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Beyond
Spirituality Isn’t Going Away

Even as fewer Americans profess a strong religious affiliation, more are describing a sense of metaphysical wonder about the universe. From Pew:

Americans have become less religious in recent years by standard measures such as how important they say religion is to them and their frequency of religious service attendance and prayer. But, at the same time, the share of people across a wide variety of religious identities who say they often feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being as well as a deep sense of wonder about the universe has risen.

… The rise in spirituality has been happening among both highly religious people and the religiously unaffiliated.

The Pew numbers provide still more evidence that, as we’ve written before, “human beings feel instinctively that the visible reality that we live in day to day is connected to something larger and more mysterious.” In 21st-century America, as “cultural Catholicism” decays, and as the organizational and doctrinal foundations of liberal Protestantism fade into the ether, that feeling is becoming increasingly disconnected from traditional religious institutions. Instead, it’s being expressed through different channels, like spirituality, superstition, and even, in some ways, secular liberal politics.

For those of us who think organized religion is good for America’s social and cultural life, the decline in religious affiliation is clearly less than ideal. But we can take heart that it’s not giving way to pure non-belief, either. The big question, going forward, is whether this continued, and even increasing, interest in spirituality will reconnect itself to religious institutions as Millennials start families, Boomers age, and churches attempt to find new ways of speaking to and reaching unaffiliated Americans, or whether that interest will remain unmoored.

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  • Jim__L

    The “spiritual but not religious” types always confused me. It’s like saying you like listening to an orchestra tuning up, playing snatches of half-remembered tunes, but you don’t like actual music.

    Any decline in voluntary organized religious groups is a very, very bad sign for civil society. People who don’t like religion should not celebrate that any more than people who don’t like bowling should celebrate the decline in bowling leagues.

    • Ellen

      Thanks for expressing my thoughts exactly. The decline in what is known as “organized” (meaning communal) religious life in America means the US is becoming more and more like Europe. That is certainly a very bad thing. When religion gets replaced by a impersonal, bureaucratic and increasingly broke welfare state connected to a vulgar and sleazy mass media, linked to an educational system that indoctrinates young people with lies known as political correctness, what good can possibly lie ahead?

      NONE!

      • Andrew Allison

        “When religion gets replaced by a impersonal, bureaucratic and increasingly broke welfare state connected to a vulgar and sleazy mass media, linked to an educational system that indoctrinates young people with lies known as political correctness” seems to me to be a better description of the USA than Europe. This, however, is not the subject of the post which, mistakenly in my view, equates the recognition that we don’t know how the Universe came into being with spirituality in the religious sense.

      • solstice

        I oppose organized religion, the welfare state, the sleazy mass media, the rotten education system, and political correctness, so this matter is not as simple as you make it out be. Atheists such as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Ayn Rand are/were among the most vociferous critics of politically correct leftism. Furthermore, the political correctness that leftists impose on societies today is merely a new religion that has replaced the political correctness that organized religions imposed on societies in previous centuries. In the past, organized religions utilized educational institutions and the power of the state to regulate what people could think and say and punish people for getting out of line. In many communities and societies, they still do this.

    • FriendlyGoat

      There is every possibility that the decline of interest in organized religious groups is related to some pastors and members having turned their congregations into political clubs. People who go to churches to seek Jesus and find themselves surrounded by folks on the wrong side of nearly every issue—-and adamantly so—-would not be wrong to walk right back out the door. It took my wife and me about a decade of dithering to make this decision, but we finally made it and haven’t missed the social mess of it.

      Honest to goodness, I was discussing religion with a guy on another site just yesterday and he told me that the chatter conversation before and after services at a denomination he used to attend was “little different than meeting with the RNC”. That’s not what the atmosphere around any church is supposed to be. A person can be far better off to read his/her own Bible, say his/her own prayers, tune into some Christian music and/or sermons on TV, and give to charities that make more sense in terms of the work they do..

      • Jim__L

        Well, get the D-side to call off its rabidly bigoted anti-religious attack dogs, and you’ll probably see fewer churches turning to the Republicans out of predator pressure.

        If you can’t stand to be in the same organization with people who disagree with you, how can you stand to be in the same room with those sorts of Democrats? It makes a spectator question which is more deeply meaningful to you — your religion, or your devotion to confiscatory taxes.

        • FriendlyGoat

          Count me as one Dem who is not interested in attacking Jesus and not interested in attacking those who attack either Jesus or his real followers with derision. Whomever does that, I do not spend any time “in a room” with them. Seriously, I don’t. Making fun of faith is not for me.

          The subject here is why some people are losing interest in organized religion. I think one of perhaps many reasons is that we are a more and more polarized society in the whole political philosophy and range of issues. To the extent churches or majorities of their members seem to take sides in any of that, they find some people put off by it. I am one of those.

          Other reasons may include:

          1) Far wider choices of things to do on Sunday. Most of the fall season has NFL games for instance. I have noticed in my time zone that the football talk on TV started at 10:00 AM, games at 11:00. Obviously, football is only one of many alternatives.

