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Generation Next: Losing My Religion

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Kat and I had just left the campus of Columbia University, were trudging along Broadway, on the familiar hill that elevates the campus, when she posed a most peculiar question.

"Do you believe in God?" she asked.

Lampposts lit the streets as we continued along, under dimmed moon intent on warming ourselves with chatter.

"Of course I believe in God," I replied. Wondering where she was going with this. "Do you?" I asked.

At this point I anticipated some abstract dialogue: one of those, "what's our purpose?" conversations so common among young people who feel as though they're truly analyzing the world for the first time. Instead, Kat replied with a simple, breezy, "of course not."

I was shocked. She replied with such inherent ease that it seemed downright audacious. Never before had I spoken to someone who disregarded the idea of God like this. Out of anger, spite, or confusion -- perhaps -- but never out of candid belief.

"Are you serious?" I replied, probably sounding a bit naïve, if not stupefied.

Don't get me wrong. I've never thought of myself as an overly religious person. I am an agnostic, self-proclaimed Sarcasm Queen who takes pride in her cynicism. And, while I'd like to think I approach everything from a logical perspective, I found Kat's blatant declaration to be a bit much for even my reality.

Kat's family moved to the U.S. four years ago, so it wasn't a complete surprise to hear that she believes that her atheism is linked to her cultural background. Like many other Russian families, Kat explained that her parents and grandparents had grown up under Communist government that enforced a system of mandatory atheism. Even in recent years, when religious freedom was reintroduced to their country, many Russian families paid no mind to the change.

Kat is the child of one of these die-hard atheist families. She's been part of American culture for at least four years now, and still believes God is a myth.

"So when you die ? ?" I asked. She shrugged. "Fertilizer."

Not Alone

The days after this encounter left me wondering about a world without a God, without some sense of higher power, and therefore without the immediate safety net that comes along with feeling cared for by a force much greater than oneself.

At the time, I couldn't see it. Not only did Kat's response seem very odd to me, but when I started mentioning it other people, saying things like, "Can you believe what someone told me the other day?" the truly bizarre thing was that she was not alone. Teen after teen after teen shrugged their shoulders and looked at me as if I were the oddball. I started to feel as if I was the last kid on earth who still believed in The Tooth Fairy.

In the months since then I've had a number of conversations with friends and acquaintances around my age, a.k.a. the Generation Y crowd. It has became increasingly clear to me that throughout New York City, and possibly in communities much more far reaching, youth have a rising apprehension about organized religion and spirituality.



Religion is a sneaky little bugger. Unless you've been hiding under a hefty rock, it's likely to have crept into your life at some point and contributed to your belief system.

Granted, for those of us living in New York, especially those who may have lost friends and family member on September 11th, there's an obvious connection. Of course there is other violence to contend with. Even if they don't live in an urban area, hearing about snipers and school shootings in the news makes a number of today's youths feel like they have no one count on but themselves.

"You damn right I came into this world on my own!" blasted Tariq, when I asked if he believes his life came about without a God.

"I don't see nobody else here, do you?" he asked, stepping back with a golden basketball nestled under his arm. Tariq is a 17-year-old high school senior at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Harlem, NY.

"Ain't nobody here but me. I came into this world by myself and when I'm done, I'm done," he conceded with a sense of finale. Tariq walked back onto the court, shrugging his shoulders in a kind of taunt, as if daring someone to challenge his stark conclusion.

Eighteen-year-old Anecia Lewis' was raised in a more than traditional Christian household, and has learned to see herself as an outsider in the eyes of her family's church. An openly lesbian teenager in a religious community where homosexuality is shunned, Lewis says she keeps her distance from spiritual services.

Lewis says that she wonders if being out about her sexuality will prevent her from being a religious person.

"Growing up, [I heard] everyone out in the real world saying things like, 'God's coming for all the homos!' So I chose not to get baptized, and I don't go to church often. My aunt actually stood up and walked out of a service once, because they were [badgering] homosexuals and saying how we're all going to go to hell."

At this point, Anecia says she has enough to worry about -- aside from spirituality, and says, "I don't think there's a need for religion."

