Anyone who was born after the 1960s has lived much of their life among at least some nonbelievers, doubters, and questioners. When the Pew Forum released the results of its multiyear study of religious life in 2012, the news that up to a third of people in their twenties, thirties, and forties described themselves as having “no religion” was about as shocking as discovering that we really like iPhones.

I am a Gen Xer who lives and works in San Francisco’s heavily secular Bay Area, and my social circle includes lapsed Jews and mainline Protestants, former Evangelicals, ex-
Muslims, kids raised Quaker, and even a former Buddhist monk turned punk rock singer turned filmmaker. I may be running in a group of creative types who are more likely to reject institutionalized thinking, but my students at UC Berkeley also reflect these statistics. They are overwhelmingly uninterested in traditional notions of what it means to have faith. Instead of cleaving to one particular way of believing, many younger people engage in a kind of spiritual mix-and-match, blending several traditions and adhering strictly to none.

Many of these so-called nones are looking for something. But it might not be something permanent.

When I spent a year conducting in-depth interviews with dozens of young adults who choose no single religious practice, I learned that nearly half of them had discovered Buddhism at some point, via books, meditation, apps, or retreats. But there is not much statistical evidence that such seekers subsequently commit to a practice or community. Instead, many will mix Buddhist teachings or practices with those of other religious traditions. They often hesitate to call themselves Buddhists because they don’t belong to a sangha, because they have concerns about cultural appropriation, or because they don’t want to abandon the religions in which they were raised.   

In Their Own Words


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