Less religion does not necessarily mean less faith
Junior Jeremy Li, a native of southern China, remembers his mother would go to late-night meetings with professors at Jinan University. One night, when he was 11 years old, his mother nonchalantly invited him to accompany her. Li discovered that these were small, secret meetings of Christians and people interested in Christianity.
“Hearing a bunch of university professors saying that we’re created by God … was the most astounding thing to me,” Li said.
It was the first time Li had ever heard anyone discuss a doctrine that conflicted with Communist doctrine.
“Growing up in China, I was being taught [Chinese Communist] Revolutionary theory that we evolved from monkeys,” Li said.
Li and his mother converted to Christianity in 2004 and his father in 2006. Li considers himself a non-denominational Protestant.
“I was so compelled to say yes … I felt I was chosen by God,” Li said.
Li said his parents’ marriage was falling apart before they converted, but the spiritual growth that ensued strengthened his family’s bond.
When Li was about to move to the United States to study at Ithaca College for four years, he was excited to explore a society that he assumed was primarily Christian. But his expectations did not match up with the un-Christian behavior he witnessed on campus.Li was discovering the disconnect between religious values and personal lifestyles in United States culture.
The Pew Research Center reported in 2012 that 20 percent of all Americans and a third of Americans under the age of 30 do not identify with a particular religion.
However, not all young people who do not identify with a religion are atheist; 14 percent of Americans said they simply do not want to associate with a single denomination but still believe in God.
According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 80 to 90 percent of Americans across all demographics believe in God, though about 10 percent of participants said they believe in a universal spirit, not necessarily the Abrahamic God, when given the option.
From this data, one can infer that there is an emerging movement of young people in the United States who are questioning the purpose of religious institutions, but there is still much diversity in whether they reject or embrace spirituality.
Li was happy to find the IC Protestant Community, within which he finds solidarity.
“When you are in this community, you realize you are not alone, you are not the only one feeling this helplessness and frustration,” he said.
Reverend James Touchton, the chaplain for the IC Protestant Community, said he enjoys his job, in which he meets many Christians from all sorts of upbringings who come to him with questions about religion, faith and the nature of God.
“Spiritual development is a part of education and growing up,” Touchton said. “Many times, churches discourage people from actually being willing to question [their beliefs] and college is a time when people are more inclined to do so.”
Listening to the existential crises and the hard questions of students taught him firsthand about how young Americans grow spiritually.
“I try not to [just give answers]. I try to match questions as much as possible,” Touchton said.
One of the most common questions students bring to him regards sexuality, such as how to treat homosexuality, he said.
“Maybe this is first time these students are making friendships with people who are LGBTQ and so all of sudden it’s a little bit more personal for them,” Touchton said. “And their beliefs start to bother them – and sometimes they don’t.”
Touchton grew up in mostly homogenous Baptist communities in Louisiana and Texas. He recounted that after leaving seminary and coming from Atlanta, Georgia, to IC in 2010, he became more aware of the interplay between Christian denominations.
“I’ve tried to build a few bridges, … but despite that, we have the hardest time getting people sometimes to support our ministry – from both sides,” he said.
Churches may think the IC Protestant Community is either too liberal or too conservative, and will not attend services or support the community financially, Touchton explained.
He added that many of the students he has met with have expressed frustration with how politically polarized Christian denominations have become.
“[Students] have grown up with the bickering and the fighting and the splitting,” Touchton said. “They view denominations as an example of how Christians are not together.”
Though denominations face a decrease in enthusiasm by young believers, Touchton maintains that they also provide benefits.
“I don’t think that many people quite realize the advantages that denominations can have in terms of providing a healthy and encouraging atmosphere, providing identity, family, support and accountability for pastors,” Touchton said.
Perhaps to combat the perception of Christians being gridlocked in hyper-pluralism, young Christians tend to follow their own interpretations of the Bible and the doctrines of each denomination.
Junior Amber Thibault also grew up Catholic, but she had a change of heart when she began to pursue spiritual growth more seriously in college and now identifies as a non-denominational Protestant Christian.
Thibault said that when she was young, she regarded her religion as a set of traditions for the sake of having tradition, but not a commitment.
“Until college, I didn’t even feel like I was lacking anything in my life,” Thibault said.
During freshman year and the first semester of her sophomore year, her personal and academic struggles caused her to realize the importance of God in her life.
“I felt so broken and convicted in that my own efforts and my own humanity were just not enough,” Thibault said. “I accepted that Christ died for me and that He is more than enough to fill in where I lack.”
Freshman Nolan Hurst had a similar deepening in his understanding of God’s presence. When he was young, Hurst used to think of God as being limited to the inside of a church. But later in life, when he was on a religious retreat in New Mexico, a thunderstorm suddenly began, forcing everyone to spread out. It was the first time Hurst was afraid for his life.
“For a few minutes, I felt really alone inside because there was nobody around me; and then something changed inside of my thinking and what I was believing, and I realized that I wasn’t alone. I felt that God was with me,” Hurst said. “From that day on, I started to be able to see God in everything and everyone.”
Hurst was raised Catholic and he explained that while his parents gave him room to explore religions, though they wanted him to at least believe in some higher power. Hurst decided of his own volition to continue to practice Catholicism.
