Study: Many Faithful Experience Change of Heart According to a new survey by the Pew Forum on Religious Life, 44 percent of adults change their religious affiliation from that of their childhood. A roundtable of spiritual counselors discusses how the challenges of intimate interfaith relationships might support the new findings.
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Study: Many Faithful Experience Change of Heart

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Study: Many Faithful Experience Change of Heart

Study: Many Faithful Experience Change of Heart

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MARTIN: We are going to move now from the world of politics to the world of faith. It's time for our weekly Faith Matters conversation. New research this week shows that more and more Americans find themselves changing their faith. According to a new survey by the Pew Forum on religious life, nearly 44 percent of adults will, at some point, move away from the religion they were raised in. And that prompted us to wonder, why so many people leave the church of their birth of the faith of their birth or faith tradition and what that change means for their relationships.

We have a panel of folks who are both religious leaders and counselors joining us to talk about that. Tenzi Lhamo is a Tibetan Buddhist nun. She was ordained by the Dalai Lama. Also with us is the Rev. Dr. Bernard Richardson. He is Dean of Howard University's Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel. He is an ordained minister and a counselor. We are also joined by Dr. Marion Usher. She's a clinical Professor of Psychiatry at George Washington University School of Medicine, and she runs an interfaith program at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center. Welcome to all of you. Thank you all so much for coming.

TENZI LHAMO: You're welcome. Thank you.


MARION USHER: Thank you.

MARTIN: Let's begin with you, Rev. Richardson. It seems that - it just seems unusual - in fact, the data shows that it's, that more Americans are willing to move across religious lines than they were when, you know, you and I were growing up. Why do you think that is?

RICHARDSON: Michel, for me it's not unusual. I'm surprised that we don't have more of, more movement, because we're living in a consumer culture. And our culture tells us it's okay to choose. And we don't have the same kinds of ties everyone's had in the community. So, therefore, we are attracted to those faiths, those denominations which meet our needs as a society.

MARTIN: Tenzi, you have a faith journey that's along these lines. Will you just tell us about it briefly?

LHAMO: Sure. I was raised in a Catholic family. And I actually had 16 years of Catholic education behind me. And believe it or not, my sister was a Catholic nun. But as...

MARTIN: Was, was it's, past tense?

LHAMO: Yes, she passed away.

MARTIN: I'm sorry.

LHAMO: That's okay. And so as my life unfolded, going to its own particular path, I found that the Catholic religion didn't answer the questions that life itself was posing to me. So I went through a period of about 20 years without any religion. But I was looking for something to believe in. And when I found Buddhism, it answered more questions than any other belief system I had seen. So when people come to me either for class or for therapy, I'm so able to understand the hunger they have for something to believe in, and at the same time, the fears they have about investing faith in something that they can't prove. So my own personal search comes into play in understanding them.

MARTIN: Dr. Usher, the survey shows that all major religions are both gaining and losing at the same time, you know, that sort of flow works different ways with different sort of denominations. But in the Jewish faith, that question of leaving and coming is perhaps more fraught, would that be fair to say, than in other faith traditions?

USHER: Certainly, there's a group of people who are very concerned about this issue, and it and it has been on the forefront since the National Jewish Population Study was done in 1992, the first one. I'm in a unique position in that the couples who come to my workshops at the Washington, D.C. JCC are all actually in search of creating a religious life together. So this is sort of a little bit in a positive trend compared to the Pew study that was just done, and frankly, a very exciting trend in that the couples who come to the workshops are actually looking for something.

There are many interfaith couples out in the world today who are not particularly going to have a religious life, and that doesn't inform their - either the structure of their lives or their marriages or their family life. But the couples who've come over the past, well over a decade, to the JCC for these four session workshops are all yearning to create something. And one of the exciting things is that they're in a unique position to create something for themselves that has meaning and value.

MARTIN: But is it a source of stress for some families? One can see, first of all, for many reasons, historical reasons as well as sort of for religious reasons, where losing a member of that faith tradition would be very traumatic for someone. Or - and even I can see where it goes the other way, where someone becomes kind of a more spiritually interested than a partner, that that could be traumatic. Have you found that to be the case, Dr. Usher?

USHER: Of course. That's certainly an issue that comes up all the time about the - there's always loss in an interfaith couple. One person, if they're going to have a lead religion and establish a lead religion in their family as they create it - first getting married and then having children - there's always a loss because the lead religion is the one that dominates the family. Some people choose to do both equally in the family. And when there are children, that is not the easiest way and not the most secure to have a religious identity for the children.

MARTIN: Tenzi, you were saying - I'm sorry, I was going to go to Tenzi now. You were saying that this, you have found this to be the case with couples who come for counseling. Does religious churning or yearning become a point of stress for some whom you've counseled?

LHAMO: I put it in more positive terms. I think that it's a mark of maturity for people to be able to choose the faith of their own belief and their own predilection. And when people come to me, what they're longing for is authenticity. And I think it's a mark of spiritual evolution and development for people to have the courage to say even though this has met my needs and met my family's needs or been culturally appropriate, it's time for me to find something that answers my deeper questions. And it takes a certain courage and a certain longing for authenticity. And I regard that as whether they choose to be authentic together and find a shared belief system or they have to choose their individual paths. I regard it - both ways are positive.

