Why the Electric Generation Prefers Habits on Nuns [Marshall McLuhan Monday]

It’s made news for the last few years: Young adults entering religious life are opting for more traditional religious orders. From the National Religious Vocation Conference:

Both men and women seem to be drawn to habited communities. About two thirds of the newer members say they belong to a religious institute that wears a habit. Among those that responded affirmatively, a little more than half indicate that the habit is required in all or most circumstances.

Interestingly, almost half of the men who belong to an institute that does not wear a habit say they would wear it if it were an option, compared to nearly a quarter of the women respondents.

But why? One word:


Our old pal Marshall McLuhan saw this coming decades ago. He continually stressed that electric media contribute to a certain identity loss, partially because media like TV, radio—and now the Internet—can transmit a person’s image, voice, facial expressions, ideas, and nearly everything…except their bodies. As a Catholic, McLuhan realized that this split between the soul and body would lead to personal identity loss.

Now, for his words on religious habits:

Today, for example, the plain-clothes priest, or the plain-clothes nun, presents a sort of CIA or FBI scandal. It is one of the ludicrous hangups of our time. What the young are obviously telling us is: we want beards, we want massive costumes and vestments for everybody. (Electric Consciousness and The Church)

Some context: McLuhan is discussing younger generations’ desire for belonging. Personally, as a member of this ‘electronic generation,’ (the first generation to grow up practically surrounded by electronic media) I have observed the deep desire within myself and my peers for a sense of belonging to a group. For a sense of rootedness. Roots give us a past, which is hard to come by in the age of ‘right here, right now.’ Roots tell us where we’ve come from, and whose we are.

So, when I first read McLuhan’s thoughts on identity loss and younger generations, I immediately understood.

Taking Sides

While I discerned religious life, I was fascinated by how polarized women religious can get in this “habit vs. plain clothes” debate. But taking McLuhan’s insights into account, I’m beginning to see why women of my mother’s generation weren’t clamoring for habits. Let’s look at statements from two women of different generations.

First, the electronic age. Sr. Julia Walsh joined The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration at age 24. She’s a millenial. Her thoughts on the habit?

It’s a sensitive topic. Some older sisters have a lot of pain about it. But it was important to me to ask if we could create room for members who want to wear a veil and habit to do so. I want people who don’t know me to know I’m a sister, to gain some joy from knowing that young women religious exist. (Source)

For Sr. Julia, the habit would identify her as a religious, and she wants this to happen. Now, let’s see what Sr. Anne Marie Gunderson, age 51, has to say:

St. James said to wear the dress of the times and I am a modern woman. I don’t need the habit to be a nun. I won’t hide behind that to be recognized as a sister. (Source)

Her words are revealing. To Sr. Anne Marie, the habit is not a statement about her personal identity. It’s something behind which to hide. She has a completely different perspective on the subject.

Certainly, there are many factors contributing to the “habit vs. plain clothes” debate. But McLuhan’s insights on the electric age’s slow personal identity loss may explain why my generation’s new vocations prefer the habit. We may be overwhelmingly compensating for electronic media’s effect on our sense of personal identity.

Group identity, instead of private individual identity, is now found everywhere, from youth culture to the business world (where it is called corporate culture), to advertising, to feminism and other -isms. […] We also have the tribe of Michael Jackson. The tribe of rastafarian music followers. The tribe of the Beatles. The tribe of Bruce Springsteen. – Eric McLuhan (The Renaissance Around Us)



  1. Walter Ong, a Jesuit from St. Louis University, studied under McLuhan and furthered his work. The third stage of Walter Ong’s media eras – the electronic age – has now come up twice. Last week on a presentation of the New Evangelization and now with Angela’s blog. So I thought I would share my own understanding and questions.

    I have always wondered if Ong, who wrote from the 1950s to the early 1990s, would have added a fourth era – the digital era. Writings from more recent media ecologists seem to suggest a distinction between the electronic and the digital. This is something worth considering since these more current media ecologists draw a sharp distinction between digital and analog. Understanding these distinctions may impact your analysis. I am thinking specifically of the work of Lev Manovich.

