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Young Adults and Religion


By Lauren Loftus 

Young adults are much less likely than earlier generations to consider themselves “religious.” According to the Pew Research Center, 43 percent of people in the U.S. under age 40 say religion is “very important” to them, compared to 60 percent of adults over 40. 

To Elizabeth Drescher, adjunct associate professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University, that doesn’t mean her students are uninterested in engaging the spiritual and sacred.

Over the past two years, her students have become novice field researchers in the local spiritual landscape. They physically visit sites of spiritual significance-from Presbyterian churches and Sikh gurdwaras to Santa Cruz beaches where locals practice yoga-and document their observations and experiences via a geomapping application, Encounter, developed by Drescher and religious studies adjunct lecturer Jaime Wright, with the support of Living Religion Collaborative student fellows Connor Holttum (‘18), Nick Nagy (‘19), Claire Dixon (‘19), and Casey Xuerub (‘19). 

We chatted with Drescher about the significance of mapping religion and spirituality in Northern California.

What first motivated you to document and plot religious and spiritual spaces with your students? 

I got interested in finding ways to teach religion that move beyond text. My focus is on how ordinary people “do’” religion-how we make it, how we use it in our everyday, ordinary lives. That involves looking at things like religious spaces and taking seriously students’ perspectives on their own religious and spiritual experiences, observations, and reflections.

And that then developed into the Encounter geomap?

Yes. My colleague Jaime Wright and I have a 2018-2019 teaching and technology grant that supports continuing development of the project. Encounter is a story-mapping platform that visually and geospatially tracks students’ experiences in formal and informal religious and spiritual spaces, mapping where they’ve been as well as the stories that define those spaces as sacred. It can be viewed at: https://www.scu.edu/livingreligions/encounter-mapping-religion.

Why is the mapping element-literally plotting points on a digital map of the Bay Area-important?

We want students to tell the story of how religion and spirituality exist in and around the university and local communities. Encounter allows us to see young adults’ perspectives on religion as it shapes and is shaped by landscapes they’re exploring.

What is the value of a tool like Encounter?

We also want Encounter to allow people from outside the university to see how young people experience religion locally. This is way more valuable than, say, a Yelp map of “here are a bunch of spiritual places and reviews.” It’s really a tableau of experiences that young people are both observing and participating in. 

How has this project informed your study of the religiously unaffiliated, AKA “nones,” a demographic that includes more and more young people?

There’s this idea that religion and spirituality are dying. I don’t think that’s exactly what’s happening. I think we’re in a moment where religion and spirituality are being redefined and, importantly, young adults are really central to that redefining. So understanding how they experience and perceive real spaces in which spirituality unfolds is critical.