Why Aren’t We Talking More About Spirituality?
For the past five years, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about religious diversity. As a researcher with the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS), I’ve written, presented, and dialogued in countless spaces about the importance of building interfaith knowledge and skills among young adults—our future professional and civic leaders. But as anyone can attest, engaging religious diversity is no simple task. We live in a time when many people are suspicious of religion—particularly religions that are practiced by people who look and think differently than us. These days, contentious political issues fuel, and are fueled by, religious differences. When that’s not happening, we’re often avoiding topics of religion altogether in the name of good manners.
One of the greatest challenges when it comes to religious diversity arises when two people hold diametrically opposing beliefs and deep disagreements can’t be resolved by compromise. If left unchecked, such disagreements can thwart progress toward achieving goals within our shared communities. That’s why, at Interfaith Youth Core, we spend a lot of time encouraging relationship-building across faiths—to cultivate an understanding of one another’s diverse views and find points of common concern where collaboration can flourish. Importantly, IDEALS research has substantiated this approach time and again.
There’s no doubt we need to actively engage religious diversity in order to advance the common good. But lately, another body of research has me asking the question: Why aren’t we also talking more about spirituality? The Fetzer Institute’s recent study of spirituality in the United States confirmed that most Americans consider themselves spiritual despite a growing number who don’t identify as religious, and it revealed that spirituality is connected to civic engagement. According to the 2020 report:
“For many, spirituality also represents the type of person they want to be: People are becoming more spiritual over their own lives, see being spiritual as an aspiration to strive for, and describe spiritual people in positive terms.”
This is a promising trend, considering that highly spiritual people “are more likely to say it is important to make a difference in their communities and contribute to a greater good in the world.” It also offers a counternarrative to Robert Putnam’s (2000) Bowling Alone, which raised alarms about declining participation in churches and other community-based organizations leading to similar declines in civic engagement. Perhaps even more heartening is the revelation that people overwhelmingly describe spiritual people in favorable terms. This stands in stark contrast to negative sentiments that are often expressed and internalized about different religious groups, and it makes me wonder:
If we talked more often about spirituality, would it change the nature of conversations about who we are, what we believe, or—maybe most important of all—what binds us together?
While I believe this question is relevant in society writ large, I am inclined—given my longstanding work with students—to apply it within the collegiate context. Regrettably, most college students aren’t getting involved in campus programs that formalize interfaith engagement: by their fourth year in college, fewer than 15% had participated in interfaith dialogue or training. Yet two-thirds of students in the IDEALS study claimed to be either religious and spiritual or “spiritual but not religious.” If we invited these young adults into interfaith spaces to discuss and enrich their spiritual lives, would they be more inclined to partake?
Our current context and its myriad challenges—from global public health crises to economic hardships to reckonings with racism to climate change—paint a daunting picture of what the future holds for young adults. They need inner strength as well as networks of support to find their footing and tackle such challenges; a heightened focus on spirituality can provide both. According to a seminal study conducted in the mid-2000s, spiritual practices like self-reflection, contemplation, and meditation shape the extent to which students are “able to find meaning in times of hardship.” At the same time, spiritual engagement during college prompts charitable involvement, which encompasses “community service, donating money to charity, and helping friends with personal problems.”
Over a decade ago, this research affirmed that spirituality is essential to college students’ lives. More recently, IDEALS revealed that most of today’s college students continue to see themselves as spiritual. The Fetzer Institute study affirms that spirituality, in all its complexity, continues to shape how most Americans make meaning while simultaneously stimulating what Bob Boisture, president and CEO of Fetzer, dubbed “a profound agency to build the common good.”
In a recent edition of The Pause, Krista Tippett remarked, “Our collective need for a new kind of wholeness might be the only aspiration we can share across all of our chasms right now.” Eventually, we will need to build bridges across those chasms if we are to realize a more inclusive, more just society. Let’s start by talking more about spirituality in hopes that it will throw our shared humanity in sharp relief.
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.