Boomers, Religion and the Meaning of Life

How different would the world be today if George Harrison, the introspective Beatle, hadn't chanced to pick up a sitar during the filming of "Help!" and start plinking away at it? Well, maybe not all that different. But it might have made a difference in the life of Janet Hoffman, who was a college sophomore in 1968 and, while visiting a friend at Berkeley, got dragged to a course in Transcendental Meditation. Harrison's chance encounter with a musical instrument led him to India, at the head of a parade of musicians, journalists, jaded housewives and adventurous college kids seeking to immerse themselves in the timeless, but incredibly fashionable, wisdom of the East. That included Transcendental Meditation, taught by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who as the Beatles' chosen guru automatically became the most celebrated Indian religious figure since Gandhi. As for Hoffman, seeking nothing more than a new experience, she found herself transported to a state of well-being that transcended the mundane pleasures of "a car or a boyfriend or better grades." The experience, she says now with a laugh, was "very '60s."

Yes, very. Americans who came of age in the 1960s were the first generation born in the shadow of the atom bomb; just awakening each morning was something to be thankful for. But they were also the first generation born into mass affluence, for whom material sustenance and comfort were a given, a situation that breeds spiritual hunger. So in addition to everything else the baby boomers were known for—political activism, sexual freedom, Yuppie careerism and a taste for expensive imported cheese—they have also distinguished themselves as what the sociologist Wade Clark Roof calls, in the title of his 1993 book, "A Generation of Seekers." To be sure, followers of the maharishi, or the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, or Hare Krishnas, Scientologists or the people who called themselves Jesus Freaks were a minority among the boomers. "But they were the trendsetters," says Dean Hoge, a sociologist at Catholic University of America. "They were the cultural innovators, and they introduced new things to our culture which are still around."

There have been many generations of seekers in American history, from the Pilgrims to the families who left their farms to follow Brigham Young into the desert. But by the time the boomers came of age in the 1960s, Americans had widened the horizons of their spiritual quest, from such homey venues as Pittsburgh (where the movement known as Bible Students, which gave rise to Jehovah's Witnesses, got its start in the 1870s) to the ashrams of India and the pueblos of the Southwest. Prayer and faith began to seem like awfully old-fashioned paths to revelation, compared with chanting and peyote. A generation raised on television looked to its celebrities for religious inspiration. One of the quintessential boomer religions, Scientology, makes a point of cultivating adherents in Hollywood, and Madonna inspired an entire movement of Hollywood Kabbalists. Did anyone ever think to get spiritual advice from Rudolph Valentino or the Andrews Sisters?

And the boomers wrought another, subtler shift on American religion, turning it from a preoccupation with salvation in the next life to fulfillment in this one. Transcendental Meditation's benefits are immediate, if not always easy to describe. "It gave me immediate experience of the unboundedness of my own nature," Hoffman testifies. But its pitch is increasingly utilitarian. The movement that most Americans still associate with bead-draped hippies now boasts on its Web site about its power to lower blood pressure, and runs an institution in Iowa called the Maharishi University of Management, offering business degrees along with programs in "Maharishi Vedic Science." Likewise, the appeal of Scientology is based almost entirely on its promise to help adherents overcome obstacles to personal achievement. Bob Adams, who joined the church in 1973 when he was a tight end with the Pittsburgh Steelers, said he was in search of "assistance to become a better football player, teacher and parent ... [Scientology] was simple, precise, workable, and I saw effects immediately on the field."

The same impulse to self-improvement spawned the 1970s movement called est and its various imitators and descendants, which do not consider themselves religions but fill some of the same needs in the lives of their followers. est—the lower-case initials stand for "Erhard Seminars Training," named after its charismatic founder, Werner Erhard—ran seminars around the country for people in search of quick epiphanies and transformative experiences. The seminars were on weekends, so the participants could put their new insights and fresh motivation right to work Monday morning. By 1977, est had trained more than 100,000 Americans, including, by newspaper accounts, such luminaries as John Denver and Yoko Ono. "I came away with a sense of being responsible for my own life, that I was somebody who could make a difference," says Nancy Zapolski, 57, who took est training in 1976 and is now a division vice president of an est-inspired training program called Landmark Education. One might well think that boomers have already undergone enough transformation in their lives—at the peak of est's influence, suburban barbecues were full of chatter about marriages that broke up after one party had improved himself so much that he had nothing left to talk about with his spouse—but Zapolski says boomers are still out there, seeking. "Sixty [the age the first boomers are hitting this year] is not what it was before. Boomers are looking at what's next in their lives." A boomer movement with a more explicitly Christian outlook is Promise Keepers, which runs conferences and seminars to fill the emotional and spiritual void of American men, with their infamous hang-ups about intimacy and their occasional propensity toward online pornography.

