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Finding their religion

Young people are seeking faith in nontraditional ways

NORTHAMPTON -- When Elizabeth Koke was a child, her Catholic faith was everything to her. As a teenager, though, Koke took a spiritual detour, rejecting her faith and attending Wiccan rituals in a quest for alternatives.

Now that she's 20, Catholicism is once again of central importance in her life.

But even in embracing her faith again as a Smith College student, Koke is a believer on her own terms. She avoids gender-specific references to God, and she still participates in Wiccan ''circles" once in a while. She contends that her Catholic beliefs are at the root of her activism on behalf of feminist causes and her support of gay rights. She sees no contradictions in any of this.

''The truth of Catholicism is not the politics of the church," Koke insists. ''It's something much deeper than that."

Many young people, of all different faith traditions, are traveling a similarly complicated and individualistic spiritual path today. Their journeys begin for many reasons: They may have been shaken by public tragedies (9/11, the tsunami in south Asia) or by private ones (the suicide of a friend, the divorce of their parents). Or they may simply be struggling to cope with the complexities of an overheated youth culture. In any case, they often look to organized religion for comfort and meaning -- but sometimes find neither.

As a consequence, many of them are customizing their own mosaic of spiritual beliefs, often by picking and choosing from different religious or philosophic traditions. A common refrain heard on campuses is that students are ''spiritual but not religious" -- an attitude that could have significant implications for the future shape and direction of organized religion.

''A lot of people in our age group are saying, 'Let's buy into the things that are the best,' " says Erica Mena, 23, a student at the University of Massachusetts at Boston who combines her English major with the study of religion and law. ''I don't know anybody in my generation who just subscribes to a doctrine that their parents taught them. Everyone has gone through an exploratory process."

A major study scheduled to be released today by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA will report that today's undergraduates are embracing a welter of spiritual and religious beliefs as they search for purpose in life. The study, based on a survey of 112,000 students at 236 universities, will report that most students consider themselves to be on a spiritual quest, that frequent prayer and attendance at religious services are part of that quest, and that many find spiritual expression by drawing from the practices and beliefs of several faiths.

Those complex strands of religious identity also emerged as a key theme during lengthy interviews by the Globe with a dozen young people ages 17 to 25. Many of them say their spiritual beliefs, however unconventionally defined, guide their everyday actions on ethical and moral issues.

Alexander W. Astin, one of the leaders of the UCLA survey, says the ''inner life" of students, and the way it plays out in their values and beliefs, has traditionally not been the subject of surveys. ''But students care very deeply about these issues and welcome any opportunity to explore them individually or collectively," Astin says.

Diana L. Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University and director of The Pluralism Project, which studies religious diversity, identifies a seeming paradox: Namely, that while ''religious boundaries are being much more clearly drawn" today by conservative factions in every religion, ''we're also living in a time when those boundaries are becoming more and more like dotted lines for many people." The result, according to Eck, is that ''incorporating aspects of other religious traditions into one's own is increasingly common -- and not only among young people."

Still, the nature of youth is to be especially open to ideas, a trait that is playing out in the spiritual realm as well. Says Ja-Tun Thomas, 20, of Smith College: ''As a generation, we're called to question."

It would be a mistake to see such questions as casual or such explorations as dilettantish, according to Randy Brinson, who heads Redeem the Vote, a national organization that mobilized young Christian voters in the 2004 election. Brinson, a Southern Baptist, says many young people are turned off by the ''hypocrisy" and ''greed" of some churches and televangelists, but they still want spiritual guidance as they grapple with issues such as premarital sex and abortion.

''I see a generation of seekers," Brinson says. ''They're looking for answers, and they're looking in all kinds of ways."

Searching for answers
Of course, a substantial number of young people continue to draw a similar nourishment by adhering strictly to the religious traditions they were raised in. In fact, some say they are more religious than their parents. Catherine Hambleton, 17, a student at Phillips Academy in Andover, attends church each Sunday and a Bible-discussion group during the week. ''Religion gives you a sense of security, especially when there's a lot of stuff going on in the world, and you don't know why," she says. ''It gives you something to go back to."