          2) Churches today are in increasing competition to be viable entertainment businesses. That ranges from size and comfort of buildings to music, to multi-purpose facilities and sports programs to pastors trying to outdo each other on “dynamic/cool” style.
          Those seemingly required elements fit some folks and not others.

          3) The differences in Bible doctrine are overdone nuances and some people come to recognize that. Knowing any “important” differences between most Baptists, the Church of the Nazarene, the “Bible” churches and the LCMS Lutherans (for instance) would be a subject on which most attendees born into their denominations have no clue at all. So holding all these things together with separate hierarchies just gets harder. Meanwhile the growth may be off in the independent megachurches anyway.
          See (2) above.

      • Tom

        I’d point out that there’s a lot of churches I see that don’t seem to be much different than a meeting with the DNC.

        • FriendlyGoat

          And people who don’t agree with those don’t attend them, right?

          • Tom

            And then find a church more congenial to their beliefs.

    • solstice

      A lousy analogy, Jim. People who don’t like religion attribute a lot more harm to religion than people who don’t like bowling attribute to bowling.

      • Jim__L

        Hey, if you want to attribute harm to radical Islam I’m right there with you. But Christianity, unmixed with the sort of political issues that cause wars (more and bloodier ones) even in the absence of Christianity? Bowling is more dangerous.

        • solstice

          No, bowling is actually far more benign than indoctrinating children into the grotesque cult of human sacrifice known as Christianity. And Christianity cannot be disassociated from the violent persecution of Jews, witches, and heretics that took place in previous centuries. You cannot just say: whoops, those things happened in the past, and they were mistakes, but now we can go back to being the one, true religion. Those acts were directly inspired by the Bible and sanctioned by mainstream religious thinking at the time.

          • Jim__L

            So all evidence that does not comport with the fraction of history you cite must be eliminated… why?

            Because it’s inconvenient to you, of course. You’re free to make these arguments if you like, but the rest of us are free not to take you at all seriously.

          • Fred

            Yes, we must put a stop to all that witch burning Christians have been doing for the last three hundred years. Oh wait; Christians haven’t burned witches in the last three hundred years. Ah but there are all those heretics the Church has slaughtered in the last five hundred years. Oh wait; the Church hasn’t killed any heretics in the last five hundred years. Well, we have to stamp out Christian anti-Semitism. Oh wait, the most vicious persecution of Jews in the last century was done in the name of science (specifically “scientific racism”) not Christianity; anti-Semitism’s most recent proponents are Muslim, not Christian; Evangelical Christians are the most ardent supporters of Israel (more than liberal Jews), and the Vatican has explicitly condemned anti-Semitism numerous times over the last century or so. Well, dammit all that stuff happened all those centuries ago, and I need them for my bigoted condemnation of beliefs I don’t like. So there!

      • f1b0nacc1

        You obviously haven’t watched too many league games (grin)…

  • Andrew Allison

    The problem here is the conflation of the increasing sense of wonder about the Universe brought about by our increased knowledge of it, and the inability to explain its origin with “spirituality” (whatever that means). As an agnostic, I can accept that the origin of the Universe is a mystery. This does not require a belief in the God(s) of your choice.

  • lukelea

    Well, here is a deeply hidden answer if you read to the end: http://goo.gl/C4k2H7

  • WigWag

    Last week, Via Meadia ran a post on the Anglican Communion disciplining the Episcopal Church in the United States because of its position on gay marriage.

    Has the time come for the Church of England to discipline the Church of England?

    See,

    http://www.steynonline.com/7437/hair-today-gone-tomorrow

  • solstice

    A general rule of thumb is that the more organized religions are forced to compete in a free marketplace of ideas, the more adherents they tend to lose. Gone are the days (at least in the West) when clergy could keep their indoctrinated sheep in line on pain of death and tightly control their access to information. Thanks to secular government, higher rates of literacy, science, and the Internet, more people than ever are exposed to criticism of religion and are therefore choosing to leave it. This is true even in Islamic countries where blasphemy laws are enforced. In the Arab world, atheism is increasing exponentially thanks largely to the criticism of Islam/religion that is readily available on the Internet: https://newrepublic.com/article/121559/rise-arab-atheists. The ability of governments to censor this content is extremely limited and, consequently, many Muslim clerics are panicked about it.

    • Jim__L

      That’s purest nonsense. The state-sponsored religions of Europe are some of the most anemic.

      • solstice

        Evangelicals believe that those who do not believe in their deity will be tortured in hell for eternity. This idea can be labelled many things, but it cannot described as moral. I also never said that state-sponsored churches in Europe were thriving.

        • Jim__L

          People make their choices, and there are consequences for those choices. While consequences are often far beyond what a cursory glace will show (which is a definite reason not to abandon traditional morality), it’s not like the consequences you cite are secret. As Pascal pointed out, the choice to believe doesn’t cost most people all that much, particularly balanced against the benefits.

          I’ve heard too many relativists talk themselves into too many horrors to be impressed by their using the word “moral”. That word is ultimately meaningless, apart from religion.

