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
Cassandra was raised in a Pentecostal family, and when she abandoned her childhood faith, Buddhism became another crossroad in her search for a spiritual path. Although she no longer practices Christianity, she says, “what I don’t want is to be antagonistic toward Christians. I still identify with Christianity very strongly. I’m Christian but not religious.” Cassandra has been reading the work of the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh and “using tools from Buddhism” to supplement her Christian knowledge.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s work on using meditation as a way of channeling anger proved especially helpful to Cassandra in her early days as an adoptive parent of twins. “Adoption is emotional, and I wasn’t expecting [to go in] that direction, but I morally couldn’t refuse it,” she says. “Buddhism helped me be where I was. I don’t want to be a Buddhist, but meditation makes more sense than prayer does. I like the feeling of prayer, reaching out, but when I meditate I’m reaching out to everything around me.”
Cassandra told me that she doesn’t feel connected to Buddhist stories historically or culturally; instead she still feels connected to Christian stories. Buddhism for her, she says, is mostly about helping her navigate a transitional time in her life.
Nicole was raised as a Seventh-day Adventist and grew up without much exposure to any other tradition. Adventists believe in the inerrancy of biblical scripture, do not ordain women, are staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage, and generally don’t mix socially with non-Adventists. Nicole left Adventism in college, when she realized she could no longer support her religion’s teachings about LGBTQ people. She then began an internship at an AIDS foundation that brought her into San Francisco a couple of days a week. She’d heard about Buddhism in a world religions class in college and visited the San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm. She also began studying yoga, and slowly Buddhist thinking began to take the place of the Christian religion in which she’d grown up.
“What I love about Buddhism is that it’s a practice and a lifestyle and not a religion as it applies in my life,” Nicole told me. “When you grow up in a faith that’s very strict, it’s all or nothing. Questioning things and having doubts isn’t openly accepted; you have to believe it in exactly that way.” She added that she has a hard time “getting on board” with the biblical picture of Jesus. “And then there’s this fear piece. Your salvation is based on what you believe about the afterlife. So with Buddhism it was just a practice and a way to live,” one that also fit into the values of community that she was raised with: “Mindfulness can be Sabbath, being a day apart. A lot of things were actually parallel for me. It seemed more flexible, and some of the magical thinking about Christianity that I can’t quite buy into wasn’t as present in Buddhism.”
Anne, who was raised Catholic but drifted away from religious practice in college, read a quote from the Dalai Lama in a moment of religious crisis. She had learned about Buddhism and wanted to explore it, but worried about leaving her Catholic roots behind. She paraphrases the Dalai Lama, saying that it is better not to convert to Buddhism but to stay in your own religious tradition and bring Buddhist practice into it. That led her to a book called Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, by Paul Knitter, who taught courses in religious pluralism at Union Theological Seminary.
Speaking of Knitter’s book, Anne says, “he talks about how it’s OK not to get caught up in literalism, like the virgin birth and the Ascension.” For Anne, this new direction came as a relief. “It made me start to look at God in a different way. It talked about God as the interconnectedness between people. Love and peace, that’s easier to believe in than just some deity.” And she adds: “I don’t know if the Church would agree, but it made it easier for me to understand it.”
Joshua, who was exposed to Evangelicalism, Catholicism, and the Episcopal Church as a child, had his first encounter with Buddhism through a teacher in high school “who was kind of both Catholic and Buddhist. He introduced us to a lot of things and was a big intellectual influence on me.” In Georgia, where Joshua grew up, this was “not normal high school stuff.”
As a college student, Joshua describes himself as “searching.” He says he attended Catholic Mass a few times, but it proved to be a bad experience. The priest, who was the college chaplain, was very conservative. “He told me that he thought God killed Thomas Merton”—a writer Joshua had begun increasingly to identify with—“to keep him from going astray toward Buddhism.” After this failed restart with Catholicism, Joshua enrolled in a Buddhist psychology class. His professor turned out to be a practitioner in the Tibetan tradition, with “teachers and a lineage and all that stuff,” and Joshua found himself immersed and engaged.
