Dharmic Spirituality is on the Rise in the U.S., Whether We Realize It or Not

Even the casual student of history will observe what looks like a trend toward secularization in the modern world: over time, people have become less religious and religion has become less important in public life. The secularization thesis suggests that this happens with the inevitable march of modernity: technological progress and scientific discoveries steadily close the gap between the explained and the unexplained, leaving little room for the existence of any divine or mystical forces.

Yet religious disaffiliation – declining to identify oneself as a particular religion, choosing not to attend regular religious services – is only one part of the trend. Religion disaffiliation does not mean that people are abandoning religion for atheism. Only 3% of Americans consider themselves atheists. A steadily growing proportion of the population identifies as “agnostic,” “spiritual but not religious,” or are what scholars of religion have ironically dubbed “nones” (those having no religious affiliation).

So while society may have become more secularized, it has instead become more spiritual. Spirituality is the set of beliefs governing one’s relation to the self, others, and God. It’s a person’s own stance about the meaning of life, the degree of connectedness to other beings, and their hopes for the future. Where religiosity is about participating in formal religious institutions and hierarchies, spirituality is about one’s personal, individualized connection to the divine.

Where religiosity is about participating in formal religious institutions and hierarchies, spirituality is about one’s personal, individualized connection to the divine.

For the Abrahamic religious traditions – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism – this divide between religion and spirituality makes sense. These religions have a history of building vast empires on the basis of a complex power structure. They developed lengthy training programs for clergy to minister to the faith’s adherents. Their texts contain admonitions about the importance of belonging to a congregation and what duties that membership entails.

But for Dharmic religious traditions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism – there is little division between religion and spirituality. Indeed, we can think of the Dharmic faiths as more “spiritual” religions. They have a relatively flat organizational hierarchy. They see enlightenment as a personal spiritual journey that requires no clergy. There is no concept that being a good Buddhist/Hindu/Jain/Sikh means attending regular religious services, belonging to a congregation, or donating part of one’s income to the temple.

But for Dharmic religious traditions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism – there is little division between religion and spirituality.

The West has seen surging interest in Dharmic religious beliefs and practices – both acknowledged and unacknowledged (this will be the topic of a future blogpost!). To what extent can we characterize the growing “spiritual but not religious” population as being, essentially, Dharmic in their practices and beliefs?

To really dig into this question, I took a look at the most comprehensive data we have on the religious views of young people in America, the National Study of Youth and Religion. This is a nationally representative survey of youth between 23 and 29 years old collected in 2012. Incredibly, 62% of young people in the U.S. consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” One-quarter of young Americans are spiritual and non-Abrahamic in their views, meaning they don’t believe Jesus was the son of God, nor do they believe there will one day be a judgment day when God punishes some and rewards others. So just how Dharmic is this one-quarter of young people in their beliefs and practices?

It’s tough to define a religion’s views. This is particularly true for the Dharmic religions which are deliberately heterogeneous in nature. But suffice it to say that one way to define Dharmic faiths is their belief in the interconnectedness of the universe, in the cyclical nature of life, and the omnipresence of the divine. Dharmic faiths believe there are many paths to truth, and no one religion holds a monopoly on this truth. Finally, Dharmic faiths encourage people to care for others in a way that minimizes harm, and to do so selflessly and without any expectation of reward.

To what extent can we characterize the growing “spiritual but not religious” population as being, essentially, Dharmic in their practices and beliefs?

When I look at the data on beliefs, the majority of these spiritual youth subscribe to Dharmic views about the influence of astrology and the existence of reincarnation. A plurality believe, like Dharmic adherents, that God is like a cosmic life force. Most of these young spiritual-but-not-religious people also hold a Dharmic view on the role of religion: they do not believe in proselytizing, they are religiously tolerant and think it’s okay to incorporate diverse religious views in one’s personal spiritual practice.

In terms of practices, the vast majority of these young spiritual people say they personally care about equality between racial groups, the needs of elderly people, and the needs of the poor. Dharmic religions often refer to this concern as “karma,” the notion that one’s actions, thoughts, and intentions will ultimately come back in some way. Many of them report having engaged in community service or volunteering, what Dharmic traditions call “seva.”

A nontrivial proportion of this group of young spiritual-but-not-religious people have engaged in explicitly Dharmic spiritual techniques. 31% said they try to include Buddhist, Hindu, Zen, or other Asian religious practices in their spirituality. 27% report practicing meditation. 11% fasted or denied themselves as spiritual discipline.

What’s clear from these statistics is that a significant portion of young people in the U.S. hold religious views that resemble Dharmic beliefs and practices. They’re engaging in a spirituality that falls outside the realm of traditional Abrahamic religious traditions, but that looks a lot like Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, or Jainism.

