“The main creed that I like to refer to when I think of Vedanta is as Swami Vivekananda said: ‘If you’re a Christian, be a good Christian. If you’re a Muslim, be a good Muslim. If you’re a Hindu, be a good Hindu.’”
This is the comment of 17 year-old Akhil, a young man interviewed as part of a new study released by the Search Institute’s Center for Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence. The study is the first report from an ambitious project reaching across cultures, languages, and traditions to understand how today’s global youth experience and think about their spiritual growth. Focused on advancing the scientific study of this area of human development, the guiding philosophy of the endeavor is that good science is the key to good practice in fostering the formation and growth of spiritual identity.
I attended a presentation of the study results this week, and walked away with increased curiosity about how young people around the world are shaping their spiritual sense of self and the overall importance of that dimension in their lives. The exploratory findings in the report include data from focus groups, interviews, and surveys with youth ages 12–25 across 17 countries from Cameroon to Syria to the United States. Some intriguing points include:
- When asked “what does it mean to be spiritual?,” the most common response among youth in all countries was a belief in God. In Cameroon, 4 percent responded that they don’t know or don’t think there is a spiritual dimension to life compared to 28 percent in Australia and 10 percent in the U.S.
- Thirty-four percent of youth surveyed indicated they are both religious and spiritual. In focus groups, they talked about the relationships between these two ideas, but their descriptions revealed little consensus. “Spirituality is the search for answers and religion provides the answers” (15-year old female from the UK). “You don’t have to be religious to be spiritual, but you have to be spiritual to be religious” (15-year old Canadian male). In Thailand, this question was not included in the survey because there is no distinction between the two words in the language or culture.
- In response to the question “What makes spiritual development easier or harder?” the top response for making it easier was spending time outside or in nature (87%) while the top response for making it harder was experiencing grief, pain, or loss (44%).
- Youth surveyed most often nurture spiritual development alone or by helping others. Top-rated activities include reading books, praying or meditating by oneself, and regularly helping people who are in need. Across all countries, family was the most common source of support for young people in their spiritual growth, followed by friends.
A panel of international advisors followed the presentation, providing additional context to the findings. Lori Noguchi of the Chinese-based Badi Foundation commented that there is a remarkable desire among youth in China to explore questions of spirituality when given the opportunity. In Chinese education, there is a strong moral component, but it is often scripted and doesn’t match with young people’s reality — and that creates a crisis for many around spiritual development.
Kelly Dean Schwartz, a Canadian social psychologist, remarked that areas of spiritual development that need much more attention include the role of doubt in adolescent spirituality, the role of arts, media, and technology, and the role of sexuality. He oversaw a focus group of Canadian youth for the study. When he stopped filming the group and tried to take their discussion to a deeper level, that’s when participants opened up more and expressed a connection between sexuality and spiritual development in their lives.
A program on this topic is on our long list. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, please share.