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Will Baby Boomers Ever Find Religion?

Many boomers are becoming more spiritual as they age.

Many baby boomers are becoming more spiritual as they age, something that is completely consistent with the historical pattern of individuals finding religion in their later years. Whether greater spirituality is part of the process of becoming a more evolved human being or more about a greater awareness of one’s own mortality, boomers are pondering deep thoughts about the meaning of life and what might come next. For a good number of boomers, finding a little or a lot more faith is a kind of coming full circle. America was a much more religious place in the 1950s and 1960s, and kids were likely to get a heavy dose of traditional Judeo-Christian dogma.

Organized religion was perceived as part of the “system” many boomers found to be overly authoritarian as they became young adults, however, making them look elsewhere to fill spiritual needs. And as Wade Clark Roof showed in his book Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion, religion in this country fragmented over the past half-century to the point where individuals could choose from a very large menu of alternative forms of faith. Eastern philosophies especially informed boomers approach to spirituality, as did the New Age movement. (Remember the angels craze and The Celestine Prophecy sensation of the early 1990s?) “The quest culture created by the baby boomers has generated a ‘marketplace’ of new spiritual beliefs and practices and of revisited traditions,” Roof wrote, with “some Americans exploring faiths and spiritual disciplines for the first time, others rediscovering their lost traditions, others drawn to small groups and alternative communities, and still others creating their own mix of values and metaphysical beliefs.” Around 85% of Americans believe in some kind of God, the Baylor Longitudinal Study of Religion showed, but only about 30% attend a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque, hard evidence of this cultural shift from religion to spirituality.

Boomers’ gravitation to a myriad of personally defined avenues of spirituality reflects their gradual realization that they are part of something much, much bigger than themselves. Boomers are likely to construct their individual concept of spirituality based on their internalized belief system, overarching view of the world, and perceived role in life itself. Achieving greater harmony with one’s inner self is a big part of the process, as is the desire to identify a larger sense of meaning and purpose as they age. And unlike their parents, boomers are more likely to describe a deep, intense spiritual connection from a personal experience than a religious one from an institutional practice, the gerontologist Vern Bengston has noted.

Despite this and all other evidence to the contrary, Bengston and other experts are predicting that boomers will return to traditional religion as they get older much like how previous generations did, thinking that this is a basic part of the aging process. Based on the results of a recent Gallup poll, Frank Newport (editor-in-chief of Gallup) predicts that religion will have a more prominent place in American society over the next 20 years. Newport makes the case in his book, God is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion in America, arguing that the baby boom generation will evolve into an increasingly religious demographic. Newport wasn’t sure whether boomers would return to the faith of their upbringing or discover new forms of spirituality, but felt confident they would find religion in their later years. While some boomers may go back to traditional Christianity or Judaism, more or likely to continue to forge their own spiritual paths in the years and decades ahead.

Meanwhile, leaders of religious institutions are actively looking for ways to recruit more boomers into their flock. One more popular way is to integrate elements of Buddhism into Christianity or Judaism, thinking that such a fusion of Eastern and Western spiritualities is a best-of-both-worlds approach. Jews in particular are blending dimensions of Buddhist philosophy with their faith. (A “JuBu” refers to someone with a Jewish background who practices some form of Buddhism.) While many Jews today identify with the cultural, social, and historical aspects of Judaism, the spiritual dimension for many is lacking. Jews seeking a spiritual connection often find it in Buddhist philosophy where practices such as meditation and mindfulness are both central and accessible. And because Buddhism is non-theistic in nature, Jewish believers in God (as well as atheists and agnostics) can find a home in Buddhist practice without having to compromise or struggle against opposing belief systems. Other reasons for Jews to be drawn to Buddhism is that there is no history of conflict between the two groups, it is unnecessary to formally convert to Buddhism in order to follow that spiritual path, and both Jews and Buddhists share a deep understanding about the nature of suffering. “As Jews continue to explore Buddhism and its practices, more JuBus will be able to discover the ‘OM in ShalOM,’ creating a rich and fruitful spiritual path,” wrote Ellen Frankel in the Huffington Post, a nice way of describing how boomers of all faiths will shop at the bountiful spiritual marketplace in the future.