Wrong vs. Right

Religion is a sneaky little bugger. Unless you've been hiding under a hefty rock, it's likely to have crept into your life at some point and contributed to your belief system.

But all this has made me wonder, are religion and spirituality necessary to function in a civil society? Are they necessary for the youth of today to grow into the successful, positive adults of tomorrow? Well?let's think about that one.

For starters, How does spirituality effect morality? Ethics? Our sense of what's right and wrong. In other words, are non-spiritual teens just misled? Does their lack of a strong religious belief mean they will have a hard time making healthy decisions? Or are religious youth just unfortunate conformists? Do teens need to believe in a higher power? If so, then what do these changes in our beliefs imply for our futures?

While people like Kat and Tariq are clear about their distrust in an Almighty One, other teens aren't as direct. Some -- like 18-year-old Mark Reid, who describes his custom-made belief as "Free Mind" -- still manage to believe in a higher power, but say they prefer to pick and choose from several religions and spiritual practices.

How does this affect Mark's choices?

"I look at different religions and pick the morals I want to live by," he says.

Mark's theory seems reasonable enough -- common, even. When I dug deeper, however, I found that his beliefs were actually acts of rebellion, if you will, against his parents' beliefs.

"On a scale of one-to-ten, my parents were about a 9.8 [in religious severity.] They were Methodist Christian. At times, religious discussions would get so heated that I would have to leave the house," recalls Mark. "I had a yearning to learn about different religions," he says, "and there was one time I told my mom I was reading the Quaran, and she took it and threw it out the window."

After living in an overbearing religious household, you can't really blame the guy for being so skeptical. When I asked if they've turned him off from religion, Mark paused for a moment, with a mild grin on his face. He finally replied, "They've turned me off from the religion they followed." Why? "Because they wouldn't explain it to me," he said.

Like Mark, a lot of my peers seem interested in spirituality that they can understand. In other words, they're less interested in blindly believing what they're told. Instead, many of them have questions about how certain belief systems relate to their lives now.

"Parents need to show flexibility in allowing their children to come [to spirituality] on their own," says Minister Jenny Jackson of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. "Many adults themselves weren't [fully] taught about religion, so they just sat there, unknowingly, waiting for their favorite church song to come on. Afterwards, they'd simply go home."

churchJackson continues, "In the past, churches haven't really stepped up to the plate and taught people. That's changing now. [Pastors and priests] are actually teaching now, instead of just lecturing. Before, kids would sit next to parents in an adult church, and nothing was being absorbed ? so I agree with those kids who left and say there's nothing left here for them."

In that case, do kids really need this? Is religion just a social construct?

"Maybe it is," says Minister Jackson. "But everyone needs faith."

You Shoot Me, I Shoot You

Terrence Hill says he stopped going to church when, he says, he realized the world was more complicated than his spiritual leaders would acknowledge.

"If you were in the street, and somebody shot your friend, and you shot them back ? what would be morally wrong with that?" asks this college student at Nassau Community. "When you go by the rules of the street, you do what you think is right."

He continues, "I left my other church because they were traitors, and I began to find that morals were a lot harder to deal with. I was having trouble seeing what was wrong, and wouldn't see the problem in hurting or killing someone."

A fiery young man, Hill is has actually been raised within a strong religious household, and conformed to it as such. There was no rebelling against God or feeling lost. Not at first, anyway. But after a particular incident in his church congregation, Terrence says a lot has changed.

"The pastor accused my mom of taking money from the church. I knew my mom didn't steal anything, but the entire church stood behind him -- just because he's the pastor," he says. "We'd been family for so long, and it shocked me how quickly they just turned on us. So now, I don't really like structured religion."

Hill says church was the glue of his family's structure for as long as he can remember. Feeling betrayed then, by what he'd come to know as more of a family than his own, was devastating.

Afterwards, Terrence says he found himself getting into fights more often at school. "Even playing basketball," he says, "I'd get angry and want to hurt someone."

It's clear from Terrence's words. He's had a hard time leaving the close knit community that a church provides. But is it the lack of spirituality in his life that makes him upset, or is there more to it?

