Nineteen million young Americans, designated as SBNR, unknowingly hold core beliefs and practices that resemble Hinduism
BY LAUREN VALENTINO, NORTH CAROLINA
EVEN THE CASUAL STUDENT OF HISTORY will observe what looks like a trend toward secularization in the modern world. According to data from the General Social Survey, thirty years ago all but 7% of Americans identified themselves as religious. Today that figure stands closer to 20%. What’s more, scholars generally agree that over the last few centuries, religion has become less important in the public life of industrialized countries.
These two trends—declining religiousness among people, and declining religious authority among nation-states—form what social scientists call “the secularization thesis:” with the inevitable march of modernity, technological progress and scientific discoveries steadily close the gap between the explained and the unexplained, leaving little room for the existence of any divine or mystical forces. Theologians use the term “God of the gaps” in describing the theory that unexplained phenomena provide the evidence for God’s existence. The fact that some things in this world cannot otherwise be explained is this theory’s proof of a Divine.
So, do these trends mean that people are abandoning religion and moving towards atheism? Not really. The most recent study on American religion, conducted by the Pew Research Center, found that fully 89% of Americans believe in God, and only 3% consider themselves atheists. A steadily growing proportion of the US population identify as “agnostic” or “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). Scholars of religion term this group “nones” (having no religious affiliation). This group now includes about 29% of all people in the United States. Society may have become less religious, but it has become more spiritual.
What, exactly, does spirituality entail? Scholars define spirituality as the set of beliefs governing one’s relation to the self, to others and to God. It is a person’s stance about the meaning of life, the degree of connectedness to other beings, and their hopes for the future.
Where religiosity in the Western experience is about embracing specific doctrines and publicly participating in formal religious institutions, in the East it is more closely married to spirituality. In fact, many among the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd see religious institutions, such as churches and synagogues, as hindering spirituality, rather than enhancing it.
For Abrahamic religious traditions—Christianity, Islam and Judaism—this divide between religion and spirituality makes sense. These traditions have a history of building vast empires on the basis of a complex, top-down power structure. They have developed intricate training programs for clergy to minister to the faith’s adherents. Their texts contain admonitions about the importance of belonging to a congregation and what duties membership entails. These are, in essence, public religions that expect public actions and commitments from their members.
No wonder Abrahamic faith leaders tend to be wary of the SBNR trend. Michael Horton, creator of White Horse Inn, a popular online Christian magazine, warns fellow Christians, “There is a problem in being too spiritual. You are an idolater. This particular person, Jesus of Nazareth, is God in the flesh. Not all this spiritual stuff. Not a sacred cosmos. Not everything is holy, not everything is spiritual, not everything is sacred.”
By contrast, in the Dharmic faiths there is little division between religion and spirituality. These religions have a relatively flat organizational hierarchy. They see enlightenment as a personal spiritual journey that requires no clergy. Being a good Buddhist, Hindu, Jain or Sikh does not require attending regular religious services, belonging to a congregation or donating part of one’s income to the faith. Dharmic traditions are structured more to prioritize individual spiritual progress than public commitments to religious identity.
The West has seen surging interest in Dharmic religious beliefs and practices. In 2009, an editorial in NEWSWEEK proclaimed, “We are all Hindus now.” The author, Lisa Miller, asserted that Americans are gradually becoming more Hindu because of our growing belief in religious pluralism (that multiple religions can lead to eternal truth). She observed that today many Americans believe in reincarnation and cremate their deceased. Miller’s insight led me to want to know more. As a social scientist, I wondered: To what extent can we characterize the growing spiritual-but-not-religious population as being, essentially, Dharmic in their practices and beliefs? Furthermore, how aware are SBNRs that what they are practicing is fundamentally Dharmic in origin and nature?
To answer these questions, I turned to the National Study of Youth and Religion—the most comprehensive data available on the religious views of young Americans. This is a nationally representative survey of youth between 23 and 29 years old, containing in-depth interviews with a subset of the survey-takers. The data was collected in 2012 by a group of researchers from the University of North Carolina, the University of Notre Dame and several other leading universities around the country. Using this unique data set, I examined the prevalence of the SBNR trend, the similarities between SBNR views and practices and those of Dharmic faith practitioners, and the degree to which these youth recognize such similarities.
I found that fully 62% of young people in the US consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” in some way; and 25% of these youth have rejected views that are explicitly Abrahamic: they don’t believe Jesus was the son of God, nor that there will come a judgment day when God punishes some and rewards others. But just how Dharmic is this one-quarter of spiritual young people in their beliefs and practices?
