The muezzin’s call rang out over the masjid speakers, reciting the Islamic kalima, or statement of faith, and my mother grabbed my hand as we separated from my father and brother to answer the call to prayer. It was one of the occasional times my family went to our mosque in Miami, but at age eight, I was already aware that we were walking to the women’s section behind the men’s, separated by a row of dividers across the middle of a large prayer room. The unpatterned wall of beige dividers towered over me when I was a child, but as time went on, they never really felt smaller. They blocked our view of the imam, or religious leader, and we prayed, listening to his disembodied voice recite excerpts from the Quran.
After years of the same routine, I remember one day finally asking my mother why we had to pray separate from the men. Her answer, somewhat vague, combined the notion of prioritizing spiritualism, that the separation allowed mosque-goers to focus on God alone and because of tradition — this was what had always been done. I was temporarily comforted by her answer, but I couldn’t help but wonder why it was the women who were delegated behind the barriers.
I wasn’t the first person to ask these questions, nor will I be the last. Members of the reformist Muslim community have combatted questions like these for years, with some groups staging protests against gendered practices. In 2003, activist and journalist Asra Q. Nomani challenged her mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia by praying in the men’s section rather than the secluded women’s section on the balcony. She argued, “The prophet Muhammad didn’t put women behind partitions, and the barriers were just emblematic of sexist man-made rules.” Her actions resulted in a trial organized by the mosque. Years later, a group of women, led by Fatimah Thompson, in Washington, D.C., staged a similar act of civil disobedience and were consequently escorted out by police force.
Nomani spoke on NPR’s series “Faith Matters” to expand on the importance of breaking gender segregation, “… the mosque is not just a prayer space, it is a community hall. It is a place where public policy in the community is established. And what happens when you sequester women into these corners, is we dont vote at elections. We don't participate in policy development. And so, you allow these places to become safe houses for ideology that may not be peaceful always.” She proposes that while she wishes to abolish gender segregation in mosques, she still respects women who feel safer praying in their respective sections and believes women should have the option to pray where they please.
Their movement is one of many across America — and the larger world — that reflect a shift in the way we approach spirituality in an increasingly secularized world. Traditionally, we have viewed organized religion and religious traditions as an applied, systematic reflection of one’s spirituality, but religion and spirituality are not always the same.
In a 2017 poll, the Pew Research Center reported that 27 percent of U.S. adults identify as spiritual but not religious. This number reflects a steady increase, which is estimated to increase by 8 percentage points in the five years after the study. Other studies report Americans who identify their religious affiliation as “nothing in particular” have grown by 5 percent. Indeed, people are leaving their sects, but are they in search of something else?
My personal sense of spirituality centers around the belief that I am only a small piece of a larger, unexplainable world. Rather than letting this scare me, spirituality tells me that in my existence there is balance, and within the madness there is meaning. Growing up, I sincerely appreciated the role religion played in my life. I recall reciting prayers before I slipped my mask on at fencing tournaments, before taking exams or before just about any challenge I prepared myself to face. I didn’t pray to mystically improve my skills, but rather to acknowledge aspects of life that were beyond my own control. Praying was putting out the energy to “the forces that be” — asking for a just outcome.
My need for change regarding my spirituality arose not because of the way it was applied in my life. What troubled me was when forms of spirituality, which I have always held as a source of empowerment, seemed to disempower my existence. As I grew older, I remember continuing to ask my mother about why our experiences at the mosque felt so distant and different from those of my father and brother. Despite her honest efforts, I no longer felt satisfied by the religious explanations for differences within our practices of the same faith. I found myself confused with what to do with the faith I still felt but had no way of directing. I felt I could never embrace a belief system that didn’t value me — and all people — in the same way.
Other modern worshippers within organized religion have often grappled with this sense of disempowerment within their communities, particularly those with marginalized identities, like women or members of the LGBTQ+ community. Oppressive beliefs within religious communities can even extend beyond marginalized groups in their impact and can inhibit the altruistic objectives that many religious groups strive to fulfill. In late March, a temporary New York City hospital intended to treat COVID-19 patients, funded by Christian evangelist group Samaritan’s Purse, required volunteers to agree to a “statement of faith” that says “marriage is exclusively the union of one genetic male and one genetic female” before allowing them to volunteer.
