Eighteen teenagers jot down on colorful Post-It notes their one-word impressions of the eight religions listed on the poster boards in front of them. Some show no reservations as they work their way quickly down the list, while others hesitate to put down their thoughts for fear of appearing intolerant or ignorant. Is this a Bible study class? No, it’s just another monthly meeting of the Arizona Interfaith Youth Movement – a safe, inclusive gathering to which youths of all faiths are encouraged to come together in dialogue, games, and of course, food!
“What if I’ve never heard of this religion?” asks one of the teens? “That’s ok – just write down the first thing that comes to your mind,” I reply. As the Youth Director, I’m pleased to see the seriousness which has settled over this group – they’re sincerely giving this activity their full attention since it’s partly a challenge to their general knowledge as well as an opportunity to share the ‘truth’ of their religious beliefs. The eight religions I randomly chose contain some familiar to all, but I’ve also thrown in some lesser known beliefs as well: Catholicism, Islam, Atheism, Sikhism, Christian Science, Buddhism, Judaism, and Church of Scientology. The teens stick up their impressions on the poster boards, grab a water bottle or cookie, and then return to their seats. I survey the range of words listed by each religion and ask for a volunteer to come up and read aloud the results…somewhat surprised by the religion which has elicited the most negative comments from this diverse group…
According to the Pew Forum’s 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 83% of Americans identify themselves as belonging to an organized religion, however, “people not affiliated with any particular religion stand out for their relative youth compared with other religious traditions. Among the unaffiliated, 31% are under age 30 and 71% are under age 50. More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion – or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.” What accounts for this conflict within those of faith – on the one hand, they identify themselves as being religious even if it means they’ve left the religion of their childhood, while on the other hand, as Americans age, they seem to leave organized religion behind them?
Is this search for spiritual fulfillment a trend which begins in their youth? As a Sunday School teacher at the Scottsdale Mosque for the past seven years – I’ve observed the diversity in faith from the Kindergarteners all the way up to the seniors in high school. Depending upon their home environment, these kids either skip cheerfully into Sunday School or drag themselves reluctantly into their seats – testing the limits of the dress code which stresses modesty by tugging their T-shirts down to cover their bare midriffs or yanking the required head-scarf into place. How much of their lessons will these teens remember when faced with the overwhelming secularism of their public school environment in which the age-old tensions of peer pressure and cliques rule the day? Religion remains a personal issue – rightly so – but is there a safe space for teens who are interested in exploring their faith beliefs? A brief glance at the teen non-fiction aisle in any Borders or Barnes & Noble reveals the abundance of faith-based books aimed at teens. From Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism – even a Wiccan guidebook – the variety is astounding! So teens are seeking answers through the privacy and safety of books, but is this education encouraging them to leave their parents’ beliefs behind as they discover other traditions?
As our inter-faith meeting continues, my son volunteers to read aloud the comments posted on the board under Islam – his own faith group. “Violent, weird clothes, brain-washed…,” his voice is subdued as he slowly goes through the impressions. “Tourist? Hey Mom, look, they think Muslims are tourists – that’s pretty neat!” I walk over and read the note for myself – turns out he misread the word ‘tourist’ – the correct reading is ‘terrorist’. We briefly review the major tenets of each religion in order to correct misperceptions and reduce stereotypes. Buddhism received the most positive comments by a landslide – even though only one of the kids knew a Buddhist personally. And which religion received the most negative comments? No, not Islam…it was Atheism. Turns out that even if kids switch allegiance from one faith group to another – the thought of not living a life of faith scared them most of all.