We might therefore do better to think of secularization as the movement away from Abrahamic religious institutions and toward a Dharmic kind of spirituality. Less than 2% of Americans identify with a Dharmic religion. So why do so few people call themselves Hindu (or Buddhist or Jain or Sikh) when their religious views resemble these Dharmic faiths? I can think of three possibilities.

We might therefore do better to think of secularization as the movement away from Abrahamic religious institutions and toward a Dharmic kind of spirituality.

The first is ignorance. People simply may not be aware that Dharmic religions have a long tradition of espousing spirituality in a way that resembles their views. Amol’s previous blogpost on the role of Hinduism at universities talked about the underutilized potential of colleges in educating Americans about Dharmic beliefs and practices. I recently gave a talk at the Hindu Mandir Conference of North America in which I encouraged executives of Hindu temples to educate spiritual-but-not-religious people about Dharmic religions. This ignorance may mean, for instance, that people don’t realize that the notion of “conversion” doesn’t exist in Dharmic religions. In fact, it’s been said that someone becomes a Hindu the moment they start calling themselves Hindu.

So why do so few people call themselves Hindu (or Buddhist or Jain or Sikh) when their religious views resemble these Dharmic faiths? I can think of three possibilities.

The second reason people may not call themselves Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, or Sikh is because they are worried that doing so amounts to cultural appropriation. In a future post, we plan to explore the very complex concept of “cultural appropriation.” But suffice it to say that many Dharmic practices have been imported into the West without regard for their origins or accompanying philosophy. This means they get digested into more comfortably Western terms (e.g. “transcendental meditation” has become “relaxation response”). So the best way to avoid cultural appropriation is to actually call oneself a Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, or Sikh, thereby acknowledging the true source of their religious views and practices.

The last possibility is (un)conscious phobia of Dharmic religions in the West. Among all religious traditions in the U.S., people have the least familiarity and contact with Buddhists and Hindus. Moreover, the American social studies curriculum includes square_monastery_05textbooks that grossly misrepresent Dharmic religions and history. People in the West seem to love Dharmic ideas and practices – mindfulness, yoga, etc. – but are uneasy about Dharmic practitioners, or at the very least, don’t take them seriously. This is simple prejudice.

Abrahamic religions are characterized by three components: a set of beliefs, a set of practices, and participation in religious institutions. Dharmic religions have just two: a set of beliefs and a set of practices. And these two components, beliefs and practices, form the core of spirituality, which is on the rise, while participation in religious institutions is on the decline. The data shows us that Dharmic beliefs and practices – such as reincarnation, samsara, ahimsa, karma, dharma, seva, and meditation – are widespread among the quarter of young Americans who consider themselves spiritual but not religious in a non-Abrahamic sense. Fostering the growing spirituality of the West means breaking through the barriers of ignorance, fear, and prejudice surrounding Dharmic religions.

Author: Lauren

PhD candidate in sociology, research fellow for Hindu life at Duke University, vegan, yogini, crazy cat lady, pursuer of wanderlust

3 thoughts

  1. Could another reason be that religion and spirituality don’t play a particularly important role in young people’s lives? They believe and practice in ways that are congruent with Dharmic beliefs and practices, but don’t have much interest in adopting a group’s beliefs? My takeaway from Smith and Denton and Smith and Snell is that, sure, many youth ascribe to religious and spiritual beliefs sincerely, but they really don’t care about being shaped by any religious tradition or adopting anything new.

    I bet there are a minority of such people who might eventually connect their beliefs and practices with a non-Abrahamic religious tradition (or would do so if engaged by someone from those traditions), but most are probably as interested in that as they are identifying more strongly with an Abrahamic religion. But it is hard to know when non-Abrahamic faiths are a small enough minority in the US that people are unlikely to be forced to interact with them genuinely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes – I think the “consumerist” mindset toward religion in the US is unmistakable. But the NSYR data shows that 62% of young people in the US consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” This doesn’t suggest to me that religion and spirituality don’t play an important role in their lives, but that the current menu of offerings in terms of religion don’t satisfy them. I absolutely agree that a lot of this SBNR trend is about distancing oneself from religious traditions more generally. But I also think part of the SBNR trend happens because of the strong impressions people have about Abrahamic traditions, and what it means to identify as a Christian/Jew/Muslim. I don’t think people generally know what it means to identify as a Hindu/Buddhist/Sikh/Jain, and my guess is that if they did, a lot more of the SBNR folks would have no problem identifying as such. Then there’s the issue of “why identify at all?” This all goes back to the specter of cultural appropriation and the misuse and digestion of Dharmic ideas, concepts, and practices into Western culture (ahhh colonialism, you insidious bastard). The quickest way to ensure a bigger group of Dharmic practitioners for people to interact with genuinely is for more people to step up and say, for instance, “I am a Hindu” when it is pointed out to them that their beliefs and practices are Hindu in nature (and origin!).

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