Several years ago I revamped an upper-level college course on the history of American religions into a lower-level offering on American spirituality. I’d convinced myself that the lugubrious knell of “religion,” redolent of scandal, sanctimony, and right-wing politics, was a turnoff. Spirituality, on the other hand—light, bright, and relevant—was a butts-in-seats certainty. The thrust of the course was the same, a historical survey on the intersection of religious ideas with American culture, economics, and politics. But instead of focusing on Christianity, the class would explore metaphysical religions with dabs from the Abrahamic and dharmic traditions. Students—all those unaffiliated millennials—would flock to understand the content behind their “spiritual but not religious” leanings.
That seemed the case when I first taught the class as a General Education option. Enrollment was high, but the class format—lectures and sections—left students wanting something more. When my university instituted mandatory freshman seminars capped at 19 students, I overhauled the course once more. This go-round, I built in time for small-group discussions that I hoped would enable students to discuss how the readings intersected with their own experience of spiritual seeking.
Two months into the semester, I wondered whether I should have stuck with the straight-up religion class. Of the 19 students, 5 are committed Christians, evangelicals and Protestants who are serious about the faith. A handful of others identify with Jewish or Christian traditions, though they are not active participants. The rest are vaguely spiritual but mostly uninterested in religion or spirituality as a personal touchstone. They had enrolled in the course because it either synced with their schedules or seemed a less unpleasant option than a required humanities course on Russian literature or ancient Athens. “Spirituality” did sound light, bright, and relevant—and for those reasons likely easier than other offerings. Their decision was less about transcendence than transaction. My epiphany came when early in the semester I asked a sociologist to speak to the class about millennial religion. He was working on the latest installment of an ongoing survey of American youth and religion, and the new numbers suggested a surprising trend. More and more millennials were unaffiliated, but instead of fitting into the “spiritual but not religious” designation, their beliefs and behaviors indicated a total lack of interest. They were not opposed to God, prayer, or even institutional religion per se; they just did not care one way or the other.
While this more or less tracks with Pew’s surveys on nones, Americans who are religiously unaffiliated, it’s a different spin on the material. The Pew analysis tempers the rise in the unaffiliated by noting that “many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way.” It also notes that “two-thirds of them say they believe in God” (68%) and that “more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%). Moreover, “most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.”
I can understand why religionists, those of us with a professional interest in the study of religion, want to interpret these statistics as indicative that the current sea change—the rising tide of nones—is a reorientation of a fundamental human desire for meaning, identity, and purpose rather than a radical break with the past. But what if it’s not? What if, as seems to be the case for a majority of my students, it’s interesting to discuss the peaceful feelings found in nature, the power of love to effect social change, and the effectiveness of mind over matter—but it’s no more than that: just an interesting conversation? They’re not about to go on retreat, initiate a revolution, or become Christian Scientists. They’re curious but uncommitted, discerning but dispassionate. Searching for ultimate meaning is beside the point in a world where it’s hotter every year, crazy people carry guns, a reality TV star is the new American president, and students pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a college degree.
Unsurprisingly, I’ve learned that some members of the class feel “religious” about their career choices, especially those in the arts (and one in accounting, too). But the others seem comfortable enough caught up in quotidian concerns: getting good grades, making new friends, and negotiating their first year away from home. Maybe that’s how it always has been for this age group. If, back in the day, my boomer cohort had been surveyed, most of us would have expressed lack of interest in religion. Some were SBNR—turning on, tuning in, and dropping out, as Timothy Leary recommended—but many more aspired to getting laid and going to law school.
Despite their personal lack of interest in religion, most of my students recognize that it’s not going away. Whether or not the phenomena we call “religious” are really so is not the issue. Religion, like politics, economics, race, ethnicity, and gender, is a cultural factor and social force that motivates, explains, and inspires. It deserves a course because it is key to understanding the world we live in. Spirituality, often more of a personal motivator, also bears study, but not just because it’s topical or trendy. The exploration of spirituality reminds us of our humanity—and our ongoing desire to understand the gift of life. I don’t mean to suggest that spirituality and religion are entirely separate from each other. I tell my students they are two sides of the same coin. The SBNR designation may represent a pollster’s perspective on disjointed answers to arbitrary questions, but it’s not necessarily reflective of how people live their lives and—thinking about the next iteration of my syllabus—how to teach students about the cultural power of belief or the personal meaning of reflective contemplation.
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