It is difficult to define a religion’s views. Hinduism in particular is heterogeneous by nature. But the essential Hindu beliefs include the interconnectedness of the universe, the cyclical nature of life, and the omnipresence of the Divine. All the Dharmic faiths teach that there are many paths to truth, and no one religion holds a monopoly on that truth. Further, they all encourage people to care for other beings, to minimize harm, and to do so selflessly, without any expectation of reward.
The data clearly showed that the majority of these spiritual youth subscribe to Dharmic views about the influence of stars and planets on peoples’ fates (56%) and the existence of reincarnation (76%). A plurality believe that God is like a cosmic life force (44%) or a personal being (12%). Most young SBNRs also hold a Dharmic view on the role of religion: they do not believe in proselytizing (82%), they are religiously tolerant toward other faiths (88%), and they think it’s okay to incorporate diverse religious views into one’s personal spiritual practice (80%).
The vast majority say they personally care about equality between racial groups (86%), the needs of elderly people (88%), and the needs of the poor (82%). This concern demonstrates an intuitive understanding of the Dharmic principle of karma, the universal law that one’s actions, thoughts and intentions will ultimately come back in some way. Sixty-seven percent of SBNRs reported having engaged in community service or volunteering, called seva among Dharmic faiths.
A nontrivial proportion of these young people said they have practiced explicitly Dharmic spiritual techniques. Thirty-one percent said they try to include Buddhist, Hindu, Zen or other Asian practices in their spirituality. Twenty-seven percent reported practicing meditation. Eleven percent have fasted or practiced self-denial as a spiritual discipline.
If we assume the researchers were successful in selecting a nationally representative group to study and apply this study’s findings to the much larger US millennial population (people born between 1982 and 2004, ages 13 to 35), about 75 million people today, we can estimate that 19 million young people hold Dharmic spiritual views and engage in Dharmic spiritual practices.
Let us redefine secularization in our own way. Could we say that it is a movement away from Abrahamic religious institutions toward Dharmic ways of life? These statistics on spiritual practices and beliefs seem to say yes. However, according to Pew, less than 2% of Americans identify with a Dharmic religion, such as Hinduism or Buddhism. I wondered how these young spiritual people regard themselves. Do they recognize that many of their beliefs and practices are derived from Dharmic texts and traditions dating back thousands of years? Do they realize that their own spiritual lives resemble, in many way, those of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs around the world?
To answer these questions, I drilled down into the second part of the data from the National Study of Youth and Religion: the interviews. Here I was able to see how these young Americans talk and think about their spiritual practices and beliefs.
While most did not acknowledge the source of their beliefs and practices, these young people described their own spiritual lives as filled with practices that are, in fact, profoundly Dharmic. A young woman who lives in a trailer out in the country with her common-law husband and two young children practices meditation and mindfulness on a daily basis, and credits this with curing her of anxiety and panic attacks. Another woman, who works in renewable energy, does yoga as a spiritual practice and regularly chants a Sanskrit mantra using mala beads. A thoughtful man who goes to school while bartending part time says he enjoys reading Hindu texts like the Mahabharata. A young massage therapist reads about tantric philosophy in her spare time. A Hispanic woman who grew up Catholic is a yoga instructor and plans to pursue a career in Ayurvedic medicine.
The beliefs these young people hold dear are the very core of Hinduism. Many explicitly say they believe in karma, dharma, reincarnation or seva. A chef who left the church after coming out as a lesbian shared that her belief system centers on the notion of karma, which to her means “do good things for other people and good things will come to you generally.” A hard-working woman who just finished medical school expresses her purpose in life as finding happiness and helping others to do the same. Although she doesn’t use the term dharma, she acknowledges that she adopted this as her life purpose after reading the Dalai Lama’s writings. A professional dancer articulates her belief in reincarnation as a way for our spirit to continue learning from wherever we left off in our previous life. A young man who lives in the inner city and works handling cargo at the airport is dedicated to selfless service and says his spiritual role model is Gandhi.
I also noticed that so many of these young people described yearning for a community of like-minded individuals who value these kinds of practices and beliefs. The tantra-reading massage therapist says she’s been actively searching for a community that also prioritizes spirituality in every aspect of life. A freelance artist wants to teach his future children the practices of mindfulness and meditation. An insurance salesman who grew up Catholic but now meditates regularly reported that he misses the rituals, tradition and culture that religion provided him when he was younger. A young man who practices what he describes as Native American/Buddhist/Zen spirituality shares that he would love to get involved with people who have similar views if he could only find such a group in his area.
