by: Chris Stedman
Note: This post was originally featured in the Huffington Post. When I was in high school, civil disobedience excited me. I participated in a school walkout in protest of the Iraq War, staged a demonstration outside of a conference for anti-gay “reparative therapy,” and regularly got together with friends to make T-shirts boasting our political positions. Though the underlying political motives behind these actions were sincere, I recognize in hindsight that a big part of why I was drawn to such activism was that it hinged on solidarity and cooperation. I was reminded of these efforts this weekend, when I decided to take my Saturday night off to check out the Occupy America (a national movement born out of Occupy Wall Street in New York City) effort in my city. I decided to go because I have been tracking it online for some time, and many of my friends and peers have been involved from the beginning. While the participants I encountered on Saturday ranged in ages, Occupy America has frequently been referred to as a “youth-driven” movement, and the statement isn’t without merit. Though participation has been and continues to be intergenerational, there seems to be a particularly strong representation from young people. As a 24-year-old, I’m part of the Millennial Generation – the generation following Generation Y, born in the 1980s and 1990s. We’re a generation that, according to studies by Pew and others, is supposed to be unconcerned and unengaged with the political process. Yet we defied such classification by coming out in droves for the 2008 Presidential election, and I believe that the Occupy America movement is demonstrating once more that we can surprise prognosticators and muster up unanticipated energy and organization to mobilize for social change. Still, we remain a generation that is, in some ways, defined by apathy. This is perhaps no more obvious than it is in Millennials’ relationship with religion. Some 22 percent of Americans age 18-29 report having no religion. However, only about 2 percent of Americans describe themselves with labels such as atheist, agnostic or Humanist. That suggests that the majority of nonreligious Americans consider themselves either spiritual but not religious, religious but not practicing, or irreligious and apathetic. This certainly seems to be the case among many people I know. Many people I talk with across the country say that religion doesn’t concern them and is unimportant; they claim to not even think much or care much about religion. But what this irreligious, apathetic stance toward religion and the religious doesn’t account for is the fact that we live in a world where many people do think and do care about religion — a lot. Even in America, religious fundamentalism is experiencing a radical surge. The 2010 Pew study on American Millennialsfound that not only is “the intensity of [religious Millennials'] religious affiliation… as strong today as among previous generations when they were young,” but that “levels of certainty of belief in God have increased” and that religious Millennials are “more inclined than their elders to believe their own religion is the one true path to eternal life.” Sociologists once predicted that religion would decline as a result of modernization, but precisely the opposite phenomenon has occurred as religious movements have grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades both in the United States and around the world. Sociologists, as such, have since changed course on those predictions. As Peter Berger recently wrote in The American Interest: “Most sociologists of religion… [have] looked at the world and concluded that secularization theory — that is, the thesis that modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion — does not fit the facts of the matter.” It seems that, for now anyway, religion is unlikely to become irrelevant. And in a world where religious conflict is in the headlines on a daily basis and religious illiteracy is widespread, it actually feels increasingly relevant. The dangers of acting like it isn’t are clear: when fraught issues related to religion arise, being unable to contextualize them or understand their implications makes it difficult to know how to respond. This is why I’ve committed myself to the cause of encouraging interfaith cooperation. Cultivating positive relationships between people of diverse religious and nonreligious identities not only helps prevent conflict by creating invested relationships — it also combats ignorance by giving people the opportunity to educate one another about their beliefs and backgrounds. The night I spent at Occupy Boston was eye opening. Seeing the general assembly meeting and all of the structure on site — including my friends at the Protest Chaplains tent–was fascinating. Everyone had a role in helping things run, and everyone had a voice. As an interfaith activist working to mobilize people from diverse religious and nonreligious backgrounds toward cooperation, it was an inspiring sight. The collective commitment to work together and give voice to the disempowered was a testament to the power of uniting people from different backgrounds for a common goal. Like the interfaith coalition that led the American Civil Rights movement, there was a recognition that success will require respecting the many different reasons people come to the table. Unless we strive to understand people’s religious beliefs and practices, efforts that hinge on solidarity will fail. Without knowing and understanding the spectrum of moral and religious beliefs that compel people to act, we will remain siloed. As the Occupy America movement continues to occupy our collective moral imagination, coming together to talk about our convictions, our challenges, and our values seems more important than ever. We, as Millennials but also as Americans, must reject apathy — about politics, yes, but also about religion.
Chris Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for theHumanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Managing Director of State of Formation, a new initiative at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. Chris received an MA in Religion from Meadville Lombard Theological School at the University of Chicago and is the founder and author of the blog NonProphet Status. He is a panelist for The Washington Post On Faith, and his writing has also appeared in venues such as The Journal of College and Character, Tikkun Daily, The New Humanism, and more.