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Is There a Religious Generation Gap?

The notion of a generation gap has been around for decades, but apparently it’s becoming even more pronounced.  I recently came across a study by the Pew Research Center that reported a widening chasm between the generations — especially when it comes to values, beliefs and religion.

See also: 6 spiritual leaders reflect on the power of prayer.

Ah yes, religion — something that has been at the heart of conflicts for thousands of years. As AARP’s resident expert on family and intergenerational issues, I’m constantly hearing stories like these:

  • A college student disavows her parents’ religion, causing them to withdraw financial support for her education.

  • Parents of gay or lesbian couples won’t accept their children’s relationship, saying that it runs counter to their own religious beliefs.

  • Grandparents worry that grandchildren aren’t being raised in the family’s faith tradition and, as a result, they don’t feel comfortable incorporating their grandkids into their own religious lives.

  • Older generations lament that younger family members don’t value the religious practices that have been a source of great comfort to them throughout their lives.

  • Family gatherings for religion-based holidays and celebrations are tense and uncomfortable because not everyone shares the same set of values and beliefs.

These stories make me think of that age-old question: If most religions are based in love, why do religious differences cause such conflict?  I can’t answer that, but I can offer this advice to families who feel divided by differences in religious and spiritual beliefs:

Find common ground. Look for the elements of your beliefs that are similar and focus on those. Perhaps your family can celebrate religious holidays together because you love the traditions themselves, even if you don't agree on underlying religious elements. Try to find the basics of universal love within your spiritual views, and embrace those common elements together. Can you agree that you are all seeking meaning in life and celebrate that fact together, accepting that you don't all seek it in the same way?

Use positive communication skills. Be available to your family members, respect them as you wish them to respect you, and really listen. You don't have to agree, but if you turn off the chatter in your mind and stop trying to formulate your response while your relative is talking, she will feel heard, and you might better understand her beliefs.

Set compassionate boundaries. You may not want to engage in discussions about religion, because they always seem to lead to arguments and pain, or you simply may not want to participate in religious practices that are not your own.  You should try to be accepting and compassionate, but you should also be clear about what you will and won’t do — and communicate that to your relatives in a loving and diplomatic way.

Agree to disagree. In some families, conversations about religion can become so charged that people end up screaming, angry and feeling alienated.  Such contentious discussions usually lead to nothing more than repetitive-stress injury of the heart.  In cases like this, it may be best to keep the topic of religion off limits at family gatherings. This may be an approach that will work for you. It doesn't mean either party has been defeated. On the contrary, it means the parties value their family relationship so much that they want to protect it.