Despite their often-overtly Dharmic religious views, these youth generally do not identify as Buddhist, Hindu, Jain or Sikh. Only 8.7% of interviewees identified as out-and-out Hindu or Buddhist. The rest called themselves “agnostic,” “atheist,” “Wiccan,” “culturally Catholic,” “Lutheran,” “spiritual,” “spiritual-but-not-religious,” “Christian” and “New Age.” In fact, most refer to their views as “Eastern,” “New Age” or “hippie.” They seem unaware that the concepts of karma and reincarnation and the practices of meditation and yoga originated in Hinduism. One intense young financial analyst states that he regards his frequent practice of yoga as a religious practice because it helps his conscious mind speak to the rest of his body. Yet, later in the interview he says, “I don’t know anything about Hinduism.” He is completely unaware of the rich history of yoga as a Hindu practice.
This ignorance is understandable: most respondents learned these beliefs and practices in settings which did not credit them to Hinduism. Five main sources are identified in the study: school, work, yoga classes, books, and practicing Hindus or Buddhists. Those who were exposed during their schooling typically took a course on religion or philosophy during college or high school, but a few also learned meditative techniques while in rehab treatment centers for addiction.
Then there were those who worked at places with an explicit focus on health of the mind and body. For instance, the clinic where the young massage therapist works was decorated with Buddha statues and every room was named after a different deity; another interviewee was raised Muslim but worked for some time at a holistic health center that taught classes on spiritual rituals, including reiki and yoga. In fact, a great many interviewees were exposed through yoga. The interviewee who works as a yoga instructor had to read the Yoga Sutras as part of her training. She also bought a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, which she plans to start studying soon. Some interviewees learned about Dharmic ideas and practices through books, both fiction and nonfiction. For instance, a young man who works stocking shelves at a grocery store said Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums was an important influence on his views. Notably, very few interviewees’ entry point to Dharmic views and techniques was through a practitioner of the religion itself. Most, in fact, didn’t seem to think they knew anyone who practiced a Dharmic faith, and those who did tended to mention a friend or family member who had dabbled in Buddhism.
Why do so few of these young people call themselves Hindu (or Buddhist or Jain or Sikh) when, as we’ve seen, their religious views resemble these faiths? The interview data provides fascinating insight into this dilemma.
The most obvious answer here is that these young SBNRs are ignorant about Dharmic religions. Indeed, ignorance is an important piece of the puzzle. Even among the young spiritual seekers in these interviews, the vast majority were simply unfamiliar with Hinduism and other Dharmic faiths. As I showed, most were exposed to elements of this tradition not in the context of Hinduism or Buddhism, but as, for instance, the disjointed practice of meditation or as the isolated concept of dharma. These interviewees have little to no contact with Dharmic practitioners in their everyday lives. They are simply not exposed to Dharmic faiths as the source and context for much of what they’ve come to practice and believe.
The ignorance I noticed among the interviewees is consistent with evidence on Americans’ exposure to other religions generally. Another Pew study found that among all religious groups, Americans have the least familiarity with Hinduism, closely followed by Buddhism. Only 22% of Americans say that they know someone who is a Hindu, whereas 61% of Americans report knowing someone who is a Jew (even though Jews make up only 1.9% of the population!). Because most of the interviewees don’t know a Hindu or Buddhist, they have no way of knowing that they share so many core beliefs and practices with Hindus and Buddhists around the world.
But we can’t simply expect SBNR youth to learn about Buddhism and Hinduism by taking the initiative to seek out Dharmic practitioners or information about these faiths. For one, these religions remain for many “unknown unknowns.” That is, they remain in the realm of things which these young people don’t know that they don’t know. But more importantly, the interviews with these young spiritual seekers show that everything they’ve learned about religion, faith and spirituality prevents them from seeking out Dharmic religions as a solution to their yearning.
Because their entire experience of religion has been Abrahamic, they understand the word religion to mean a very public affair, prone to corruption and often imposed on others—a rigid, even intolerant belief system which is fundamentally anti-science and therefore out of step with modern knowledge. When SBNRs envision religion, what leaps to their minds are features of religion that are either explicitly or implicitly Christian, Muslim or Jewish in nature.
As a result, they strongly distinguish religion from spirituality. In fact, they speak of spirituality as diametrically opposed to their Abrahamic notion of religion. To them, religion is public, spirituality is private. Religion implies seeing things as black or white; spirituality involves a willingness to engage with life’s gray areas. Religion is intolerant toward other faiths; spirituality allows seekers to incorporate whatever tools, techniques or texts from other faiths that may be useful in their journey.
