I recently met a confused young woman. Raised by parents who were spiritualists, as an adult, she had adopted a spirituality that most closely aligned with the New Age Movement. She believed each person has their own personal deity. She had not participated in any organized religion for years, and it appeared her current approach was to pick and choose the practices and beliefs of other religions that she found most appealing. When I met her, she expressed difficulty understanding why it was that the god who told her to do something would subsequently block her efforts to do it.
Souls in Transition
In 2005, Christian Smith and Patricia Snell set out to describe the religious development of young adults ages 18-23. In their book, Souls in Transition (Oxford University Press, 2009), they described the results of research where they had interviewed and followed a cohort of teenagers (ages 13-17) over five years. They identified several common themes in this group of emerging adults. Here is a partial list:1
- Most are hopeful about their future and feel confident in themselves, expressing self-reliance and self-sufficiency.
- Many doubt there is an identifiable, objective, shared reality that can serve as a reliable reference point.
- Many believe morality is self-evident and identifiable through common sense. These young adults think they will intuitively know what to do when situations arise.
- The absolute authority for everyone’s beliefs and actions is oneself.
- Resolving moral issues depends on the situation and answers rooted in the beliefs and feelings of the persons involved, not God or an absolute standard.
- While religions ask for commitment and involvement, young adults tend to keep their options open and avoid both of these.
- They honor diversity and believe it is wrong to judge others or their actions.
- Differences between religious options may reflect judgments that deny inclusivity. They can readily accept two religions that have mutually exclusive beliefs.
What has been the result of these trends? The authors also went on to sort emerging adults into one of six religious types:2
Committed Traditionalists (15%). They have a strong religious faith that they can articulate and actively practice.
Selective Adherents (25%). They observe certain aspects of their religious tradition while neglecting or rejecting others.
Spiritually Open (15%). They’re not personally committed to a particular religious faith but remain open to spiritual or religious matters.
Religiously Indifferent (25%). They’re not invested in religion and don’t really think it counts that much.
Religiously Disconnected (5%). They have little exposure to religious people, ideas, or organizations.
Irreligious (15%). They’re skeptical and make critical arguments against religion.
While this data is nearly ten years old, I believe it still accurately represents the religiousness of young adults today.
What can we make of all this? First, while the study group consisted of 18 to 23 year-olds, I think it describes trends we see in other age groups as well. Many people have become like a person who has cut the rope to his boat anchor and is now adrift at sea. Believing that severing ties with the Church would make them free of prejudice and oppressive beliefs, they are in the process of discarding God as He has revealed himself in Sacred Scripture and Apostolic Tradition. In His place, they create a god and religion of their own making.
Contrary to the popular view that every belief and religion is equivalent to any other, the particulars of what we believe and practice have enormous consequences for each person, not the least of which include our salvation and eternal life; the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives; physical, mental, and spiritual health; happiness and peace; our purpose and meaning; how we govern our society and care for its members; and our identity. It’s to this last point I want to draw your attention.
One result of creating a god according to our own image and ego is that we fail to develop an authentic sense of self. God, who is both absolute constant and authority, is THE principle by which we can compare and see ourselves as we really are. Anything else is subject to error and illusion. Carving out idols is nothing new to our world, as human society has done a bang-up job of it throughout recorded history! But instead of manufacturing false gods distinct from ourselves, in our era, we are mastering the ability to make ourselves gods while we systematize and enculturate the process. Living in this milieu puts Christians at risk for falling into the same trap, impacting not only on our self-concept but also our relationship with God and growth as a community of believers.
In the next four blogs, I’m going to look at how we can re-establish a solid center from which we can grow in self-knowledge and authentic discipleship.
1 Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition, Oxford University Press: New York, 2009, pp. 34-83.
2 Ibid, pp. 166-168.