Losing their religion or pursuing new paths?

I have written hundreds of magazine articles since I started working as a journalist in 1998, but this piece ranks up there as one of my favourites. It appeared in a Canadian magazine for high school students called What Magazine. I hope to take on the subject of alternative spirituality again. It’s time to put together a query letter.

Losing their religion or pursuing new paths?
By Candice G. Ball 
Source: What Magazine
Date: 4/1/2001

Many Canadian teens are abandoning the religious of their birth right — and seeking out spiritual alternatives. We wanted to know why … and whether this signals the demise of traditional religious.

You won’t find Stephanie Morgan burning crosses or publicly slagging the pope. But dissatisfied with the “rigidity” of her Catholic religious background, 16-year-old Stephanie from Prince George, B.C., is quietly pursuing her own spiritual path — one that is deeply personal and constantly evolving.

She’s not alone. An increasing number of Canadian teens are abandoning the traditional religions of their birthright — usually temporarily, but sometimes permanently — in their quest to seek out spiritual alternatives.

With the buzzing information highway, celebrities’ publicized spiritual journeys and revelations as well as exposure to various religious traditions at school and through friends, today’s teens are perhaps more knowledgeable about their spiritual alternatives than any other generation. This information presents them with the opportunity to explore and discover what feels good and what doesn’t, what answers the big questions that wake them up at night and what leaves those questions unanswered.

Alternative Spiritualities vs. Traditional Religions

Dr. James Mullens, Head of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, says there’s a constant human need for spiritual nourishment and that traditional religions don’t always fulfil that need for teens. “Traditional religions may seem a little old fashioned or like they’re something that belongs to an older generation,” he explains.

Mullens describes alternative forms of spirituality as a way to explore and expand spiritual awareness. In contrast, he describes traditional religion as an orderly, regulated, system. “Religion’s like the bottle; spirituality’s the wine. Religion is the form; spirituality is the content. The problem is there’s too many old, empty bottles lying around that you can’t get much from,” Mullens says. He claims that teens’ journeys are a search for the wine — or the content that keeps things interesting and vital.

Quenching the Thirst

It’s 8:00 a.m. Sunday morning, and your parents are banging at your bedroom door, commanding you to put on your Sunday best and get your butt to church. Later, as you’re half listening to the sermon you’ve heard about nine times before, you decide there’s got to be another path to spiritual enlightenment — one that doesn’t interrupt your prime sleep time. It’s like the cod liver oil experience: you know it’s “good” for you, but you don’t like the taste or the fact you have to swallow it.

Mullens argues that some teens look outside their traditional religions for a couple of reasons. The biggest one is that they were told they had to attend, had to believe. “They were forced to go to church … by their parents — and their parents didn’t really want to go, but felt the kids had to go. Second, teens may be doubtful of the power of spirituality of traditional religions because they’ve seen so many wars ostensibly fought in the name of religion,” he says.

There are other reasons. Stephanie Morgan dislikes the fact that the Catholic Church doesn’t allow women to become priests. “I don’t think it’s right. A woman can be just as in touch with her spirituality and God as men can.” She adds that Catholic views on gays and lesbians reek of homophobia — a phobia she doesn’t appreciate at all in individuals and institutions.

Another Good Reason: A Spiritual Path that Works Your Body

When was the last time you really worked your body when you went to church or synagogue? Sure some Jews put their whole body into prayer — rocking back and forth as they worship — but that type of bodywork has nothing on yoga, tai chi and the martial arts.

Because teens are very body-conscious, Mullens suggests there’s an attraction to the alternative forms of spirituality that incorporate body movement. “We’re not encouraged in most Christian or Jewish beliefs to stimulate our senses and focus on our body; if you’re a Hindu or a Buddhist, they [encourage] you to do yoga or meditation — exercises that are a part of your religion,” Mullens says.

With the growing acceptance of traditional Chinese medicine in Canada, teens aren’t the only ones who are looking Eastward for alternatives or practices that acknowledge the importance of the body, mind and spirit connection. British Columbia now regulates traditional Chinese medicine and it’s rumoured that Ontario may do the same.