This stark conception of religion-versus-spirituality may also partially explain the movement away from Hinduism among young Hindus in the United States. A 2014 Pew study found that 20% of people who grow up Hindu eventually leave the faith. Could they be identifying as spiritual-but-not-religious due to lack of knowledge about how Hinduism differs from the Abrahamic religions? As the Research Fellow for Hindu Life at Duke University, I recently conducted a survey of young Hindu undergraduates in an attempt to answer this question. I found that a full three-quarters consider themselves spiritual-but-not-religious. Moreover, this trend was more prominent among undergrads who were born in the US.
This suggests that the religion-versus-spirituality dichotomy is something one subconsciously absorbs when growing up in Christian-dominated America. In India, on the other hand, all but 0.1% of the population identify as religious, according to India’s most recent census. All the scientific evidence suggests that the SBNR trend—at least at present—is a uniquely American phenomenon.
The strong separation between religion and spirituality—as young Americans understand it—applies to Abrahamic faiths, but makes little sense in the context of Dharmic religions, which are more spiritual by nature. Thus, for many of these SBNR youth, opposition to religion is not a rejection of religion writ large. What many of these young people do not yet realize is that they are opposed to those religions that do not encourage the spirituality that they practice or believe. They have yet to discover that their spiritual understandings are basically Dharmic.
So, how to break through the strong false dichotomy in which religion and spirituality are fundamentally opposed in young Americans’ minds? Such a breakthrough would require Dharmic faiths to make a major intervention into public perception. The research clearly suggests that there is a deep need for educating people about what Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism are. Only then will people begin to change their understandings of the entire concept of religion. Then Dharmic traditions can go from an “unknown unknown” to a “known unknown,” and, ideally, to a “known known.”
According to what I’ve uncovered in these analyses, it seems like Buddhism may be on the right track. The fact that some of the young people interviewed referred to any Dharmic belief or practice as “Buddhist” suggests that people are perhaps beginning to gain familiarity with that faith. Moreover, what little familiarity they have with Buddhism has planted the seeds for them to question whether religion and spirituality need to be divorced in their minds.
We need visible, familiar representations of the Dharmic faiths and their adherents. Compared with other faiths, Hinduism and Buddhism are vastly underrepresented on Americans’ screens. According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), a comprehensive online database of all television and film, there are 2,178 shows or movies featuring Christianity, 1,200 featuring Judaism, and 893 featuring Islam. By contrast, there are only 419 shows or films featuring Buddhism and a paltry 260 featuring Hinduism. Because Dharmic faith is largely absent from the American mediascape, people who do not grow up in a Hindu or Buddhist household are unlikely to ever get an accurate understanding of either religion—let alone Jainism or Sikhism.
We can use the known entry points of school, work, yoga and books to provide important context for teaching about Hindu practices and beliefs. Some progress has already been made: a few American universities, such as my own, have created a Hindu Chaplain position. These chaplains coordinate events for Hindus on campus and also work toward greater awareness about Hinduism among all members of the college community.
As it stands, we simply don’t know what most people (mis)understand Dharmic religions to be, so it’s difficult to know where to begin in educating the American populace. Like the Jews, Muslims and other minority religious groups in the US, Hindus should band together to fund original research studies to understand the sociology of Hinduism in America from a Dharmic perspective.
The best data we currently have on the SBNR trend suggest that Dharmic beliefs and practices are widespread among the 19 million young Americans who consider themselves spiritual but not religious. These young people believe in reincarnation, samsara, ahimsa, karma and dharma. They engage in seva; they practice yoga and vipasana; they chant Sanskrit mantras over mala beads; they meditate regularly; they read the Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharata, the Yoga Sutras and Tantric Buddhist texts.
These young people typically draw a stark line between religion and spirituality because—especially in the West—they associate religion so strongly with the Abrahamic faiths. Because of this limited understanding, these seekers do not relate to the Dharmic faiths as a resource for their spiritual quest.
Fostering the growth of spirituality in the West means breaking through the barriers of ignorance, fear and prejudice surrounding the Dharmic religions. It means teaching the spiritual-but-not-religious youth of America to transcend the limits of their current understanding of religion. Even young American Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains, growing up in a materialistic society, tend to be poorly educated in their own religion. Thus, these youths, too, will benefit from our efforts. Through education we can help all Americans to understand that there need be no antagonism between religion and spirituality—nor between religion and science—and that being religious doesn’t make one a fanatic or a fundamentalist. Instead, we can show them that, for Dharmic practitioners, religion is a noble and authentic pathway for the pursuit of spirituality. With a few strategic initiatives, we can open the doors to enlightenment for all seekers.