MARTIN: Dr. Richardson, I wanted to ask you, does your faith tradition offer guidance on this point religiously, how one should handle this? I believe this question was addressed in the gospels.

RICHARDSON: Yes, it has, but it is important to recognize that - as you talked about balancing, the issue becomes intimacy. And intimacy is important - intimacy in a clinical sense, the ability to share yourself with someone without losing yourself in the process.

And so our faith tradition tells us that - my faith tradition tells us that even - that I have to be a better human being. My faith should make me a better human being, so therefore, I should be more compassionate. I should be more loving. I should be more forgiving, and these are important in establishing a very good, intimate relationship.

MARTIN: But what if one party is now - feels called to adopt sort of certain practices that the other party doesn't then want to participate in, like if somebody wants to go to church regularly, as opposed to occasionally or never. One wants to participate heavily in activities, and the other party does not. Or in the case of the Jewish faith, there are sort of dietary requirements that one would then need to - some would want to embrace that the other party would have to be onboard with. What do you think? Dr. Usher, I want to hear from you, too. Go ahead.

RICHARDSON: I think compassion, understanding is important, and understanding of the reasons behind this change. I think that's critical, that we have to understand why a person's beginning this change. Is it related to the faith? Or it may be related to the marriage, issues in the marriage. And so we...

USHER: Michel, you're bringing up very important issues here in terms of couples' relationships. One of the important things is when you start a process with an interfaith couple is for me to talk about what their relationship is like and when - what attracted each of them to each other. And then we evolve into taking a look at, well, when did religion come up as an issue, and then how did they struggle with it, and then where are they stuck with it? So that it's put into the context of the relationship. It doesn't stand out there all by itself as an isolated part, just like you would talk about any parts about a relationship: intimacy, work, money, sexuality. And religion becomes embraced in their relationship.

MARTIN: Does it - is there a - does the Torah or Talmud offer instruction on how couples should address this question? Does it come up?

USHER: Well, I'm not so sure I would like to quote religious sources.


USHER: But what I would like to quote is the concern in the greater Jewish community about having a decrease in the number of Jews in the world today, and certainly, I feel strongly about that. And that is sort of the basic underpinnings of why I do this work in the community because I feel so strongly of trying to help couples and welcome them into the community and see that they can be welcome and struggle with these issues and find a place for themselves.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us - I'm sorry. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News, and we're talking about the challenge of changing religion, especially within the context of intimate relation.

Dr. Richardson, though, how do you - what about the question of people who had a sort of religious affiliation and say, you know what? I don't believe it anymore. I just don't believe it anymore. It doesn't make sense to me.

RICHARDSON: I depends - yeah. For example, in the college environment, that question is an important one, a critical one, but it's also part of a process. and that may be a positive thing for someone to struggle with their faith to have a more authentic faith. They begin to really question what they learned as a child.

And so, you have people who will go through changes and come to the place where they have a more authentic faith because they begin to ask those questions.

MARTIN: Tenzi, if someone were to be starting the journey that you have been on for these many years, someone were to be in a place of saying that I have questions which my current belief system doesn't answer, and I feel myself pursuing something else, how would you propose that person start? And how would you propose that the person who, if that person is in partnership with someone, handle it?

LHAMO: Well, I like what has been said so far, especially about the issue of the intimacy. And what I found in our culture is so many of us aren't intimate with ourselves. And I don't believe there can be a healthy intimacy in any relationship unless we find a way to be intimate with ourselves.

What I've seen is that's a process of articulation. And so many people, no matter if they're - I actually have someone in their late 80s trying to articulate their beliefs. And if they've never taken the step of putting into words this is what life means to me. This is what I think the meaning of life is. This is how I fit into the meaning of life, and this is how I can align myself through my belief system with the meaning of life, then it gives them a very solid foundation and actually one that people can stand on - no matter if there's a variation. Kind of like in couples now, some are for Hillary and some are for Obama, but they're both committed to politics. It's very similar, right? So the process...

MARTIN: I hadn't thought of it that way. I wouldn't have thought of that.


LHAMO: So the process begins with articulation, and that requires overcoming fear and overcoming skepticism. A lot of people confuse skepticism with intelligence, especially the young people here in Washington. So to be unafraid to say what you believe and commit to it individually, then that plays out into relationships and into...

MARTIN: Dr. Richardson, very briefly?

RICHARDSON: You know, our faith is dynamic. It's always changing. And so even if you're of the same faith, the way we practice that faith or how we believe changes. For example, there's a difference how we practice our faith in the first half of life and how we practice in the second half of life.

MARTIN: Reverend Dr. Bernard Richardson is dean of Howard University's Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel. He was kind enough to join us here in our studio in Washington, as was Tenzi Lhamo. She's a Tibetan Buddhist nun who was ordained by the Dalai Lama. We were also joined by Dr. Marion Usher. She's a clinical professor of psychiatry at George Washington University School of Medicine, and she runs an interfaith program at the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Center. She joined us from WXEL in Florida. Thank you all so much for speaking with us, and I hope you'll come back.

PALMO: Thank you.

USHER: My pleasure.

RICHARDSON: Thank you.

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