    While I grew up in the electronic age with radio and television, my children, now young adults, grew up in a digital age. One could argue that the breakdown of traditional social groups – starting with advances in transportation and electronic media in the late 19th century – gradually eroded belonging. This would support your argument. Given the depth of change to social groups, But, I am not sure how uniforms or habits addresses or offsets such fundamental change.

    What do you think about advances in social networks – due to the new digital platforms. Do these further erode belonging (make it worse) or is it possible to use them to increase belonging? This might be another area to address in addition to habits.

    • John, I appreciate your adding to this conversation; you bring up some valuable points. Firstly, is there a specific work from Lev Manovich you’d recommend on the subject of a digital era?

      I think if we carry further your assertion that the breakdown of social groups has eroded belonging, we’ll see that today’s generation is lacking and longing for that sense of belonging. To my point about habits, then: A uniform (in this case, a religious habit) is a symbol of belonging to a certain group. By wearing the habit, the individual adopts – and even embodies – the identity of a religious order.

      As for social networking: I’ve been bending my brain around their effect on social belonging for a while now. I haven’t reached any conclusions yet. I can see them as extensions of McLuhan’s global theater, where the actors’ egos seem to get larger and larger as time goes on, and they vie against each other for attention. At the same time, I see the arguments for social networks as increasing belonging (and I’ve experienced that myself). However, I think they’re much more complex than either extreme – the reality must be somewhere in the center.

      Thanks again for your contribution!

  2. Angela, unfortunately your argument about identity loss in the electric and digital age & the seeking of lost identity in “traditional religious orders” with their habits & vestments is undermined by the statistics on a declining Catholic Church in Europe & North America:-

    “The number of men and women taking vows in religious communities has declined even more precipitously in the US since the close of Vatican II. In 1965, there were 22,707 priests; today there are 14,137, and a much higher percentage of them are elderly. Religious brothers have declined from 12,271 to 5,451, and women religious went from the astounding number of 179,954 in 1965 to 68,634 in 2005”. ( http://www.catholicity.com/mccloskey/state_of_the_church_2006.html ). See also http://cara.georgetown.edu/CARAServices/requestedchurchstats.html for specifically US Catholic statistics.

    It seems that fewer and fewer young people in North America are seeking to regain lost identities within the confines of the Catholic Church and are seeking secular ways of accomplishing the same thing, if they are seeking lost identities at all.

      • Indeed, it wouldn’t fit the uncritical Catholic boosterism and absence of logic sometimes evidenced in your blog.

        Of course avoidance or suppression of uncomfortable truths is consistent with your Church’s past and present. But in the end, the truth will out.

        Stay well, Angela…………Alex

    • I think it’s important to note that regardless of whatever statistical decline there is in actual vocations, the point being made and that I experienced myself is that those of us who are or have gone through discernment are drawn to the habit, both the men and women alike. The orders that are flourishing are those that wear habits or allow the younger sisters to wear habits. When I was discerning religious life I couldn’t fathom an order that didn’t have habits and that didn’t feature real community.

      • Dear Angela,

        I do understand the point you are making and please don’t take offense from my comments. McLuhan was right about the loss of identity in an electric world held together by mostly mediated communication and I’m sure he would consider that such loss has only intensified in our digital culture in which some people would rather tweet than talk to someone.

        I think you are entirely right that in our world of accelerating change, not all of which seems positive, some individuals seek the certainties of an ordered life within an established institution.

        Such affiliation provides meaning where it is lacking, shared goals in a community, and yes – a sense of identity. And the habits, vestments, uniforms and other identifying garb associated with well-known institutions contribute to an individual’s sense of affiliation and identity. McLuhan noted the iconic value of the clothes we wear, which by our choices constitute a form of communication, in Chapter 12 of “Understanding Media” titled “Clothing: Our Extended Skin”.

        However, as I pointed out, this need for meaningful institutional affiliation and identity is offset considerably by society’s loss of faith in many institutions once held dear: the U.S. Congress, Canadian and British Parliaments, and other government bodies, the Boy & Girl Scouts, professional sports, Wall Street and the banks, academia and all forms of religion, not just the Catholic.

        Our established institutions must change and regain credibility or become irrelevant. Identity itself is redefined in a digital-virtual world and I’m not at all sure that uniforms, habits and vestments will continue to serve us as identity markers.

        But that is just my opinion, with which you are free to disagree.

        Thank you for your note and take care………Alex

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