Choosing Religion

I have been teaching Religion and Philosophy at independent Episcopal schools in New England for almost a quarter-century, and much has changed over that time! Specifically, our students’ level of interest in studying these topics, going on to major in them at University, and even adopting new spiritual or religious worldviews for themselves has been steadily increasing. It is not what I expected, and I am fascinated and delighted by it. An increasing number of our students are signing up for elective Religion and Philosophy courses beyond the graduation requirement, even when it displaces other courses on their transcripts. With no faculty involvement, they have started thriving Philosophy Clubs and Religious Affinity Groups of every kind. Large numbers of them attend weekly meditation sessions during their free time. Our Confirmation classes are huge these days (even though only about 10% of our students come from Episcopal families), and lately, I have baptized a steady stream of students from non-religious backgrounds. What’s up?

Certainly, their pandemic experience added urgency to our students’ search for meaning. Questions were forced on all of us during that time that are not easily answered in platitudes or by the typical metrics of school success. We all learned how little we know; we all learned how little we–and those we rely on–are in control; we all learned that the ideas and institutions that we had thought were capable and reliable are actually anything but. It was a stress test that, in many respects, our society failed. The result for our students has been a significant increase in mental health challenges and an invigorated search for a more meaningful and nurturing worldview. And so they are newly considering the religious and philosophical traditions that have been providing meaning to humans for millennia.

However, this shift actually preceded the pandemic; at least it did in my context. I teach in what one of my colleagues has called “the Godless Northeast,” which is a reference to how rapidly and thoroughly New England has secularized in the last half-century. We are closer to Europe than we are to the rest of America in church attendance and expressed religiosity. As a result, most of the teenagers I am currently teaching have been raised in non-religious families. While twenty-five years ago my students were eager to rebel against their parents’ religiosity, my students today seem to be just as comfortable rebelling against their parents’ secularism. They are much, much less knowledgeable about religion, and much, much more curious about it and open to it. If and when they do decide to embrace religion, either as an area of study or as a personal north star, they come to it through their own interest and effort, and not as an inheritance. It makes a difference!

As a teacher of Religion and Philosophy, and as a religious person myself, I am happy to see that religion is of greater interest to my students these days than it has ever been during my career. What I do not know is whether any of this will result in increased church attendance. Raised without religion, my students have been able to consider it critically and, when they embrace it, embrace it intentionally and with agency. By the same token, they are able to consider the Church as an institution critically, and I am afraid they have not shown the same eagerness to embrace it, at least in its current form. I would love it if my students could leave here and find a home in a vibrant college chaplaincy, then enter the world and find a vibrant church home, but so far they seem to be looking for ways to have fellowship and be communally religious that are outside the paradigm that has always worked for me. And I’m afraid that what they are looking for is, at this point, not very well developed or available to them. I suspect they will have to be more entrepreneurial about creating “church” than I ever had to be. 

I have faith in them, though; and I have faith in the Spirit that is guiding them. May God bless them on their journey to a greater knowledge and love of God, and to a meaningful and nurturing fellowship with their many (and increasing!) brothers and sisters in belief. It is possible that they will lead us all to a more robust “church” future. That has always been the job of the young.

The Rev. Barbara Talcott is Head Chaplain and Religion Department Chair at St. Mark’s School (Southborough, MA).