It seems that American youth are redefining what it means to be spiritual, and researchers are interested in discovering what this means for our society.
MU graduate student Anthony James is researching the distinction youth make between spirituality and religion. His initial findings show that youth “define spirituality in terms of positive behaviors, feelings and relationships.”
Although the assumption is that many people are ‘spiritual,’ spirituality is not something that is easy to articulate and define,” James said. “People have a hard time separating spirituality from religion, but the differences are important to understanding behavior and development.
James is most interested in learning how spirituality affects positive youth development in adolescents. He examined youth responses to the question “What does it mean to be a spiritual young person?”
His findings show that youth defined their spiritual behavior as having these characteristics:
- the bond of connections, including those to a higher power (typically God), people and nature.
- a foundation of well-being, including joy and fulfillment, energy and peace
- an impetus for virtue; for example, having motivation to do the right thing and tell the truth.
Although there are few studies about spirituality and religion among youth, Notre Dame scholar Christian Smith has written a book about the role religion plays in the lives of “emerging adults. Sociologists define “emerging adults” as those making the transition from adolescence to adulthood — roughly those between ages 18 and 29.
Smith’s research has found:
- Only 15 percent of emerging adults have a strong personal faith and practice it regularly.
- About 30 percent are engaged inconsistently or loosely affiliated with a religious tradition.
- One in four is indifferent toward religion, while 15 percent are open to spiritual or religious matters but haven’t made a personal commitment.
- The final 15 percent have little or no connection to religion, or hold negative attitudes toward it.
Emerging adults tend to look at church as sort of an elementary school for morals, Smith concludes. Once you’ve got the basics of right and wrong, you eventually “graduate,” perhaps returning when it’s time for your own children to learn elementary morality.
This is a stark contrast to the idea of faith as a permanent, transcendent anchor of meaning amid crashing waves of change. Rather than the source of purpose they seek, these young people see a mere shadow of an important historical role of religious congregations: providing community and support for individuals and families from womb to tomb.
How do you define spirituality as distinct from religion? How can houses of worship help provide support for individuals throughout the stages of their lives? How can parents, adults and counselors help emerging adults find and develop their faith?