Before coming to IC, Hurst attended Catholic schools, where he had theology classes that taught about other religions, not just Catholicism. Studying other religions led Hurst to believe that there are multiple paths to God, even if someone does not identify as Christian.
“You can’t fully understand your own beliefs until you learn a little bit more about someone else’s, so you can challenge your own beliefs to be able to strengthen your faith,” Hurst said.
One of the most important aspects of religion to Hurst is the communal spirit it fosters. Hurst finds support in the IC Catholic Community as well as the Interfaith Council.
“I don’t feel isolated at all,” he said. “And what’s cool about it is that we’re not all one certain belief … we span the spectrum.”
That community extends beyond the campus. The structure of the Catholic church enriches Hurst’s faith. Hurst said he does not base his philosophical beliefs solely on the word of the Pope, but he holds Pope Francis as an inspiring figure in his life.
“You can tell just by the way he looks out into a crowd, or when he goes to shake somebody’s hand, he genuinely wants to know them,” Hurst said. “I can learn some things from what he does and says, but he doesn’t dictate … what I personally believe.”
Throughout his life, Hurst has strengthened his connection to the Christian faith by not only learning more about Christian theology, but also by contributing to charity and doing volunteer service.
“Service is what makes faith real,” Hurst said.
Thibault, Li and Hurst all gain support among fellow Christians even though they are not the majority on campus. Because Christianity is not mainstream in China, Li feels Christianity in China is more sincere.
“Learning and talking about Christianity is this free gift,” he said. “You just went to somebody’s house. … It was very informal, and I didn’t see a lot of the worldly formalities that we see so often in other social occasions.”
Before attending the Christian meeting, Li did not believe in other religions in China, primarily Buddhism, which he believed had become too institutionalized. The more institutionalized a religion was, the less real the religion seemed to him.
“If you go to a temple, they have donation boxes and they tell you, ‘if you donate this much money, the Buddha will listen you and will make your wishes come true and bless your family, you just gotta pay,’” Li said.
Christianity is experiencing a rebirth in the atheist country ever since the party began loosening prohibitions on religion and economics in the 1970s. However, Li said he is nervous about the institutionalization of Christianity throughout China.
“I see pastors who are unwilling to take a pay cut because they’re getting obsessed with money,” Li said. “The church itself is becoming more like a corporation. People are fighting each other because of personal pride, instead of what’s best for the community and what God wants.”
But Li said that he maintains faith in Christianity because he sees that there are good Christians, both laypeople and clergy, around the country and the world who act in God-pleasing ways.
“I was pretty discouraged [by the situation in China], but on the other hand I also see a lot of people and pastors who are true followers of God, who devote their time and their energies to helping other people, helping the less fortunate,” he said.
Christians face the accusation that they are allowing the influx of Western culture into China, but Li said that his devotion to Christianity does not intersect with his view towards the West and the United States. Indeed, Li is opposed to the invasion of capitalistic values into China, which he believes Christianity opposes.
“[Chinese] people are getting more absorbed in this self-made man notion; they are being so encapsulated into capitalistic societal norms,” Li said. “Jesus, when He came to Earth, He didn’t hang around the wealthy people. He went to look for the lowest of the low and He spent time with them.”
Despite his criticism for more institutionalized Chinese Buddhism, Li acknowledges that cultural perception and role of Buddhism in the United States is significantly different than in China.
“After I came to the U.S., I took some religion classes and I realized [the monetary aspect] is not what Buddhism is about at all, that the people in China just twisted the meaning,” Li said.
Given the personalization of faith in the United States, the lack of institutionalization does not prevent Americans from seeking religions other than large Christian denominations. Buddhism is the fourth most popular religious affiliation in the United States, behind Christianity, Judaism and “no affiliation.”
Senior Kevin Walker has been practicing Theravada Buddhism for three years. He began to study religions after he felt that there was something in life that he was missing.
“I wouldn’t say [it was] like depression,” Walker said. “It felt like I was just walking around and I didn’t have any purpose in life other than just being there and that made me feel very uncomfortable.”
Since his childhood, his parents took a “hands-off approach” to religion with him and his sister. Walker said his sister became Christian, but he felt that Buddhism was more compatible with what he believed and wanted to achieve spiritually.
“I’m not a big fan of external beings influencing my life. I have a very internal locus of power, to use the psychological term.” Walker said. “It’s not the path for everyone, but … I’m pretty certain that the path that the Buddha pointed out is the path that I would eventually go on [anyway].”
Walker dedicates himself to studying Buddhism, especially on holidays, so that he can answer any questions students bring to the services on Tuesdays.
While Walker extols the importance of finding one’s own path, he believes that the importance of tradition is lost on many newcomers. Practitioners tend to have only a general understanding of Buddhist tenets, he said.
“Buddhism’s role in the West is still very young, especially in America,” Walker said. “It is popular, but people like to combine it with other faiths. … Buddhist beliefs become just supplementary.”
The growth of Buddhism and the personalization of Christian faith is signatory of young Americans’ changing attitudes towards religion. Even among Christians, skepticism of the strictness of religion engenders a desire to grow spiritually on a personal level. Though not all people have abandoned tradition, the spirit of the millennial generation in the United States is that faith should arise from within individuals, not that religious authorities should impose faith upon them.
Michael Tkaczevski is a sophomore journalism major who lost his faith in Santa Claus at a tragically young age. He can be contacted at mtkacze1[at]ithaca.edu.