What fueled this restless impulse for self-transformation, which Todd Gitlin, author of "The Sixties," describes as "a passion to find some new spiritual romance"? Just as many parents suspected at the time, one answer is drugs, according to Nick Bromell, an American-studies professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Drugs opened users' minds to the subjective nature of reality and the shortcomings of reason as the only path to truth. This completed a transformation that began for many boomers when the war in Vietnam and the civil-rights movement led them to question the verities about the America with which they had grown up. "When we discovered the profound gap between the world as described to us by our parents and the world as it actually was," says Bromell, who is 56, "we stepped into a new kind of consciousness." But drugs alone are a spiritual dead end. The Beatles themselves announced in 1967 they were giving up LSD to concentrate on meditation. "Drugs point the way toward a possibility of spiritual growth," Bromell says, "but if you want to go there, you have to devote yourself to rigorous practice."

Phillip Schanker, 52, discovered that himself in 1972, on the quintessential boomer voyage of self-discovery, hitchhiking across the country with friends the summer before college. "We would go camping, we would get high, and I was always questioning, Why are we all so selfish?" he recalls. "I was not looking for religion, but I was looking for answers." He found them in the Unification Church, an organization best known by the name of its founder, Moon, who preaches that God's plan for the world involves uniting the races in Christianity through interracial marriage. Schanker did his part, taking his vows at a mass wedding in Madison Square Garden of 2,000 couples chosen by church leaders. "It looked weird, being told whom to marry," he admits, "but we've been happily married for 24 years."

It did look weird to most Americans, especially in view of the values of individualism and personal freedom that Schanker's generation had so riotously proclaimed a decade earlier. The Unification Church has now largely outgrown its image as a cult, but back in the 1970s joining it was a radical act—as it must have seemed to Schanker's parents, who raised him according to the liberal, rational precepts of Unitarianism. They always respected his choices, he says, even when they didn't agree with them—but it's easy to imagine that other parents weren't so understanding.

Roof makes the point that for some boomers religion became another venue, along with politics and sex, in which to play out their (self-indulgent or courageous, take your pick) drama of revolution. Even their Christianity had a tinge of rebellion about it: they didn't join their parents' church, they became Jesus Freaks, trying to live out a version of the life of the early Christians. Jesus was, in fact, the perfect icon for the hippie era, says Larry Eskridge of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelism at Wheaton College in Illinois. "He's kind of a countercultural figure: the long hair, the sandals, hanging out in the wilderness and oppressed by the establishment."

Perhaps even more satisfyingly outré was the Hare Krishna movement. This was a Hindu sect whose members shaved their heads and paraded in saffron robes, chanting and banging tambourines, and cadging donations from harried travelers in airports. The full-time members, who lived communally in ashrams, probably never exceeded about 4,000, according to Burke Rochford, a sociologist at Middlebury College. But that handful, he says, "really believed they were going to change the nature of American society." Instead, as the movement dwindled in the late 1970s, the ashrams shrank, and devotees, some of whom had joined years earlier as teens, had to make their way in society with little education and no job experience. Hare Krishna is now mostly a religion of Indian immigrants, not white American youths, but it left its mark on those who passed through it, says Graham Schweig, an authority on Eastern religions at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. "They're not all still in the ashrams, but their miracle has been to find the ashram within the mainstream, within themselves, and still function in the world."

Of course, most boomers belonged to none of these movements, but the shared values of that generation have shaped the world we all live in today. Churches now accommodate boomers' demand for autonomy and freedom of choice, says Roof, a phenomenon otherwise known as "niche marketing—you know, motorcyclists for Jesus." He believes that's one of the forces behind the emergence of megachurches—the mall-like institutions that offer a cafeteria of worship options, with services elaborately scored for guitars and keyboard, plus complete lifestyle services, from gyms to food courts and childbirth classes. "Megachurches define this as the way they want to be religious," says Roof, adding: "Boomers love options."

And along with that comes an emphasis on individual conscience and a willingness to question authority. Would the sexual abuse of children by priests have come to light if the 1960s had never happened? Boomers no longer seem interested in tearing down society, although Roof believes they "carry a certain sense of restlessness with them even as they settle down." Their journey has been an eventful one, and in the coming years they will, in increasing numbers, be preparing for the event that used to be called meeting one's maker. They must be curious to know which one it will be.