Junior Ginger Jacobs smiles among the flowers on Pepperdine’s campus. Jacobs wore her Hamsa hand earrings — a Hindu symbol meaning ‘Do not be afraid.’ Photos by Lucian Himes
At Nepal-Tibet Imports in the small town of Fort Collins, Colorado, a miniature statue of the Virgin Mary sits high upon a shelf, right next to statues of Hindu deities Ganesha and Shiva.
The statue was a gift for the shop owner, Pradesh, from junior Ginger Jacobs, who visited the shop for a class project in her world religions class.
Religion Professor Dyron Daughrity assigned Jacobs to interview someone from an Eastern religion, and she chose the shop owner in her hometown. That interview and the remainder of her World Religions class were transformative for her, Jacobs said.
“He [the shop owner] had the best analogy — he told me, ‘If you were trying to get to Denver from Fort Collins, you could take the I-25, you could take College, you could take 25 different roads to get to Denver, but they will all lead to the same place,’” Jacobs said. “You could go a million different ways, and you could get to the same place, and that’s kind of how I see religion.”
The ‘nones’ of religion
Jacobs does not believe her religion can fit in a box on a checklist.
She is among the approximately 29% percent of adults in the United States who are religious ‘nones,’ or religiously unaffiliated, according to Pew Research Center. Pew defines ‘nones’ as including atheists, who do not believe in God at all; agnostics, who are unsure what they believe about God; and ‘nothing in particular,’ which includes those who may believe in a higher power or hold spiritual beliefs but do not affiliate with organized religion.
Nearly 19% of Pepperdine undergraduate students identify as ‘religiously unaffiliated,’ with 95% of those students choosing ‘none’ or ‘undeclared,’ according to the Pepperdine Office of Institutional Effectiveness.
“Religious nones are people who don’t really want to, or don’t strongly enough identify with any of the descriptor words on a form that they’re willing to sign their name and identify with one of them,” said Falon Barton, University Church of Christ campus minister.
Barton said ‘nones’ occasionally will identify with more than one descriptor on a form, but there are many people who believe none of the terms resonate with them and just want to write ‘none.’
A majority of these ‘nones’ are young, according to research by Byron Johnson, visiting professor of Religious Studies and the Common Good at the School of Public Policy. Barton said she has seen a similar trend.
“I have seen people younger than 30-ish — emerging adults — as they are exposed to different things in the world, they are more open to the idea that the Spirit of God is in all things,” Barton said. “If they’re Christians, it’s like, ‘Yes, Jesus is Lord,’ and if Jesus is everywhere, then where is Jesus in these other faiths?”
As a child, Jacobs’ parents enrolled her in Roman Catholic school for elementary and middle school, where she said she realized she loved Catholic traditions.
“I loved going to church every Friday and Adoration every Wednesday, and I would get my parents to take me to church on Sunday,” Jacobs said.
Though she said she is still “technically Catholic” when prompted to check a box on a survey, Jacobs does not think that ‘Catholic’ truly defines her beliefs.
“At least now, I don’t ever see myself coming to a conclusion of what box to check, and I’m sure that will change,” Jacobs said. “That’s the beauty of it, because I’d say that your spiritual journey is never really static, and that is what makes it so important and beautiful in your life.”
Like Jacobs, junior Bob Emrich grew up in a religious community, with both of his parents working at Pepperdine. He attended Our Lady of Malibu for seventh and eighth grade, but unlike Jacobs, he said Catholic school pushed him away from religion. Emrich now identifies as agnostic.
“It doesn’t really help when it [the school] tries to make you one with the religion that they are trying to make you follow,” Emrich said. “It can be off-putting and overwhelming.”
Despite this negative experience, Emrich is open to the idea that his religion will change, and he could one day choose a different box to check.
“If I somehow come into a place where I have the belief that there is something definitive then that is what it is,” Emrich said. “It just hasn’t happened yet.”
From one to none
In learning about the religions of the world, Jacobs said she adopted values from other religions that live in tandem with her Catholic beliefs.
Jacobs drew from the Jain tradition of ahimsa, which according to National Geographic is a strict code of nonviolence that means not killing or harming even the tiniest creatures. Some Jain monks carry a broom to gently sweep ants and small bugs out of the way of their feet.
