Lost and found

Why America's 80 million-strong Generation X may be losing its religion but finding its soul.

Published October 9, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

If you believe everything you read, the current generation of 20- to 35-year-olds
is rudderless, morally confused, angst-ridden. But when it comes to religion and spirituality, Generation X is already quietly demonstrating a level of maturity that has long eluded its baby boomer parents.

That, at least, is the initial conclusion of Wade Clark Roof, professor of religion and society at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of more than a dozen books on generational trends in religion, including "A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation" and "Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion." Roof is currently working on a book that will compare the religious attitudes and beliefs of Generation X with its predecessors.

Roof shared some of his early anecdotal findings with Salon News in a recent interview:

Is there a cleavage today between religion and spirituality that Generation X is navigating?

In the minds of many Generation Xers, religion is associated with institutions, organizations, traditional conceptions of religion. But spirituality is associated with a personal search and finding purpose and meaning in one's existence.

But for many that's not true, there's a divorce between traditional language and spiritual yearnings, and I think that's a 20th century problem. There are some Generation Xers in organized religion, but the vast majority dont find the traditional language meaningful. They feel there is a discrepancy or cultural lag between institutions and their personal concerns.

So they react by abandoning the institutional side of religion?

They're developing a mind-set that there's not much good there. It's a superficial response  but as human beings, we do respond to our personal experiences with institutions.

We live in this culture of choice where people can carve out a life pretty much how they want it with respect to relationships -- and particularly with religion, which is such a highly individualized thing, you can arrive at your own belief system and develop your own rituals.

This generation is often described as apathetic. If that's true, why would
they care about religion?

In many respects they don't care so much about what they see much of organized religion doing. They've seen some bizarre things that organized religion has been involved in. We've seen many tragic events in the last 10 or 15 years, such as Waco, Texas, the televangelists and some of their scandals; we've seen a lot of publicity about priests and misconduct. There are so many things that would help shape negative impressions of organized religion.

But Generation X seems to be picking and choosing, taking religion and spirituality wherever it can find it.

How does the spiritual path of Generation X differ from boomers?

The patterns are similar, but Xers are more into the visual dimension than boomers were -- visual meaning you've got to see it to believe it, not just hear about it. There's a greater sense of spirituality as a process. It's not something that's stable; it's something that's always evolving. Life is a process, everything's in flux and the visuals and fleeting imagery reinforce that notion.

The menu of options continues to grow, but the old ones are still there. There's a lot of emphasis on one's own experience. Xers are also looking to explore the Internet and visual sources wherever they are. There are a lot of 800 lines out there offering spiritual advice and CD-ROMs to buy. There's been an explosion of resources. But with a greater range of options comes an additional burden because choices can be difficult.

What about popular cultural expressions?

Oh, that is big, and particularly music. Beginning with Madonna, we've seen so much tapping of religious and spiritual imagery, and then we get Joan Osborne with her song about God ["One of Us"]. Music is an idiom, a mode of expression that has great affinity with deep, existential spiritual questions. And we see so many spiritual themes in contemporary popular culture, in the music, if you look to the kinds of rhetoric and the way musicians draw upon religious imagery. The rebellion is not against tradition, but instead against the way these institutions present those traditions.

But is there room in the lives of Generation Xers for tradition?

Much of the evangelical movement is a reclaiming of tradition in a new mode, a new style, so that many evangelical Christians are finding in the Christian heritage a grounding for their lives. It's often recast in highly psychological language. It's very personal, Jesus-and-me kind of language. But clearly the sense of the Bible as a source of some authority and respect for tradition is there. Twenty-five percent of the people in my boomer study had gone evangelical, so we're talking about a sizable proportion of the boomer population, and there are many Xers [who have], too.

Does that happen simultaneously with the rebellion against the way that
institutions have presented religion?

There's a seeming paradox there, but what happens is this mentality I was describing, of skepticism and suspicion about institutions. But here and there one finds a
congregation, or a religious group, that goes against the stereotypes and people discover a lively [experience]. The return to tradition is real, but it's a highly selective retrieval. It's not just buying into all the old ways.

You refer to the baby boom generation as a "generation of seekers." Would
you call Generation X a "generation of finders"?

The seeker metaphor is very real in our time, and I have talked to many
Generation Xers who, it seems to me, are also seekers. But there's a level of understanding developing among Generation Xers that it's not just mindless seeking. There's a desire to develop discipline. To develop real insight, one has to select and then dig deep and explore in that tradition or mode of thinking.

Would you say the boomer search has been shallow?

Boomers in the '70s and early '80s did the more shallow type of seeking. Many Generation Xers grew up seeing the futility of that mindless kind of exploration. Genuine exploration requires a degree of discipline and commitment to exploring and discovering it through practice. Xers are beginning to realize that in ways that boomers did not at a comparable age.

Is Generation X's relationship to religion and spirituality a product of our consumer-driven market?

Spirituality is packaged and repackaged and marketed in incredible ways. People want to get beyond marketing and consumption to something that is real, and yet the stuff they're looking for is also packaged. There are Web sites. I got a brochure yesterday about a conference here [in California] with some new spiritual leader who's just emerged on the scene. It costs 250 bucks. Spiritual seminars within businesses or corporations are big. Spiritual consultants are getting hired. Retreat centers are flourishing like never before. But interestingly it's not the traditional Catholic retreat center, but instead spiritual entrepreneurs who come in and teach a course on enriching marriage or dealing with the death of a child or some kind of feminist seminar, dealing with issues of identity and feeling good about one's self.

But these things we call spiritual are not easily satisfied by materialism. A lot of Gen Xers see through advertising, commodification and consumption. They realize this is just one more big sale, one more thing thrown at us, and that finding genuine satisfaction and self-understanding, meaning and purpose in life involves a deeper search.

Would you call this deeper spiritual searching the dawn of a new era, religiously, for America?

I think many Americans are deeply committed to concerns of the environment, war and peace, the family and personal well-being. Those forces grab us deeply, spiritually,
because they deal with life and purpose and meaning. What I see
now is a level of maturity about those kinds of issues as being fundamental
to life. I also see a struggle with authenticity, that which gets us beyond crass materialism, crass consumption, to real relationships, purpose and meaning. If you want to call that the dawning of a new era, I suppose you could.

So is Generation X more religious or less than its parents?

If you mean by religion participation in organized religion, they come off looking a bit less. If you define religion more in terms of its existential and deeper spiritual meanings then I would be inclined to think that this generation is every bit as religious as any previous

Every generation at the age at which many Xers are in, tend not to have strong affiliations with religious institutions. For every generation in the 20th century that we know anything about, that was the case. It's with marriage and parenting that
people reestablish religious institutional traditions. My hunch is there will be a reduced rate of reestablishing institutional religions. There's been a reduced rate for the boomer
generation, as compared with the pre-boomers at that level of parenting.

By Holly J. Lebowitz

Holly J. Lebowitz, a recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School, is a religion writer in the Boston area.

MORE FROM Holly J. Lebowitz

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