This semester I assigned the students in the World Religions course I teach a series of writing exercises that (I hoped) would help them personalize and internalize the subject matter we were reading about and discussing in class. There were four total, one every four weeks or so. And each was a little more probing. My goal was simply to get them thinking about their experience with religion, assumptions about religious claims, how they understand the role religion plays in their lives—that sort of thing. The projects were enlightening for many of them. Several told me they’d never thought about these things before, and they’re glad they did. (It’s nice when a plan works out. That was the point, after all.) What I hadn’t expected was how enlightening their responses would be for me.
Discussions about why young folk leave the faith and how to get them back continue to generate a lot of heat. I don’t claim to have anything new to contribute. My observations here are anecdotal, not scientific. But I found it useful to reflect on the general trends that emerged in my students’ reports. They have a lot to say about this ever elusive demographic.
First some trends I did not find surprising.
Spiritual but not religious.
Consistent with the conventional wisdom about young people—and maybe even older people—in America, the vast majority of my students were quick to identify as spiritual—as believing in something out there bigger than themselves—but were hesitant to identify as religious. Growing up, our pastors reminded us frequently that Christianity is “not a religion; it’s a relationship.” That’s not what my students mean. They are hesitant to align themselves with a community that they view as wanting to control their behavior or making them adopt an entire belief system in toto. Many of them wrote something to this effect: “I used to go to church. Now I don’t. I don’t feel any closer to God in a church than I do at home.” They feel they have all the necessary resources for faith—all by themselves.
Happy to believe many things at once.
One reason, I suppose, that these young folks don’t want to identify as religious is because they prefer to draw from different aspects of all religions as they synthesize their spiritual points of view. This isn’t just “I’m okay, you’re okay” relativism—they’re quick to admit when they disagree with a religious teaching. (“That’s stupid,” is a favorite objection.) But they are skeptical that any one belief system has all the answers. They like the forgiveness of Christianity but balk at the Trinity; they admire the nonviolence of Buddhism but find nirvana hard to swallow. This is true even of Christian students. Several of them wrote that they consider themselves followers of Jesus but they believe in reincarnation. Buffet-style religion is alive and well among America’s twentysomethings.
In the first assignment, the students wrote about their experience with religion from their earliest memories to the present. Interestingly, most of them had overwhelmingly positive experiences with religion as young children. Some of them expressed being bored or confused during services—temple, mosque, synagogue, or church. But none of them reported leaving the faith of their youth because they had a traumatic experience or because they ultimately disagreed with the community’s teaching. Rather, most of them just stopped going. One week they went; the next week they didn’t. Services didn’t make any real difference in their life.
In another post, I’ll list a few themes I found surprising. In the meantime, I’m curious if anyone else’s experience confirms or qualifies what I’ve noticed with my students.