“I can’t remember the last time that I willingly or intentionally killed a bug or an insect,” Jacobs said. “Jainism has played a big part in my life. Hinduism has played a big part in my life, and Daoism and Buddhism. I am just fascinated with learning about it too.”
First-year Julianna Thomas said she identifies as “Christian with a twinge.” She said this means following the teachings of Jesus Christ, but having beliefs about the entity of “God” that do not line up with Christian teachings.
“God is in every single person on the planet, and I think that we eventually all return to that source energy, which is God,” Thomas said. “So that’s where things get a little twisted in terms of like actually being totally Christian. I don’t think God is a person. I think God is an energy.”
She said she believes in concepts and ideas that Christians traditionally do not believe in, like reincarnation or samsara, which according to Encyclopedia Britannica, are most prevalent in Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.
Thomas said her childhood best friend, Sanvi, and her family are Hindu. She said she would attend all of their family parties and religious celebrations.
“That experience for me really made me start questioning my beliefs, because these people don’t believe in Jesus, or the same God that I necessarily believe in, but they can’t possibly be going to hell,” Thomas said.
Emrich’s main exposure to religion has been the Pepperdine community and his Catholic schooling, but he said he embraces the question mark of agnosticism and keeps the door open for a religion he can definitively believe in.
Emrich said humans use religion as a way to explain “our morality,” and he would also like to have an answer to what happens after death.
“A lot of different religions exist as a result of this, and I agree with them in that I would like to have some logical mortal explanation for what happens after we die,” Emrich said. “But I don’t really think we have a right to assume whatever that higher power is. It could be whatever you want it to be.”
Religious or spiritual?
Americans are becoming less religious and more spiritual, according to Pew Research Center.
Daughrity said the meanings of religion and spirituality are imprecise and often conflated — and quantitative survey-style research yields more ‘nonreligious’ results than qualitative interview-style research with the same population.
For example, Daughrity cited research by Abby Day, a sociology professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, where people who selected ‘none’ on a survey went on to describe how they pray, believe in God or gods and believe in the afterlife during a follow-up interview; things that are closely associated with religiosity.
“Abby Day gets these people and she says, ‘OK, you clicked the box that said none, so are you religious?’” Daughrity said. “And they say, ‘No, I don’t think I’m religious.’ And she says, ‘Are you spiritual?’ And they say, ‘Yeah, I think I’m spiritual.’ But there is no difference between religion and spirituality. Religiosity, spirituality, I mean tomato to-mah-to.”
But Thomas disagrees. She said she would identify as spiritual and not religious.
“The term spiritual has so many less boundaries, and I think the term ‘religious’ upholds a system that I do not align with,” Thomas said.
Being “spiritually curious,” Thomas said, means she does not have an institution defining her personal beliefs.
Barton said young people may cling more closely to the idea of “spirituality” because they believe “organized religion” has let them down, as churches both in the United States and abroad have taken some polarizing and divisive stances.
For instance, KingdomLife Church in Dallas, Texas, broke the law forbidding nonprofits from endorsing political candidates and endorsed candidates who advocated for expanded gun rights and abortion bans, according to the Texas Tribune.
Barton said 18 to 29-year-olds are extremely spiritual.
“They’re very interested in spirituality, they are very disillusioned by institutionalized religion in general, with a lot of good reasons,” she said.
Thomas said the churches’ stance on same-sex marriage is one reason she moved away from the church.
“The hate — the whole ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin,’ type of thing, it’s just not consistent — it’s an oxymoron,” Thomas said. “I think that makes people feel as though their life is just totally invalidated in the eyes of God.”
Many churches, Thomas said, also have too many unattainable expectations that do not relate to Jesus’ teachings in the Bible and can cause members of those churches to constantly feel not good enough or experience self-hatred. She said she believes the more those boundaries are torn down, the more individuals will be able to grow together as a ‘spiritual collective.’
Barton said she does not think the growing population of spiritual nones is necessarily a bad thing.
“Oftentimes people of faith, Christian and otherwise, who hear ‘nones,’ can hear it with a lot of anxiety, as a threat to not just their religion but to religion in general,” Barton said. “I don’t hear it that way, I hear it as a word very much of hope.”
Barton said she believes young people are asking the hard questions and care about important things, regardless of religious affiliation.
“They care about justice, they care about morality, they care about the way we treat people near and far — our immediate neighbors and our global neighbors,” Barton said. “And that is really comforting to me, so I am very grateful for that.”
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