Some experts, citing other surveys, argue that today's high school and college students generally do not deviate from organized religion and are no longer as drawn to alternative religions as they were a decade or two ago. For a significant number of other young people, their academic and social lives simply take precedence over their spiritual lives. ''Most of my friends are not very religious at all," remarks Tyler Hill, 18, of Atlanta, a student at Andover. ''A lot of them just sort of phased it out of their lives."

But at an age when questions about the meaning of life traditionally surface, many other young people are thinking deeply about the role of faith -- in all its permutations -- in answering those questions. That has made spiritual topics, if not quite ''cool," at least a vital part of the corridor and campus conversation today. Even skeptics and nonbelievers are curious about the religious beliefs of their friends and will ask them searching questions about why it matters so much to them.

Whether the conversations are topically charged or undertaken in moments of calm reflection, talking about spirituality is common among young people. But their definitions of spirituality are as varied as their life experiences. Take Victoria Patrick, 22, a student at Smith College. Her father, a member of the US Air Force who had been raised a Methodist, met her mother, a native of Thailand who had been raised as a Buddhist, during the Vietnam War. Neither religious tradition was part of Victoria's upbringing in a home where ''church was frowned upon." Recently, after she began having anxiety attacks, she asked her mother about the precepts of Buddhism. For the first time, her mother discussed the subject in depth. While she still considers herself an atheist, Patrick says she has found ''a coping strategy" in the teachings of Buddhism. ''I don't have control over what happens to me," she says. ''I can, through Buddhism, have an ability to learn from it and escape it."

Karim Serageldin, 23, of Sharon, is a Muslim who attended a Catholic school until fourth grade and can still summon quotes from the Gospel of Mark. While he says ''Islam is my central core," he has also drawn spiritual inspiration from sources as varied as Buddhism, the Tao Te Ching of Laotzu, and the Judeo-Christian tradition. ''I take from everything," he says. ''I studied all that stuff, and I found there was a commonality of all the traditions, that they were trying to bring back the wisdom and sacredness to reality." All religious traditions, he says, try to answer the same fundamental questions: ''How did we get here? Who made us? Where are we going? It is about meaning."

Shira Barchilon Frank used to view the whole idea of God as ''a complete cop-out," a misguided attempt by adults to ''ruin the huge mystery." For years she rejected Judaism, partly as a rejection of her father. But after they reconciled during an emotional meeting in Israel, it opened the door to reconciling with her faith as well. Now, at 20, she is deeply observant within the Chabad Chassidic branch of Judaism. She has become active with a Chabad group based at UMass-Amherst, and keeps kosher with respect to diet. ''I am Jewish," she says proudly. ''I have a relationship with God. I had been so miserable trying to ignore it or change it."

Elisabeth Koke can probably relate. When she was growing up in St. James, N.Y., if her second-grade parochial school teacher told the class to pray for 10 minutes, young Elizabeth would ask for 30. During ''quiet time," she would take out her rosary beads and pray some more.

By high school, however, she found it hard to pray because her mind kept drifting to what she saw as the church's historical misdeeds and contemporary flaws -- and she would loudly enumerate them to her parents as they prepared to attend church each Sunday. She spearheaded the formation of a gay-straight alliance in her high school only to see her parish priest brandish her flier from the pulpit while comparing her school to Sodom and Gomorrah. Thoroughly alienated, Koke repudiated Catholicism.

Then, last semester, a problem erupted in her personal life. While she was struggling to cope with it, a classmate invited her to a meeting of Radical Catholic Feminists of Smith. Koke found herself unexpectedly moved; she began wondering whether it might be possible to fuse her political and social views with the faith she had been raised in.

She decided to try. She went to Mass again for the first time in a long time. ''It was sort of like coming home," she says. ''There are things that are so beautiful about the Mass that I wasn't able to recognize."

The bottom line, she says quietly, is this: ''I wanted to believe in God."

Don Aucoin can be reached at

Smith College sophomore Elizabeth Koke has reconciled her Catholic beliefs with her feminist and gay-rights causes.
Smith College sophomore Elizabeth Koke has reconciled her Catholic beliefs with her feminist and gay-rights causes. (Globe Photo / Stephen Rose)
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