In the summer of 2005, Joshua moved into Haley House, a Catholic Worker community house and soup kitchen in Boston. While he’d also begun reading Dorothy Day and was starting to feel a pull toward her social justice-oriented faith practice, Joshua “wanted to live in a Worker house that wasn’t super-Catholic.” Haley House, he said, is “kind of Buddhist. The founder is a Buddhist, and lots of Buddhists go through there.” At the house, the Workers had faith-sharing once a week, but rather than being a Christocentric event, Josh told me, it was more free-form: “Let’s talk about this issue, or let’s share my faith, or let’s do an Enneagram together.”
Today religious mixing is simply seen as yet another way in which people navigate the many choices our complex world offers them.
After college, Joshua applied to Harvard Divinity School after discovering it offered a Buddhist concentration. The economy was beginning to crash just then, and grad school seemed like a place of safety. It was also a time for exploring Buddhism as praxis. “Part of it was genuine interest in Buddhist ministry” and helping others to see dharma “not just in terms of practice or meditation or philosophy, but how Buddhist communities operate and meet people’s needs beyond just meditation or religious instruction.”
He graduated in 2010 with an M.Div. degree and planned to pursue a Ph.D. But “nothing about my story is simple,” he says in retrospect. Joshua wound up getting involved as a citizen journalist in the Occupy movement, and his plans for a Ph.D. fell away as he embraced the life of a socially engaged writer. In the midst of finding his way to a career, however, the wheels guiding his faith life began to fall off. At present Joshua says that he “goes to an Episcopal Church irregularly. I used to be very clear that I was a Buddhist, and now I’m not. It’s distressing and weird. I feel like an ambulance with its sirens blaring. I start praying to Tara, and then start saying Hail Marys, and I don’t know what to do.”
Nevertheless, Joshua feels less tied up, not having to “assert, defend, or authenticate” his Buddhism. He says he is no longer trying to be “a great Buddhist practitioner” or “a great Christian,” and for now “it feels nice to kind of lean into the uncertainty and indeterminacy of not really knowing.” For now, he’s redirected his focus from practice to consciousness. Instead of committing to one tradition or the other, he tries to maintain his “emotional connection” to both.
Although these are but a few individual profiles, each one represents the “in-between” space occupied by many who wind up categorized as nones. But whereas in the past religious mixing was frowned upon, today it is simply seen as yet another way in which people navigate the many choices our complex world offers them. Catholic priests quote the Dalai Lama in sermons. Protestant clergy go on Buddhist retreats. There’s been a long and fruitful connection between Judaism and Buddhism.
Increasingly, people who don’t belong to a single religious tradition see value in many religions, even as they hesitate to narrow themselves down to one. This is not to say that community-based forms of spiritual practice don’t matter. A good religious leader can guide doubters, seekers, and believers alike, and these kinds of leaders—priests, pastors, rabbis, dharma teachers, and imams—continue to exist, even if our notions of what religion means are shifting. Their persistence in following a vocational call in the face of difficult circumstances is evidence that institutional religion at its best still has the potential to offer meaning. It is still able to guide, nurture, and provide community and consolation.
So what does it mean that nones are reluctant to stay put in any tradition, even the most welcoming ones? Their hesitation reflects the larger sense of transience that has affected two generations of Americans. Past notions about stable careers, relationships, and places to live are no longer a guiding reality for millions. Nones tend to lean to the left politically, but they often feel that their voices are unheard in discussions about social progress. There is still a deep-rooted desire among many of them for community, but several of those communities have migrated online, which makes it easier to fall away from them.
The numerous people I spoke to said that what might bring them to a regular spiritual practice would be being known and understood as individuals, with all of their skepticism, all of their questions. Whether seen as spirituality or religion, what calls this generation of seekers—and what will keep them—is the vision of a movement that will offer community, integrity, and room for doubt.
Portions of this essay were adapted from The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Seekers, Believers, and Those in Between (Orbis Books, 2015).
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