Talkin’ ’Bout My Generation
We’re gearing up at Project Interfaith to bring in our next speaker, Sumi Loundon Kim (author and Buddhist chaplain at Duke University), and her imminent arrival has got me thinking about how generational differences are shaping faith communities and interfaith work. Kim will draw on her own experiences as a Gen X Buddhist and her work with young Buddhists (she’s edited two anthologies of writings by young American Buddhists) to share with the community how generational differences are impacting Buddhism in America.
I first became aware of Kim when I stumbled upon an interview of her on a Buddhist Geeks podcast. What struck me as I listened to her talk about how Buddhists of different ages are approaching and living out Buddhism in America was that, even though many of the issues she raised were unique to a Buddhist context, quite a bit of what she mentioned I have seen present in our work with a variety of faith communities and in my own experience as a member of the Jewish community. This led me to ultimately invite her to be a part of Project Interfaith’s Annual Speaker Series and has left me pondering this topic as I go forward in my work.
There is quite a bit of research occurring on how people of different ages approach and experience religion and spirituality. Perhaps one of the most informative recent studies was a 2010 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life titled “Religion Among the Millennials” (bet you can’t guess what it was about). Among the study’s findings:
- Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today. One in four adults under age 30 (25%) are unaffiliated, describing their religion as "atheist," "agnostic" or "nothing in particular" compared with less than one-fifth of people in their 30s (19%), 15% of those in their 40s, 14% of those in their 50s and 10% or less among those 60 and older.
- The intensity of the religious affiliation among Millennials (those born after 1980, also known as Gen Yers) who are affiliated with a religion is as strong today as among previous generations when they were young.
- Young people who are affiliated with a religion are more inclined than their elders to believe their own religion is the one true path to eternal life (though in all age groups, more people say many religions can lead to eternal life than say theirs is the one true faith).
- Yet, young adults are also more open to multiple ways of interpreting their religion. Nearly three-quarters of affiliated young adults (74%) say there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their faith, compared with 67% of affiliated adults ages 30 and older.
As I compare my own anecdotal experiences working with people of different ages, beliefs, and identities, I would say that I see much of this in our community. But I also have some other observations about generational differences and religious diversity in a Midwestern context that I have been considering (warning: I am going to generalize):
- People under 40 have grown up exposed to greater levels of religious diversity in their schools, neighborhoods, and in the media than people over 40. I find that many people over 50 are more curious about just learning what different religious groups are out there and what religious diversity is present in our community. The big question they are asking is: “Is there religious diversity in our community, and if so, what is it?” Meanwhile, among people under 40, I find a different question on their minds: “Of course there is religious diversity in our community—so what do we do with it?” It’s easy to assume that because one has grown up around people of different faiths and beliefs that they know more about religious/spiritual diversity. But from my observations, that’s a dangerous and often inaccurate assumption to make. The issue is that just because one is familiar with religious/spiritual diversity doesn’t mean that one knows about religious/spiritual diversity in any meaningful way. This is especially true if you live, like I do, in a community where there are still generally low levels of interaction among people of different faiths and beliefs.
- In general, I see people under 40 defining and deriving a sense of community differently than people over 40. It seems that people over 40 tend to think of community in terms of institutions and formal groups, whereas I think many people under 40 see community more in terms of relationships, and those relationships can take many forms (online or in person) and can be formal or informal. I see this impacting faith communities as we see many younger people gravitating away from faith institutions and forming less formal, more intimate faith communities—whether it’s small-group bible circles at megachurches, the burgeoning “home church” movement, or the growing numbers of alternative settings in which people meet to connect and worship.
What is your experience with religious diversity and generational differences? Do you think generational differences come into play when we talk about bridging understanding among people of different faiths, beliefs and cultures? For those of you in the Midwest, do my observations ring true, or am I delusional from the excessive amount of tea I’ve consumed today?
And if you’re interested in continuing this conversation in person, I do hope you’ll join us at Project Interfaith for our programs with Sumi Loundon Kim. On March 15, she will give her talk “Blue Jean Buddha: Tracing the Generational Differences of Buddhism in America.” On March 16, she will lead a workshop on meditation. (Click on the links to register online.) Both programs are open to the public, so what are you waiting for?