Opting out of Religion: The Suburban Spiritual Experience – Alyssa Hamrick

I’ve lived in the same northern Illinois town for my entire life before coming to UW. It’s not an extremely small town. I went to a regular sized high school, lived in a regular sized subdivision, and spent my time doing regular Chicago suburb activities, such as youth and travel sports, spending time in and around neighboring suburbs with family and friends, and casually attending church on Sunday mornings. In fact, most of my childhood was exceptionally regular, save for the occasional vacation or trip to the city.

When I returned to my suburb following my freshman year at college, all of these regular things were still there. But I started to question if something was truly regular about my childhood – Sunday church. My spring semester, I had taken a religious studies course that discussed the definitions of religion and spirituality, and how they connect with the idea of a God, or lack thereof. And while we had many personally impactful discussions, my biggest take away from this course was the incomprehensible nature of God as a being perpetually cloaked in a mystery we as humans can’t really begin to understand.
The question of whether God as a higher power truly existed remained personally unanswerable. Nevertheless, I was entranced by this fascinating idea of God. So, when I got back home, this new concept freshly branded into my mind, I began to look deeper into the way I attended church growing up and started asking myself how I could possibly consider my church attendance as “regular” if this mystery was the essence of God? How could I just “casually attend church” if what we were doing every Sunday was attempting to connect with this tremendously complicated higher being? I was baptized, went to preschool, and got confirmed all in the same Presbyterian church. I attended regularly when I was very young, frequently when I was in elementary school, infrequently as I went through middle school, and then rarely ever at all through high school. I didn’t think anything of this. We went on the “important” days, like Easter and Christmas, but only if we “had time.” And don’t get me wrong – I still don’t attend church regularly. I still don’t necessarily consider myself religious, but I’ve begun thinking more about why this gradual phasing out of the religious experience was “regular” to me.

Was this a personal perspective, or one that I was conditioned to have by the gradual secularization of everyday life in my town? I saw it everywhere. Instead of church, I would have a soccer game or my brother would have baseball or my sister would have musical rehearsal. People stopped coming to church for things like extended family members being in town or because there was a football game on that they’d been waiting for all week and “they just couldn’t miss it.” These activities and ideas started crowding our Sundays and, eventually, skipping church – or attending casually – became “regular.”

As I’ve begun to reflect on religion and the religiosity of this generation, I find myself wondering why it’s become so easy to opt out of an experience that allows you to explore a concept that satisfies a craving to discover something about yourself while still connecting with those around you. Having turned this thought over in my mind countless times over the summer, I’ve realized that the spiritual curiosity that a religious experience can provide is invaluable. It’s something that deserves a little more thought from everyone and something that can exercise the mind. Most importantly, I’ve realized that it’s anything but regular.

– Alyssa Hamrick