Spiritual but Not Religious
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Upper Valley
Richard R. Crocker
March 21, 2010
Reading: 1 Corinthians 2:6-13
Thank you for welcoming me to speak to you today. You are known, of course, for being a tolerant group of people, and your invitation to me certainly confirms that reputation. I speak to you to, honestly, I hope, first as a human being – a condition that we all share, but then also more particularly as a liberal Presbyterian protestant Christian – a condition that is becoming almost as rare as the platypus.
Your pastor asked me to speak to you about the religious and spiritual life of young people, based upon 30 years of working with young people in settings as diverse as chaplaincy at Bates and Dartmouth, being a college dean, working with adolescents as a high school English teacher, working in clinical settings including state mental hospitals for adolescents judged criminally insane, and in private practice as a pastoral psychotherapist, and also as the father of three sons. These experiences have brought me into contact, often close contact, with young people in the process of forming, or stabilizing, their identities. Since issues of faith are universal among human beings, and since answers to basic religious and spiritual questions are essential to identity, I have been privileged to share in the journey of many thoughtful, and some not so thoughtful, young people. It is from these accumulated experiences that I speak to you today. And my message is simple. Some things have changed, and some things have not changed.
Let’s start with the things that have not changed. The basic spiritual/religious impulse remains, because the basic questions of human identity have not changed. Those questions – who am I? Who am I in relation to my family? Who am I in relation to my friends? Who am I in relation to my country and in relation to people of other countries and cultures? Who am I in relation to whatever is at the heart of life - the mystery that so many have called God: these questions have not changed. And young people, ages 16 to 30, ask those questions with a freshness and intensity that has always provided the best moments of my life. Other questions are intertwined, of course – questions of my duty or obligation to myself and to others, questions about my duty to my creator, if there is a creator, and about my duty to whatever is ultimate, if there is anything that is ultimate, or how I live in a world where nothing is ultimate. These are important questions. They are spiritual questions. They are religious questions. They have never changed; I don’t believe they will ever change.
But some things do change. Here are some of them. The Pew Foundation just released a report on the subject, “Religion Among the Millennials.” Millennials are the American generation who have come of age in the last ten years, with the turning of the millennium. They are those born since 1981. They were preceded by the Generation X, the baby Boomers, the Silent Generation, and the Greatest Generation. This Pew study indicates that this group, the Millennials, is considerably less religious, in terms of church attendance, than their ancestors. 26% are unaffiliated with a religion, compared to 20 percent for Generation X, 13 percent for baby boomers, 6 percent for the silent generation, and 3 percent for the greatest generation – all figures adjusted for age. In other words, the present millennial generation is two times as likely to be religiously unaffiliated as baby boomers were at the same age, and almost 9 times as like to be unaffiliated as the greatest generation were when they were at the same age. So, some things have changed. Younger people do not go to church as often as older ones. At Dartmouth, we confirm this fact with figures indicating our largest religious preference group, comprising over one-third of the student body, is, you guessed it, unaffiliated. The next largest group, comprising 20 percent, is Roman Catholic. The number of Catholic students who actually attend mass on a regular basis at Dartmouth is unknown, since the priests say they do not count attendees, – but as best I can figure it is less than ¼ of the nominal catholics. And this is true for most groups. The Pew study confirms that young people increasingly do not go to church. They do not pray as often; they do not read the Bible as often, they do not meditate as often, or show other signs of conventional piety. They also have different views on certain subjects. Younger people are much more accepting of homosexuality, abortion, and evolution. But, strangely, the Pew survey also reveals that there is very little difference in generations on such matters as belief in God, their view of scripture, their view of life after death, or their belief in miracles. On these issues, the generations, despite significant difference in religious practice, still agree.
It seems that many more younger people are, as they often tell us, spiritual but not religious.
What does this mean? Since I have heard the phrase so often, I have tried to figure out what it means. The problem is that it can mean many different things. At a minimum, I think people mean, when they say it, that they are interested in questions of meaning and purpose, and that they are concerned about leading meaningful and purposeful lives – but that they do not find traditional religious practice to be important to them in that quest. But it can be more complicated.
Let’s think of it terms of two overlapping circles, a Venn diagram, if you will. One circle represents religious people, the other spiritual people. If they overlap, we have three groups, one group is spiritual, but not religious, the other group is religious, but not spiritual, and the overlapping group is both spiritual and religious. We probably know people who would fit in each of those groups. Or we could arrange the circles differently: perhaps there is a big circle, called spiritual, and a smaller circle within it called religious – so that religious people are a subset of the larger spiritual category. Religious people would then be those who identify with a particular spiritual tradition. – or, in the words of a recent article, “Religion is just one institutionalized venue for the practice of or experience of spirituality.” Or perhaps the large circle is religious people – after all, almost all of the people in the world are religious, and a small circle in it of people who prefer to call themselves spiritual. By this rendition, all people who are spiritual are religious – they just don’t know it. It is hard to know exactly how these two categories relate to each other, but usually there is some tension between the two groups. People who are religious often have a negative view of “Spirituality” – they sometimes consider it religion light. As one friend told me: people who say they are spiritual but not religious are like people who say they are political but don’t vote. And people who call themselves Spiritual often have a negative view of particular kinds of religiosity.
