This is the spirit in which a 13-year-old San Diego boy, Beau Bressler, passed up his Bar Mitzvah money to raise cash to build a school in Uganda. It also explains why, when Tiffany M. Gardner left her job as a mergers and acquisitions attorney at a New York law firm in 2005, she took an extended trip to rural Cambodia, where she volunteered with a women's rights organization. "The trip was very spiritual," Gardner says. "I did a ton of self-reflection. And that's how I got the idea to start my nonprofit One World Foundation, which sends young people of color to developing countries to do service projects. They're forgoing summer vacation—not to mention lucrative summer jobs or internship opportunities—to do volunteer work."
"There's a new attitude uniting several movements at once," says Arielle Ford, who tracks lifestyle trends for Gaiam, the catalog company with a spiritual bent. "People are pointing themselves toward something external, and larger—a way of living on Earth that's socially aware and spiritually conscious. It's very different from ten or 20 years ago. The New Age movement and what it became, the so-called personal growth movement, was really self-focused and self-directed. Now we yearn for unity, for connection and community. We want to take care of the planet. And we're asking, 'What is my purpose?'"
"As they say around the Zen temples in Japan, near where I live now," notes Iyer, "just to ask about the point of life is the first step toward finding it. And I often feel that the center of any spiritual life is not faith but a fruitful doubt. By those criteria, I think we're moving in a very good direction in America today."
Doubt brings people together, it turns out, just as much as faith. Sally Quinn, the Washington Post journalist, stumbled upon this truth in 2006. For years an atheist, Quinn had begun to contemplate the possibility of the existence of God. She found herself in long philosophical conversations with Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, and wondered if it wouldn't be exciting to start a blog where others could join in. Quinn imagined something modest—one page, a weekly panel discussion—when she proposed the idea to the Post and Newsweek. Within four months of its launch, the site—On Faith—became so popular that feature pages were added, guest bloggers were approached, and a support staff was hired.
"Everybody wants to share their beliefs, and hear yours," says Quinn. "I'm constantly cornered at parties by people who want to talk about God—or confess their atheism. This is something that never—ever—used to happen at a Washington party. The subject was completely off-limits. But now I think people want to connect in a deeper way and talk about things that really matter."
Not incidentally, this is the kind of conversation that is, according to the great religious philosopher Martin Buber, where we also meet up with God. "When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly," Buber wrote, "God is the electricity that surges between them."
—Additional reporting by Whitney Fuller