As population statistics have reflected, modern ideas of faith have been changing, and members of established organized religions are left with the question of whether or not to adapt. The Muslim reformists protesting gender segregation demonstrate one of many ways policy changes are being made within religious communities to reflect a commitment to equity and inclusion. Similarly, recent years have seen the growth of Christian LGBTQ+ support groups, such as The Naming Project, which aims to “provide a safe and sacred space where youth of all sexual orientations and gender identities are named and claimed by a loving God” through camps and programming for LGBTQ+ youth. According to Catholic news publication Crux, Pope Francis has said that homosexual tendencies are “not a sin” and has famously answered, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about his stance on homosexuality.
Here in Ann Arbor, the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor has emphasized their commitment to inclusivity through a church resolution stating that church members must “speak out against hate-speech, physical attacks, and threats aimed at individuals or groups. (They) work to make (their) communities free of hatred and intimidation.” These efforts aim to make faith more inclusive, equitable and accessible to a broader range of people across socioeconomic, racial and gender identities, among others.
Still, as statistics show an increase of those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious, new spiritual outlets outside of organized religions have increased in popularity. Pop culture has reflected a growing awareness of avenues of spirituality that fall beyond popular religions. Weekly astrological horoscopes in magazines, like those in Cosmopolitan and The Huffington Post, have become widely popularized. Film and television, driven by magical realism and themes of environmentalism and spiritualism, such as “My Neighbor Totoro,” have been critically acclaimed and widely viewed, grossing over $30 million at the box office. A core theme of James Cameron’s “Avatar,” the second highest grossing film of all time, is environmental spiritualism.
Even social conceptions of organized religion have broken into the public consciousness through award-winning films such as “The Master” starring Joaquin Phoenix and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, which portrays Scientology and grants the public insight into religious ideologies that weren’t previously widely known.
Why people leave their religious groups or seek out different expressions of spirituality is a question with multitudes of answers based on experience and context. To understand a bit more about how young people are dealing with the tension between spirituality and religion, I spoke to a few college students on their own journeys to a new spirituality.
In a phone interview with The Daily, Sydney Merydith, an incoming college freshman at The New School in New York City, described her relationship with astrology as “providing a greater sense of understanding whatever life presents,” and that while she uses astrology to define herself, she wouldn’t describe the practice as a religion. In fact, she turned to astrology after feeling what she describes as “the danger of the rigidity that comes with organized religion.”
Merydith’s concerns about rigidity are echoed by researchers studying the driving forces behind the religiously unaffiliated. In journalist Kevin Shrum’s analysis of James E. White’s book “Facts and Trends, Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated,” he remarks that one of White’s key explanations for movement away from the Christian church is that “the church is too narrow-minded and unbending on moral issues” and “antiquated in its methodologies.” Essentially, some have felt that the restrictions of organized religion do not fully encapsulate what spirituality means for them and that its methodologies are alienating.
Raised Catholic, Merydith said, “My experience with organized religion made me scared and angry at the idea of any religion — but as I discovered more aspects to spirituality, I realized that believing that was in itself a rigid way of thinking. Astrology helped me open up to finding my own spiritual path.”
Indeed, astrology has acted as a mechanism for many to expand their conceptions of spiritualism. Pew Research Center data shows that 29 percent of Americans believe in astrology and its growing cultural acceptance has been unseen since the 1970s. The data also reflects that many couple their belief in organized religion with a belief in other spiritual conceptions, labeled “New Age” by the Pew Research Center, like astrology.
In The New Yorker, journalist Christine Smallwood describes the growing population of those who believe in astrology as remarkable. “It’s not just that you hear (about astrology). It’s who’s saying it: people who aren’t kooks or climate-change deniers, who see no contradiction between using astrology and believing in science. The change is fuelling (sic) a new generation of practitioners.” This reveals another aspect of some modern spiritualists; they question the balance between faith and science.
