(This is from a talk I gave at a conference at the University of Southern California held by the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. FRD was started by Mormons seeking deeper mutual understanding with people of other faiths. FRD offers a helpful model for respectful dialogue among people of different religious traditions about the hard questions related to their faiths.)
A few days ago I met with a group of 25 students here at USC to orient them to the work of our Office of Religious Life. I think they are a fairly random sample of the undergraduate population of this university. At one point in my talk I asked how many of them were religious. About 16 of them raised their hands. Then I asked how many were spiritual but not religious. Several of the “religious” students objected, saying that if they had been given that option, they would have raised their hands. So I started over. 17 of the students said they were spiritual but not religious – and 10 of those 17 had earlier raised their hands to say they were religious! 6 of the students said they were religious, and 2 said they were neither religious nor spiritual.
That moment with freshmen leads me to this question: what does “interfaith dialogue” mean among the rapidly increasing number of people who have no formal faith affiliation at all?
SBNR – Spiritual But Not Religious – is clearly a category that is gaining ground in America. 23% of young people between the ages of 18 and 29 do not have any religious affiliation, according to the Pew Center’s latest survey results. This is a very substantial increase in the unaffiliated, from decades past. The trends suggest that this figure will accelerate in the future. But from the size of the “spirituality” sections of bookstores, and the liveliness of websites concerned with matters of the soul, it appears that disaffiliation does not equal disinterest in the subject.
I think the ten students who were at least partly religious, even when they preferred to be called spiritual but not religious, spoke volumes during that hand-raising exercise. I have had long chats with many such students over the years, here and in my previous work as ecumenical Protestant campus minister at Stanford. They very much experience a spiritual dimension in their lives, and in the reality around them. They have what I would call religious experiences, though they may be ambivalent about what language to use in describing them. They see great value in the many religions of the world. They are pluralistic in their view of religion: they can’t imagine how any one religion could claim to have the only and complete truth about matters spiritual. They know too many sincere, lovely people of too many different faiths to be able to go with the exclusivist concept. This kind of exposure to world religions is becoming ubiquitous in America, as mosques and Hindu temples appear even in the Bible Belt. SBNR people may have an at least nominal connection to one or another faith community, but are often iffy about being loyal to it. So they are Catholic, but…. They are evangelical Christian, but….. They are Muslim, but…. They are Jewish, but…..
In another sign related to this trend, retention rates – the degree to which converts to a new religion “stick with it” for any significant period of time – are increasingly problematic for many conversion-oriented groups. It’s part of a long-term trend toward “easy come, easy go” in religious affiliation.
People are claiming their own spiritual authority. The recent Pew Center data document a huge increase in the last few decades of people reporting that they have had some kind of personal mystical or paranormal experience. God is talking to them directly. Within Christianity, there has been a powerful shift toward the idea that God is speaking directly to and through ordinary people today. For example, lots of evangelical Christians now believe in reincarnation and astrology. Today, a majority of young people who identify as evangelical say that they think other religions can be as valid for others as their religion is valid for them. This is at odds with what most of their pastors are preaching.
Increasingly, people are registering to pray as independents! In America, the decline of the two political parties is mirrored by the decline of formal religious affiliation. There is a huge market for SBNR media: new age, self-help, and meditation books fly off the shelves of bookstores, adding more ingredients to the spiritual soup all the time. People go to evangelical megachurches on the weekend and then during the week watch Oprah interviewing Eckhart Tolle about his non-faith-specific spirituality. The Pew Center’s statistics indicate that people are increasingly inclined to change religious affiliation repeatedly over their lifespans, just as increasingly they change jobs and careers. This applies to the non-religious, as well: many of those who aren’t affiliated today will someday be religiously affiliated. And many of these folks who do eventually join a church or temple, will eventually drop out or change affiliation. It’s a constant churning of religious membership and identity, reflecting the attitude that religion is something you more or less invent for yourself, rather than being something to which you must be subject.
Even those who still belong to religious communities are less rooted in their traditions. They are getting less education about their faiths, as people experience so much competition for their attention. One manifestation of this is the current trendy term, “nondenominational Christian”. At USC, when students come to us looking for a fellowship group, I ask them about their faith tradition. Often the answer is “Christian”. “What kind of Christian?” I ask. “Just Christian,” they say. Bonds to any particular manifestation of the faith, even to any particular congregation, are weakening.
The sum effect of all these trends is intense interest by most people in matters spiritual, but a marked breakdown of ties to any one faith tradition or institution.
Fascination with matters religious and spiritual is very much alive and well, whether students are religiously identifiable or not. I even know atheists here on campus who are fascinated with religion, and are eager to talk about it and check it out. My office will not be going out of business any time in the foreseeable future. Many religious institutions will collapse, but they may well be replaced by different kinds of organizations that are adaptive to the trend toward SBNR. Retreat centers, speaker series, study groups, service projects, and periodic events increasingly are becoming the means by which people gather to express and explore their spiritual impulses.
So what is interfaith dialogue, when so many people are having inner faith monologues as they try out a lot of different religions over their lifespans, and sort out mixes of practices that work for them? At USC we host a student Interfaith Council that meets weekly over a vegetarian meal. I am the group’s advisor and its meetings are the high point of my week. About 15-30 students show up – some come and go, many are solid regulars. It is a mix of students who have strong, active commitments to faith institutions and others who are practitioners of what Wayne Teasdale called “interspirituality”. What I find is that the SBNR and weakly affiliated students eagerly learn a great deal from the students who are strongly affiliated. And the strongly affiliated students learn a lot from each other. The strongly affiliated students are the primary informants for the whole group. On the other hand, the SBNR students inspire everyone with their curiosity and openness. They add tremendously to the richness of the conversation and the depth of the relationships in the group. For the SBNR students, the Interfaith Council is the nearest thing they have to a religion! So far, at least, the strongly religious students are okay with that.
There are a lot of different motivations for people to participate in interfaith dialogue, and accepting these differences is just another form of diversity for interfaith groups to observe with respect. Interfaith dialogues, councils, and service groups may attract more and more people for whom these forums are the only kind of organized religion that makes sense to them.
So I leave you with this question: are we who are committed to organized religions ready to include “inner faith” dialogue as part of interfaith dialogue? Your thoughts?