (if complicated) relationship with religion. Our religious landscape is a rich tapestry of traditions coexisting with varying degrees of success. Obama famously accused some Americans of “clinging to…their religion,” but for many, the grip is loosening.

While the secularization of the United States has been slower than that of our European counterparts, Americans are increasingly abandoning traditional religious institutions and practices. We’re attending church, praying, and reading Scripture at lower rates than ever before. Only 4 in 10 millennials say religion is important to them (compared to more than half of those who are older and two-thirds of those born before 1946). In other words, the “nones” (i.e. those who are not affiliated with any religious tradition) are increasing while the nuns are decreasing.

Ironically, religion is just about the only thing that isn’t experiencing a revival lately. Dozens of television shows, movies, and even musical acts (hello, New Kids on the Block!) have been resurrected, and audiences are here for it. Our appetite for nostalgia is insatiable, and the experience it creates seems to be more than just a wistful remembrance of times past. Perhaps Twin Peaks, Will & Grace, and Gilmore Girls mean more to us because they provide some of the joy, peace, and community we previously experienced through religiosity. Even though we’re abandoning the trappings of tradition, many of us still crave the transcendence, meaning, and inspiration spirituality can bring.

Image Credit: NBC

Dr. Tim Wildschut, Associate Professor at the University of Southampton, studies nostalgia, and says, “…nostalgia can have many positive effects: it increases a sense of social connectedness, it boosts self-esteem, it imbues life with meaning, it fosters a sense of community across time.” These psychological functions achieved through nostalgia also happen to be among the things that make religion appealing and fulfilling.

Pop culture as proxy for religion might sound blasphemous, but perhaps the “Jesus-shaped hole in your heart” evangelicals refer to actually allows room for Roseanne, Will, Grace, and the Jersey Shore cast too. Reboots provide a familiar, comforting experience, and can simulate community and family. Or as Emili, a sixth grade teacher, told me, “These shows make me super nostalgic and warm the cold, dead places in my heart.” Same, girl, same.

The New York Times described a study by Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University and other psychologists, in which they played music from the participants’ past and let them read lyrics to their favorite songs. They found after being primed with nostalgic experiences those people were more likely than the control group to feel “loved” and “life is worth living.” Hallelujah. If that’s not a spiritual outcome, what is?

The difficulty in losing a religious identity is perhaps most acute for those of us struggling with the current political climate. Where we once would’ve used religious rituals and communities to treat our political frustrations, we now rely more on secular means to assuage our pain.

In the scholarly article, “Nostalgia: From Cowbells to the Meaning of Life,” Wildshut et al. argue that while once regarded as a “psychological ailment, nostalgia is now emerging as a fundamental human strength.” They claim nostalgia generates positive affect, maintains and enhances positive self-regard, and strengthens social bonds. Most importantly, they say “nostalgia imbues life with meaning, which facilitates coping with existential threat.” So maybe going to that Backstreet Boys concert is just as enriching as seeing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The Boys certainly have better dance moves.

Image Credit: Netflix

The decline of religion in America is indisputable, and anyone paying attention has noticed the endless stream of television reboots, movie remakes, and band reunion tours. We all know correlation doesn’t equal causation, however, and these two cultural shifts might have nothing to do with each other. There are certainly plenty of religious folks who, despite their faith, were still dying to see what happened to Cory and Topanga from Boy Meets World. But nostalgia is great for business, and perhaps good for the soul.

Perhaps Roseanne isn’t exactly what people think of when they imagine spirituality, but the return of the show feels like going home to many among the millions who tuned in. A woman named Robin told me about the Roseanne reboot, “The Conners were my family and vice versa. In an age where the middle class is disappearing, it’s a dream to spend a half hour laughing with them knowing you’re not alone.” And with its LGBT focus and characters, Will & Grace depicts people who are underrepresented on network television, and for some that carries extra importance. “I love having my Will & Grace family back,” says Susan, and others I spoke with echoed the familial sentiment.

Lest you worry pop culture is an inadequate substitute for religious seekers and the spiritually disenfranchised, scholar Wing-Yee Cheung et al. assure us in their article, “the nostalgic experience is inherently optimistic and paints a subjectively rosier future.“ Whether we’re using Queer Eye For the Straight Guy merely as a means to unwind at the end of the workday or two replace a clergy’s homily, its effects are positive.

If you used to pray to the Madonna in church to ask for forgiveness, and now you go see Madonna on tour to relive the 80s, you’re not alone. And maybe binge-watching Gilmore Girls is the way you demonstrate that you’re spiritual (but not religious). The decline of religion might be facilitating our passion for the past, but maybe only 80s, 90s, and 00s kids will understand.