Shrum’s summary of White’s book “The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated” addresses this notion by explaining that another reason we can see a population shift away from organized religion, particularly Christianity, is because of its lack of evidence or scientific explanation regarding key tenets of the religion, such as the creation myth. This struggle is heightened within an increasingly secular world.
Gehenna Garcia, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, described growing up in a Christian household in which she was told reading religious magazines, such as “The Origin of Life – Five Questions Worth Asking,” would answer her broader questions regarding faith’s relationship to science.
“It explained that the chance of the Big Bang and evolution was minuscule, but they never gave evidence regarding their God. It was extremely hard for me to believe in one omnipotent God.”
Even after moving away from Christianity, she maintained her spirituality, “While in the religion, my beliefs were that spirituality was the belief in God, praising his name, and spreading his word throughout the world. After moving away from conventional religion, I began to realize that spirituality was our connection to ourselves and this world.”
After identifying as agnostic, Garcia recently discovered Wicca, which she described as “the belief that we should worship the Earth and give back what it gave us,” from her roommate who was taking a history class on witchcraft. She now identifies as a pagan and also believes in astrology.
Garcia discovered paganism, a religion not related to the three major world religions — Islam, Judaism and Christianity — and that invovles nature worship, after she had already begun to practice witchcraft, and found it easy to merge the two belief systems. Describing the process, she said, “I still felt as if I was missing something. I had always had issues believing in one god, but with paganism, there are pantheons of gods and goddesses … after discovering paganism and doing extensive research, it was easy to change my path in witchcraft to please the gods and goddesses that I prefer to give offerings to and work with.”
Her synthesis of belief systems reflects an increasing personalization of faith and spirituality. As some choose to believe in a structured faith system as well as astrology, or a combination of a number of spiritual-based ideologies, modern spirituality can be a customized process, self-determination based on the factors one aligns with.
Merydith navigates astrology with her friends with the same sense of fluidity. “We like to read as much as the stars have to tell us, and decide for ourselves if it’s something we believe, something that could guide our actions or something that just isn’t really useful or applicable.”
Yet for those who choose to explore “new age” outlets for spirituality, how have they connected to each other without the traditional meeting places we expect from organized religions?
Some, like Garcia, have turned to the internet. For every subgroup, there are pages on Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr and other social media websites connecting believers across cities and continents. Garcia discovered astrology through the blogging website Tumblr and discovered other spiritualists like her through the app TikTok.
“TikTok has actually connected me with other people who have the same beliefs as me … the people who have been in my faith for a long time help those of us who are fairly new. It was and still is, really difficult to find people who have the same ideology as me in real life. Many people are scared or turned away from my beliefs,” she said.
Shared spirituality also allows one to feel connected to a greater purpose or meaning. Across traditional organized religions, reformed religions, “new age” spiritualism, niche spiritual sects or a combination thereof, there’s a common part of us that gains comfort in being an accepted part of something bigger than ourselves.
In this time of year where Instagram feeds are flooded with pictures of celebrations of Passover, Easter and Ramadan, it’s obvious that traditions of togetherness, family and reflection are still important vehicles that drive spirituality and religious practice. Maybe before focusing on where religion is headed, we must consider what it has been for us thus far: Something that brings us together.
As my family gears up for Ramadan, I am once again faced with the question of what exactly I believe. Spirituality has been a journey for me, and I still find it hard to fully place myself at a single destination. However, while this uncertainty used to give me anxiety, writing this piece has been truly therapeutic. Realizing that new methods of spirituality are growing in popularity and acceptance, that millions of other Americans don’t quite have their own spirituality narrowed down and that there are people out there I can connect with when I do feel like connecting, has given me the reassurance I’ve been searching for. Spirituality is not all or nothing, it just simply is. I do not have to be the perfect Muslim. I do not have to be anything at all. I simply believe — and that’s enough.
Sarah Rahman is a freshman in LSA studying Political Science and Economics and can be reached at email@example.com.