Transforming the Self: The New Age Movement

Dating back to the 1980s, the “New Age movement” is hardly new, but today some teens are embracing the wide variety of practices and beliefs this movement straddles. Emphasizing personal transformation and growth, the New Age movement draws from a myriad of other movements and traditions like Theosophy, Eastern religions, the holistic health movement, Native American Shamanistic spirituality and Feminist spirituality. Like other alternative spirituality movements in the West, celebrities like Shirley MacLaine — the actress and author of several New Age books — and talk show host Oprah Winfrey have been big promoters of the movement.

Although Stephanie Morgan is leery of labels, she says New Age is probably the most accurate one to describe her spiritual path. “It is an incorporation of many different beliefs — like the chakras, divination, reincarnation,” Stephanie says.

She believes there are many gods and goddesses at work in the universe and that each person must find his or her own personal god or goddess. “I haven’t found my personal goddess yet, but I believe I’ll find my personal deity,” she says.

As part of her spiritual journey, Stephanie writes about her beliefs and reads voraciously. To date, she’s studied Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and Wicca. Like other New Agers, she believes her spirituality evolves — it’s a process, a journey.

Nature Spirituality: Neo-Paganism and Wicca

Long after the major world religions attempted to snuff out the pagan, nature-oriented religions, teens are finding spiritual meaning rediscovering the ancient paths. In stark contrast to what are said to be God’s words, according to the Book of Genesis, proclaiming man is to have dominion over the fish, birds and every living thing, practitioners of Wicca and pagan religions believe in the interconnectedness of all living things. Plurality and equality are valued; patriarchal rules and hierarchies are frowned upon.

James Greenough was attracted to Wicca — a revival of the old religion of witchcraft — because of the freedom of belief it allowed him. “Not every Wiccan has the same belief, where, in other religions, everyone tends to believe the same thing,” Greenough says. Wiccans place great emphasis on freedom of thought and the will of individuals.

For 17-year-old James, the belief in the Goddess and God is the foundation of his faith, but he adds that the Goddess is more important. He also honours the four elements — earth, air, fire and water — and every aspect of nature. Although Wiccans typically form covens (a gathering or band) and engage in rituals, James doesn’t partake in group gatherings. “I consider myself more of a solitary witch,” explains the teen, also from Prince George, B.C.

He does, however, move natural energies and casts spells. “For me, moving energies involves putting positive energy into a stone and you can later draw upon that energy,” he says. The spells he casts promote well-being, like healing and feelings of love. He adds that he’s a fervent believer in the few rules Wiccans must follow, including never going against someone’s will and never harming anyone when casting a spell.

Designer Spiritualities

Mullens has observed another trend, which he’s pegged “designer spiritualities.” “Today we have a lot of choices. People are designing their own dimension[s] that arrive out of the alternatives that are out there,” he says.

On one end of the spectrum, there are devout Christians and Jews who dabble in alternative spiritualities — though they may not be aware they’re dabbling. They may gain strength and wisdom from the Bhagavad-Gita (a widely known Hindu text) or embrace the Chinese notion of yin and yang (the harmonious interaction of the passive, earthly, feminine force in nature — yin — and the active, heavenly male force — yang). Does this mean they’ve given up their religion? Absolutely not. “[Many] Christians read their horoscopes,” Mullens says. I don’t think that horoscopy has anything to do with Christianity and, during certain times, would’ve been considered a black art, but people read their horoscopes and they haven’t given up their belief in God.”

Kimberly Commodore has no problem reconciling the fact that although she’s a devout Christian, she feels more spiritual when surrounded by nature. The 16-year-old from The Pas, MB admits she feels more in tune with her spirituality in a forest or near a lake than she does at church. “It’s more natural. I feel uptight in church, with people watching my every move and telling me what to do.”