  • vb

    Religion has always provided a framework for dealing with things like your place in the world, morality, and responsibilties. What happens to society when this framework is not supplied for the very young? At any given time, it is easy to feel you can seek your own path and have your own views, but will these things sustain you throughout life? When you have studied a religion, you learn about how it has affected people at different times and at different ages. It can give you a very rich field of thought to feed your understanding of life.

  • GS

    Spirituality is best measured in degrees proof. 80 is about the optimum, although one could go a bit higher. Doing Bacardi 151 straight is not recommended, though.
    Historically, religion has served as a carrier for the values’ scale. That scale could be imparted either directly [which would require a strong capacity for abstract thinking], or in some other ersatz carrier – either another religion, or an ideology.

  • Beauceron

    Our “forming” institutions– the educational system, the media industry– have become deeply anti-Christian.
    They are not anti-organized religion. People who argue that our society has become anti-organized religion are simply evading the reality of our current moment. Muslims enjoy a great deal of support on university campuses, the press practically fall over themselves rushing to compliment Islamic groups. So our institutions don’t steer people away from organized religion– they are geared toward, and focus on, attacking organized Christianity in particular and on Christianity in general. If you are a citizen in the US and you go through the public school system, and then just about any university you attend (including most of the “religious” ones) you are going to be constantly bombarded with anti-Christian messaging. It is, I think, part of the goal of education these days.
    It’s one of the reasons why I think Islam is the future of the West, Europe especially, but also here in the US. People have a longing for spiritual and religious experience and understanding. That isn’t going away. Organized religion benefits from having professionals think about and write about those experiences and they have paid guides to assist people with understanding them. The West has spent a century or more undercutting the religion that made it the West in the first place while Islam is part of the “untouchable” crowd on campuses. The same high school system that will teach your kid that Christianity means hatred and stupidity, will teach your kid that Islam means peace.
    In practical terms, if you’re looking for a place to satisfy your religious longing, Islam really is the best option going. You can place your belief in a system that isn’t going to be undercut by the forming institutions of society and that will, to the contrary, be supported by it.

  • Beauceron

    Our “forming” institutions– the educational system, the media industry– have become deeply anti-Christian.

    They are not anti-organized religion. People who argue that our society has become anti-organized religion are simply evading the reality of our current moment. Muslims enjoy a great deal of support on university campuses, the press practically fall over themselves rushing to compliment Islamic groups. So our institutions don’t steer people away from organized religion– they are geared toward, and focus on, attacking organized Christianity in particular and on Christianity in general. If you are a citizen in the US and you go through the public school system, and then just about any university you attend (including most of the “religious” ones) you are going to be constantly bombarded with anti-Christian messaging. It is, I think, part of the goal of education these days.

    It’s one of the reasons why I think Islam is the future of the West, Europe especially, but also here in the US. People have a longing for spiritual and religious experience and understanding. That isn’t going away. Organized religion benefits from having professionals think about and write about those experiences and they have paid guides to assist people with understanding them. The West has spent a century or more undercutting the religion that made it the West in the first place while Islam is part of the “untouchable” crowd on campuses. The same high school system that will teach your kid that Christianity means hatred and stupidity, will teach your kid that Islam means peace.

    In practical terms, if you’re looking for a place to satisfy your religious longing, Islam really is the best option going. If you’re going to affiliate yourself with a religious system, invest yourself in it, you might as well invest yourself in a system that isn’t going to be undercut by the forming institutions of society and that will, to the contrary, be supported by it.

  • Ellen

    It is hard for serious religious life to survive in a society where the mass culture is almost entirely about entertainment and immediate gratification through sex, violence and vulgarity. The value system of the young is destroyed during their youth, while the value of religious teachings and communal life seems irrelevant by comparison. By the time people mature enough to realize that they were sold a bill of goods as children, it is too late for most of them to develop a gift for or interest in spiritual life, which requires a whole different mindset than that required for watching TV and engaging in entertainment. The best thing to do for your own life and your children, is to throw the TV set out, and encourage reading of good books including the Bible, and discussing the lessons learned from them, in fellowship with other like-minded people.

    This is the way our great grandparents grew up and they were a much better generation than anything that has been produced since WWII.

    • solstice

      “This is the way our great grandparents grew up and they were a much better generation than anything that has been produced since WWII.”

      Our great grandparents (depending on one’s generation) grew up during slavery and Jim Crow (both justified on Biblical grounds) as well as KKK lynchings, anti-Jewish pogroms, the Great Depression, World War I, and Spanish Influenza. They grew up when life-spans were much lower and rates of infectious disease and violent death much higher. This is the past that you romanticize. Now let’s examine a religious community with a high birth rate that you might consider ideal: the Hasidic Jewish community. This community shuns the vulgarities of modern society, but it also suffers from high rates of poverty and government-dependence because of its rejection of secular education. Its insistence on marrying only within the community condemns many of its children to horrific genetic diseases such as Tay Sachs. Many Hasidic Jews still practice the disgusting custom of sucking the genitalia of newly-circumcised infant boys, thereby spreading venereal disease. The insularity and secrecy of this community means that pedophile rabbis are often shielded from law enforcement and their crimes hushed up. What a wonderful alternative this is to trashy mass culture!

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