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Marginalized Spiritualities

07 April 10

How engaged are young people in our cities in forms of religion, either conventional or new?  Two studies conducted at Edinburgh University have brought the academic skills of geographers to bear on this issue facing religion in urban society.

Betsy Olson is based in the School of Geosciences at Edinburgh University and has worked on two projects funded by the Religion and Society Programme.  The first and smaller study looked at religious identities among young people in Glasgow, the second at spirituality in areas of deprivation. 

For our podcast, recorded in April 2010, Betsy Olson was in conversation with Norman Winter. 

  • Hear the summary of the interview above [4min58sec].
  • Listen to part of the complete conversation, describing the scope of the two studies here.
  • Listen to the conclusion of the conversation about new landscapes of spirituality among young people in areas of deprivation here.
  • Listen to the complete conversation here.

Her first study revealed a high degree of understanding of religious ideas among middle-class youth who associate themselves with churches.  They are very creative in finding new networks, rituals and relationships, and they challenge received ways of viewing religion. 

But in the course of that first study she also identified what others called “the elephant in the room”.  Young people in areas of deprivation were alienated from religious structures, and appeared to lack a language for spirituality and an interest in it.

She and a larger team then embarked on a study focused on young people in areas of deprivation in Glasgow and Manchester to investigate whether they could find any ways in which these young people were constructing a landscape that could be understood as spiritual.  It involved a willingness to listen to language in a new way, and to view the experiences of these subjects very openly.

The young people they spoke with had experiences very different from their middle-class “posh” neighbours even though they lived in the same city.  They were more acquainted with mortality, and were more fearful.  Some were carers and encountering death; others had first-hand experience of violence, sometimes fatal.  Possibly as a consequence, and possibly because they have very little connection with any received religious institutions or knowledge, they speculate a great deal about ghosts, spirits, and what happens after death.

At the present time [April 2010] the study is still in progress.  Betsy Olson believes that any researcher with a sense of moral obligation would want to help contribute to such communities, not merely observe them and move on, so teams of young people have been formed in each city as part of the study and are being trained in video production which will lead to the making of observations by the young people themselves of the issues.

The team conducting this second body of research describe it as a study of marginalised spirituality. As well as among the young people themselves they have been looking into the response of religious leadership to these questions, and whether the broader community is relating to this new landscape.  Their findings so far are mixed, but their study highlights the ways in which religion has often distanced itself from these challenges, and the scepticism with which religious institutions are often but not always regarded in such areas.

Though the study has yet to be completed and written up, Betsy Olson observes on the basis of work done so far that many vulnerable young people experience spirituality most concretely in supportive relationships.  Yet these relationships themselves are vulnerable, and those who need them most often disengage, and “fall through the net”, and lose this most valuable resource.

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