Free to talk

America’s youth feel freer discussing their religious beliefs than any generation that came before them
Sunday, November 14, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:50 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

In Judith Martin’s book, “Miss Manners’ Guide to Domestic Tranquility,” she notes an unwritten social rule that Americans have handed down to their children for generations. “The children are already learning that people of good will may differ strongly on matters of religion,” she wrote, “and that one gets along with them best by refraining from comment, as well as discussion.”

A change in culture

But in today’s fast-paced society of 24-hour news channels and the Internet, Americans are exposed to more religious diversity than ever before. In this cable-ready society, is talking about religion the taboo that etiquette mavens once said it was?

According to some observers of culture, American teenagers and those in their 20s are comfortable talking about their spiritual beliefs, and, unlike their grandparents, are more at ease with the diversity of beliefs.

“There is a clear generational difference when it comes to talking about one’s faith,” said Tim Drake, a Minnesota-based staff writer with Faith & Family magazine and the National Catholic Register.

Drake said that, in his experience, he has found people in their 60s and 70s were taught that personal beliefs are private and not up for casual discussion.

“This is true of my parents and other older people whom I know,” he said. “I recall my mother-in-law saying that, when she was younger, they wouldn’t even tell one another when they were expecting a child. Religion, like sex, just wasn’t talked about.”

But now, Drake said, it seems younger people are more willing to discuss personal issues because they were raised in an environment that encourages them to share their stances on sex, politics and religion.

“Because these issues have been in their face most of their lives, youth and young adults feel very comfortable talking about their religious beliefs,” he said.

Rod Hetzel, professor of psychology at LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, agrees that young people may be more willing to discuss their religious views because of the environment they have been raised in and the greater openness of today’s society. He suggests there is a greater tolerance of religions today because people are exposed to much more media than they used to be.

“We have access to information 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “The world is at our fingertips through the World Wide Web.”

Hetzel said younger people are more inclined to discuss their spiritual beliefs because they are trying to figure out who they are and how they feel about issues. Discussion helps them explore all their options and decide how they feel.

An environment of acceptance

“The task of young people is to establish an identity,” he said. “Many young people are developing who they are and doing so in an accepting environment. That might be the difference between college students and people who are older and more set in their beliefs.”

Rob Miller, a 21-year-old MU student, said he feels comfortable talking about spiritual beliefs with those he’s close to, and he’s not afraid to disagree on the issues.

“I can talk with my really close friends,” he said. “But in a group of people I don’t know, I probably won’t say anything.”

The discussion occurs between even younger people as well. Debbie Sheals, an architectural historian from Columbia, said her 16-year-old son recently became interested in religion and that he and his friends discuss their views often.

“He is intrigued,” she said. “I think they (teenagers) are more open.”

Todd Narrol, a portfolio coordinator for the MU College of Education, said he noticed a similar trend when he taught a class that included religious studies at a high school in Harrisburg. Many of his students weren’t hesitant to share their beliefs in class, he said.

“They weren’t afraid at all,” Narrol said. “I certainly agreed with their right to speak their minds.”

If the younger generation of American society is so open to discussing its views, what’s keeping others from doing the same?

Rebecca “Kiki” Weingarten, a life and career coach and co-founder of the New York City-based, said she has found that some of her clients hesitate to discuss their religious beliefs because they worry about how they will come across to others.

“Many of them say that revealing their religious beliefs might cause them to be discriminated against, or to be thought of as discriminating against others,” Weingarten said.

She said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks may explain part of the reluctance. Although people seemed to turn to religion after the attacks, she said they also became much more hesitant to discuss it.

“I worked with many people after 9/11,” she said. “For many, religion began to play a larger role in their lives at the same time that they started talking about it less.”

Victoria Moran, an international speaker on personal growth and spirituality and the author of the best-selling book “Creating a Charmed Life,” said a rise in fundamentalism, whether Christian, Muslim or other, has caused some to stop talking.

“Many people are certain that their way is the only way,” she said. “That means there’s no room for dialogue, for sharing diverse ways of seeing issues.”

Moran also said that some people tend to define their religions so narrowly that they leave others out. “I think it is very frightening because when any ideology becomes so rigid and exclusive you get this ‘us and them’ way of seeing the world and it is very hard to work together for the good of everybody,” she said.

Moran said she hopes society will take the lead of the younger generation and learn to agree to disagree.

“We need to say, ‘This is how I see it, it’s what I truly believe and I understand that you have an equal conviction that’s different,’” she said.

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