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In Religious Limbo Until Age 30?

September 26, 2012

The following is an excerpt from Howard’s upcoming book, which is now titled as “Spiritual Growth: Live the Questions, Love the Journey” 

(Watch for announcements on it here soon)

Don’t Marry Too Soon – a Person or a Set of Ideas


A final aspect of slowing down is one I feel strongly about.  I believe in something that is not very popular: that an adolescent or young adult should delay making firm commitments to any particular religious belief system until they have had time to view broadly and in some depth what religion and spirituality are all about.  This is rarely feasible before about age 30!

Erik Erikson, a highly respected and influential psychologist of life-span developmental stages, has cautioned against a premature over-commitment to a particular course in life.  There are many issues to sort out in late adolescence and early adulthood when there tends to be little time for exploration and self-reflection in our typical timetables…. right after high school (whether graduating or dropping out) it is time to get a job or go directly into college.

Yes, the first couple years of college can provide some opportunity for exploration and time to discover our particular talents and interests on our occupational journey.  We all know, however, of the common experience of deciding almost arbitrarily on a college major out of lack of a clear direction.  Additionally, even many who find themselves in love with their chosen direction may not be able to find work in it in the years soon after graduating, even with an advanced degree.  That is certainly a common situation in the wake of the recent severe recession.  Even though these early-adult years are so busy, there is no more important time to at least begin exploring one’s adult spiritual life – beliefs, practices, the religious options of churches and movements, the nature and range of spiritual phenomena (which ironically one usually has to go outside of churches to find much about), etc.

Even with all the shifting of religious affiliations and people leaving church life entirely in recent years, there is reportedly still a rate of around 50% of people remaining in the same basic Christian group in which they were raised.  This is quite understandable, and in one sense probably good.  However, among those many Christian groups which claim that Christianity is the only true religion, and perhaps that their group is the most pure or correct form of it, it is also of concern that people so often continue to affirm whatever was taught to them and support it (at least tacitly) in adulthood.

These folks are often strong on rational analysis and spotting of flaws in the thinking of other religious devotees.  However, they fail to apply the same scrutiny to their own system and its views.  This is one form of the powerful self-serving bias that makes so much of our supposedly rational reasoning far from objective or reality-based.  The “postmodern” perspective that religious believers often scoff at is valuable in that it at least seeks to acknowledge and account for the problem of self-serving bias and its distortion of perception and judgment.

So what am I saying about taking time for reflection and formation of one’s belief system in relation to religious affiliation? I’m saying even more youth should be doing the kind of critical reflection and loosening of ties to any particular religious beliefs or affiliations, at least for a season, that I know many do at this stage of life.  Yet I’m saying to do it by taking time and careful thought, deep exploration into what all the information and experiences of a range of people and religions can teach us.

Don’t let anyone scare you with the threat of hell (or a “Christ-less eternity”) such that you don’t look carefully at other ways to understand the Bible or find relationship with God.  I’ll also urge older readers to go through this process, either for the first time or a second or third time.  In a limited way, we do this many times as different situations and information hit us.  I’m suggesting we do it more systematically and purposefully.

While re-examining beliefs you may have been raised with, don’t let skepticism about religion in general, puzzlement over the Bible or doubt of God’s existence keep you from taking a deeper look at what various groups teach and are like.  Some of them have real wisdom despite not being as widely followed.  The Bible itself is a reflection of various times and stages of primarily Jewish, and then Christian religious development and is understood and applied very differently when viewed as one kind of literature and history versus another.

Realize that once you have made a solid commitment to a community of faith – not just to its people but to its ideas – it may become very difficult to later make major shifts in your beliefs.  You will tend to shut down the influx of new ways of seeing things, of information that may be vital but would challenge one or more of the beliefs you have taken on.

The adage that we see the world through tinted lenses (of our upbringing and/or choosing) is a very apt one.  We come to not even realize that we have layers of “knowledge filters” in front of our mental eyes, some created by the authorities we’ve accepted to bring us what is deemed important or right and some created by ourselves to prevent having to deal with sometimes challenging information that could throw our cherished ideas into question.

Young adult years are important as a time of particular energy and enthusiasm for jumping in to serve others and make a difference in the world.  It might seem that holding back on intellectual commitment to certain religious groups and their evangelizing efforts would work against this.  Not necessarily at all…. People can be expressing and developing basic spiritual principles (compassion, service, etc.) in whatever context they find themselves.

Ask yourself, “How can I contribute and grow without creating difficult-to-change ties to an organization that emphasizes needing to believe in important specific doctrines (views of salvation; God’s intervention in certain ways in human history with a particular geo-political map for the future; eternal destiny, etc.)?” There are probably ways to worship, serve and support others even within such an organization without endorsing or reinforcing these specifics.

Another option, if one’s important family or social group exists in such a church or group, is to find an additional place to be of service that is not as specifically religious.  A great many service organizations, hospitals, etc. are in need of volunteers and will be thrilled to have you.

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