So, why are the millennials, those who came of age around 2000 and since, disproportionately religiously unaffiliated? Why are they much more likely to call themselves spiritual but not religious?
I think there are several possible answers. The first is that they are the first generation to grown up in a country that, at least in certain regions, is far more diverse than their parents and grandparents. These are young people who have had friends of different religious and race and ethnicities since they were small. Particularity is less important to many of them – though not, of course for all. For some, the diversity has led them to reaffirm their particularity. We see this is the conservative forms of Judaism and Christianity and Islam that we encounter on campus. In fact, if a student is religious at Dartmouth he or she is likely to be conservative – an evangelical Christian, a traditional Catholic, an observant Jew, an observant Muslim, etc. Those who express their religiosity are likely to emphasize the particularity of it. And, given the growing indifference to religious particularity, I am always struck by the number of people who become religious – often conservatively religious, in college. Thus, I know many several students from Christian backgrounds who have converted to Islam, or to Judaism, passionately. Some secular students have become ardent Christians. But these are a few, and their number pales beside those who seemingly lose interest in religious practice. The growing pluralism and diversity of culture is one reason, I believe.
Another reason the millennnials are perhaps less religiously observant is that they are millennnials: they came of age in 2000 and since. These are people who basically remember two presidents: Bill Clinton and Gorge W Bush. Think about this. That’s all they know. In a class I teach, I had occasion a couple of years ago to mention Billy Graham. Noticing the unusually vapid expressions of their faces, I asked the students, “How many of you know who Billy Graham is?” The answer: zero. No one in the room had heard of Billy Graham. I couldn’t believe it. I said, “He was just on the cover of Time magazine.” And then I got the reply, "What’s Time magazine?” True story. So then I asked then – well, who do you think today is the most well-known public symbol of Christianity? I was expecting them to say Mother Theresa or the Pope. You know who they said, almost unanimously? George Bush. Whatever virtues George Bush may have had as president, being the public face of Christianity was, I think, not among them. Yet, clearly, he did represent Christianity to a number of the members of this generation. Perhaps that explains why so many are uninterested in it.
The other event that might be thought to have influenced this millennial generation, of course, is 9/11. For many of us, our view of the world changed on that day. Recent research, however, by Arthur Levine has found that the millennial generation does not cite 9/11 as the formative event of their lives. (Source: speech by Arthur Levine at the Institute for College Student Values, Florida State University, Feb. 5, 2010) It is, rather, just something that happened. More important to them is the development of social networking – cell-phone, facebook, twitter – the cyber revolution. Nonetheless, for some, I am sure, especially older people, the religious associations of 9/11 and our subsequent wars against Islamic extremists has heightened the belief that religion is fundamentally dangerous rather than helpful. Spirituality, on the other hand, is rarely implicated. It is perceived as softer and less demanding.
Unfortunately this attitude, which I call secularism – a belief that all religion is harmful – has gained a foothold in public life, and especially in higher education. I say unfortunately, because I believe it is fundamentally wrong. A secular society, where voices from all perspectives are welcome, is different from a secularist society, where religious voices are ruled out of order from the beginning. Many academics espouse secularism, unaware, apparently, of the irony of their doing so in the name of freedom of speech. Nonetheless, secularism has gained such a foothold in academia that some professors rule out the very possibility and legitimacy of religious perspectives. Students absorb these attitudes – not uniformly, of course, but frequently.
So, perhaps I have painted a picture that is you may consider either encouraging, or discouraging. I intend it to benefiter. I intend it simply to be accurate. As a chaplain, I relish the opportunity to encourage students, at the most formative period of their lives, to think seriously about the meaning and purpose of their lives. I am not able to prescribe answers, but I am able to uphold the importance of the questions, and to discuss how the Christian tradition, which is what I know best, has helped and challenged me. And that is wonderful and important work – work that not all professors see as part of their responsibility.
I end by quoting William Sloane Coffin. Each Sunday, I read a sermon from William Sloane Coffin’s selected works, just to insure that I get one good sermon a week. In a sermon he preached in 1977 at Riverside Church, he said:
I once asked a group of Yale faculty if they thought the existence of God a lively question. Said a political scientist, “It’s not even a question, Bill, let alone a lively one.” That he didn’t believe in God didn’t bother me that much. After all, that was his problem and fortunate for His continued existence God doesn’t depend on our proving it. Moreover the important question is not who believes in God but “in whom does God believe?” As betwixt Christians and atheists I imagine it is about even steven. There are as many sheep without the fold as there are wolves within! / But what did trouble me was this: I can see doubting the quality of the bread, but I can’t see kidding yourself that you are not hungry – unless of course your soul has so shrivelled (sic) that you have no appetite left for all that elicits astonishment, awe and wonder.” (The collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin, The Riverside Years, Volume 1. Louisville: Westminster, John Knox: 2008. P. 15.)
Every generation is hungry. Unfortunately, some generations have asked for bread and have been given a stone. They continue to ask. It’s important that they have people to ask who take their questions seriously.