The United States is the most religious of all industrialized nations. Forty-four percent of Americans attend church once a week, compared with 27 percent in Britain, and even less than that in France, Australia, and Sweden. Yet violent crime doesn't happen any less in this country. In fact it happens even more. The stab-em, shoot-em, strangle-em-up murder rate here is seven times higher than France, six times higher than Britain, and five times higher than Sweden and Australia.

Christianity, the apparent staple of norm to contemporary American culture [and automatic assumption by most of my interviewees when asked what 'religion' means to them] has a very small following in Japan, yet Japan has less violent crime than any other country in the world. The state of Louisiana has the highest churchgoing rate in the country, yet their murder rate is double that of the national average. In terms of other religious countries, there are a few with low violence rates, but they are extremely exceptional.

There is yet to be substantial evidence showing any correlation between morality and religion. What does this mean? Well some would say that it means that being religious doesn't make you a better, nicer person. Nor does it mean you're any more likely to get along with your neighbors.

So What's The Big Deal?

If there is no correlation between religion and morality, what does it matter if a few city kids don't believe in God? They've gotten this far, haven't they? What's the problem?

"A lot of kids are just ill-mannered and have lost their way," says Abdullah Muhammad, a religious teen on the other side of the controversial seesaw. A devout Muslim, Abdullah says, "One out of every three marriages ends up in a divorce. The main causes are moral and ethics." (Although actually, the number one cause behind divorce is said to be financial problems. Not sure if you'd want to blame that on morality, but?.)

"There's no trust, and you have trouble in family life. Since I'm a Muslim, I was taught from a very young age that Allah is always watching me ? that I'll have someone to answer to, inevitably."

Abdullah continues, "Teens look around them and see bad things happening ? so much injustice, so they have a feeling that if God REALLY existed, he wouldn't let such things happen."

Some, like Billy Hallowell, the 18-year-old founder of TeenWebOnline, an online anti-discrimination site for young people, see religion as comforting during difficult times.

"I think religion is very personal. Nowadays, lots of people portray themselves as religious simply to show off to people. But I see it as something between you and God, not other people."

"I don't think I'd still be religious if I weren't raised in a religious household. I don't think I'd appreciate things as much.My parents are really religious but we have fun. It's not to the point where we don't enjoy ourselves, some people are so intolerant of everything."

Billy says things like the events September 11th and other catastrophes made him grasp religion even closer. "There was a support system after 9/11, that interdependence. It made me feel even closer to God, because it was a reality check."

His words to the nonreligious? "I don't think they're misguided, I just don't think they've been reached out to. I try to accept what other people believe, but it's actually sad to me sometimes. I believe [in God] so firmly, so it's hard to reach those people."

Sense of Acceptance

You're a savvy reader -- so I'm sure you've noticed a pattern here. Family. Rejection. Oppression. Aggression. Youth who seemed to be more tightly connected with a family life and their communities generally seemed happier. And that doesn't just go for Billy or Abdullah, because by no means is this article intending to portray religion as the savior of us all.

But those teens exposed to different religions -- like Mark Reid, who later mentioned that his ability to be open-minded stemmed from his grandfather, who took him by the hand and educated him on varied religious beliefs, or even Anecia, who, despite her feelings of seclusion from the Christian community, attests to having an incredibly strong bond with her mother (who, by the way, makes it quite clear that Anecia will always be accepted at home, if nowhere else) -- seem to have the upper hand.

It wasn't until after all of these interviews and conversations that I realized what Kat had been saying. She'd never lost a sense of her own ethics and principles, or infringed upon anyone else for their beliefs. In fact, Kat is one of the most curious and open-minded people I know. She is confident and self-assured.

Youth need a sense of acceptance as early, and as often as possible to have positive lives later. So perhaps it's not a case of religion after all. Perhaps the idea that young people don't believe in God is not as scary as the idea that they may stop believing in the power of doing good, and of accepting and supporting one another. And, now that I think about it, that's part of what the idea of God has always meant to me, anyway.

Danya Steele, 18, is a college freshman and the former editor-in-chief of HarlemLIVE.org.

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