Kimberly views the earth as a living and breathing entity, so it’s hardly surprising she feels most at peace when she’s alone with Mother Earth. Every day, she ensures she’s doing all she can to protect the planet. “I don’t litter. I recycle. I want to preserve the earth. It feels good to know I’m doing something that’ll help every day.” The fact that she attends the United Church, while holding what were once considered pagan beliefs, doesn’t cause her to lose a second of sleep.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are people who completely reject their former religion and pick and choose from the alternatives available, literally designing their own religion. “There are people who say, `Okay, I’ll have nothing to do with my previous Christian or Jewish religious background. I have a statue of the Buddha, a statue of the Mother Goddess and I’m a vegetarian and I like to go to the Summer Solstice,” Mullens explains.

Does he find the mixing of traditions troublesome? Not at all. In fact, he sees rhyme and reason in it given that we live in a multicultural society, which encourages the acceptance of others. So why not religion too?

It’s Usually Better If Parents Butt Out

If you’re dancing around in the living room, wearing a necklace made of chicken feet or casting wicked spells on your family and peers, your parents are going to try and put an end to your spiritual journey.

But the reality is the vast majority of teens aren’t attracted to the dark side. Like Stephanie, teens are reading about Buddhism, Taoism and nature-centred religions. They’re figuring out what yin-yang means in their own lives, or if they feel closer to their God in church or in nature.

Stephanie’s parents have no qualms about her exploration of alternative spiritualities. “Sure, they’d prefer it if I remained a Catholic, but they’re very supportive of my studies. They want me to know what’s out there and to make informed choices,” she says.

And why shouldn’t they? Set against the creepy hiss of a modem, the bleeps and blips of computers and the constant drone of TV talk — the soundtrack in most Canadian homes — a teen contemplating a mantra is likely music to most parents’ ears.

Mullens believes most spiritual exploration is healthy and important. “We live in a very pressured, goal-oriented and materially focused world. We don’t feel good about ourselves unless we’re acquiring more stuff,” Mullens concedes. As he discusses our industrialized, computerized, mechanized society, he can’t hide his smile when he returns to the subject at hand — teens who are concerned about their spiritual well-being and are doing something about it. He stops short of yelling, “Bravo” and says it’s indeed good.

But will all these explorations put churches and synagogues “out of business?” Mullens says no way. He anticipates the majority of teens who have explored alternative spiritualities will return to their traditional religion when they get married and have their own children.

In the meantime, one could argue that alternative spiritualities are providing healthy competition to traditional religions that are no longer speaking to teens.

“There’s nothing dangerous about looking at Eastern religions or following Wiccan practices. I’m more inclined to think that traditional religions are recognizing the spiritual thirst out there and it’s healthy for traditional religions because they’re having to wake up and smell the patchouli,” Mullens says.

Certainly, many Christian and Jewish leaders have recognized it’s time to dust off the old texts and present teens with more palatable versions of Christianity and Judaism — and, of course, some ventures into nature, more music and poetry wouldn’t hurt.

But if the New Form Fits … Celebrate

Most teens — and adults — don’t pursue alternative spiritualities because they think it’s the cool thing to do. Searching for a form that fits comes from a deeper place — the restless place with the dry tongue and tough questions: How do I make sense of the world? How do I find the good in a world that seems so messed up? How do I feel at peace in my own skin?

One of the great things about spiritual exploration is that a few people will find precisely what they were looking for and won’t experience that spiritual thirst again. James Mullens and Stephanie Morgan are in complete agreement that when it comes to spirituality, ignorance isn’t necessarily bliss. “Let people explore and choose. You may find out that you’re a Taoist, or a Buddhist or a Jew. You may find that’s the form most suitable for your temperament,” Mullens says.

Stephanie is also a big believer in self-education and exploration. “The more I read about different religions, the more I evolve spiritually. I think it helps me grow. People who say `I’m Catholic and that’s it’ probably haven’t studied other religions. Maybe they’d be happier being a Buddhist monk,” Morgan says.

Maybe they would be.

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