by D. Patrick Miller
and the rise of a universal spirituality
When 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders stepped away from identifying himself with any organized religion and instead asserted that “My spirituality is that we are all in this together,” he became the first major political figure to identify himself as a practitioner of the growing “spiritual but not religious” mindset in America. Sanders thus brought to national attention a cultural minority that, if present trends continue, will not be a minority much longer.
In direct contrast to the steady growth of the “SBNR” perspective is the precipitously rapid decline of organized religion. The accelerating downturn in churchgoing and formal religious affiliation occasionally makes the news when new polls about religion are released, but its full significance has yet to be fully recognized. To listen to mainstream news reports about the influence of the religious right in a presidential election campaign is to get the impression that mainstream Christianity is, if not more powerful than ever, at least holding steady in its influence. But research data compiled over the last several decades clearly indicate otherwise.
The Steady Rise of the "Nones"
The latest evidence of the dying of organized religion issues from a large survey released in 2014 by the Pew Research Center. Among the findings of their Religious Landscape Study was this information, as reported by Michael Lipka:
"Religious 'nones' – a shorthand we use to refer to people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is 'nothing in particular' – now make up roughly 23% of the U.S. adult population. This is a stark increase from 2007, the last time a similar Pew Research study was conducted, when 16% of Americans were 'nones.' (During this same time period, Christians have fallen from 78% to 71%.)"
If this rate of "conversion" to religious nonehood should continue, with a one-percent annual increase, then over half of the US population will be religiously unaffiliated in less than thirty years — and the proportion of Christians will likewise fall below 50%.
In all likelihood, however, the rate of change to non-religiosity is likely to accelerate, because the bulk of current churchgoers is aging out of circulation while younger "Millennials" are staying away from church in droves. Thirty-five percent of those born from 1981 to 1996 identify themselves as "nones," and earlier polls have indicated that around 70% of Millennials identify themselves as SBNR.
As pastor Charles Redfern wrote in the Huffington Post,
"Sunday attendance in mainline churches is dropping as fast as a bare-naked skydiver. Turnout in the United Church of Christ has dropped below a million; the Episcopal Church estimates its population at 1.8 million, down from three million in the 1960s; membership in the Presbyterian Church, USA, fell by 46 percent from 1965 to 2005 and the United Methodists have lost 4.5 million in their American churches since 1964. Four thousand churches close each year and 3,500 people leave the Church each day."
Redfern goes on to note, however, that these attendance losses chiefly affect the older mainline denominations, while there has been some growth in non-white and evangelical congregations. Those identifying themselves as evangelicals in America have remained relatively steady at 34-35% over the past seven years. But this figure is counterbalanced by at least a decade of polls showing that anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of American adults identify as SBNR — a category that wasn't even recognized until the last fifteen years or so.
Factoring in the 'Disconnect'
For the really stark numbers on church attendance, however, you have to go to a source with a vested interest: ChurchLeaders.com, a web resource for Christian pastors which describes itself as "dedicated to resourcing, informing, and connecting a community of church leaders for greater Kingdom impact worldwide."
As writer Kelly Shattuck revealed in "7 Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America," the number of people who actually go to church regularly is likely much lower than those who say they do: "Less than 20 percent of Americans regularly attend church — half of what the pollsters report." Shattuck continues:
"Numbers from actual counts of people in Orthodox Christian churches (Catholic, mainline and evangelical) show that in 2004, 17.7 percent of the population attended a Christian church on any given weekend. Another study published in 2005 in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion by sociologists C. Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler — known for their scholarly research on the church—backs up [these] findings. Their report reveals that the actual number of people worshipping each week is closer to [the] 17.7 percent figure — 52 million people instead of the pollster-reported 132 million (40 percent)."
As those data figures are now over ten years old, it's probably safe to assume that actual church attendance is no higher, and perhaps lower, now.
As Shattuck commented on the disparity between popular poll reports on church attendance and the more detailed investigations by actual church researchers: "Clearly, a disconnect between what Americans say and what they actually do has created a sense of a resilient church culture when, in fact, it may not exist."
The Birth of SBNR
Although the phrase "spiritual but not religious" did not enter common parlance until the last ten years or so, the attitude itself is at least three decades old, as evidenced by a remarkable study conducted in 1988 by the magazine Better Homes and Gardens. Although little noted at the time, the survey on “Religion, Spirituality, and the American Family” has proved to be historically significant not only because BH&G was hardly a voice of the counterculture — but even more so because its survey, conducted in a pre-online era, drew a whopping 80,000 mailed-in responses (far outstripping most public opinion polls) to come up with these findings:
"Some results suggest that respondents’ spirituality is strongest on a personal level. The largest group (62%) say that in recent years they have begun or intensified personal spiritual study and activities (compared to 23% who say they have become closer to a religious organization). 68% say that when faced with a spiritual dilemma, prayer/meditation guides them most (compared to 14% who say the clergy guides them most during such times)….”
Flash forward to 2006, when a Gallup Poll found that the proportion of Americans claiming to be “spiritual, but not religious” had risen from 30% to 40% since 1999. Then, in the spring of 2010, another startling survey was released by Lifeway Christian Resources, the research and marketing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (again, not exactly a bunch of Zen progressives). Lifeway’s research suggested that 72% of the Millennial generation identified themselves as “more spiritual than religious.”
As Lifeway President Thom Rainer commented at the time, the continuance of this trend could mean that “the Millennial generation will see churches closing as quickly as GM dealerships.”
But What Does "Spiritual" Mean Exactly?
The encroaching sea change in American religion may be easier to typify in terms of what is going away rather than what is arriving. After all, we generally know what it means to be "religious." It means going to church regularly (or telling pollsters that you do); it means believing the central myths and tenets of your chosen religion, and at least trying to follow its moral principles and commandments; and it often means endorsing and promulgating a wide range of social and political beliefs that may or may not be directly correlated to Biblical dogma or religious practice.
By contrast, the beliefs and behaviors of the "spiritual but not religious" crowd can be more difficult to identify and classify — and they may encompass a very wide range of ideas, from the merely unconventional to the out-there loopy. And because superstition, hypocrisy, and prejudice are endemic to the human condition, such unproductive behaviors are just as likely to show up in countercultural spiritual circles as in mainline religion.
Nonetheless, there are some significant and largely irreconcilable divergences between traditional religion and the new spirituality that are easy to recognize. They include:
- A reorientation of belief in a God "out there" to experience of the "God within." Perhaps the most profound theological shift from conventional religion to contemporary spirituality — a shift heavily influenced by the arrival of Eastern practices in the West — is the release of belief in a paternalistic, innately superior God that sits "out there" somewhere, judging and controlling the lives of human beings. That belief is replaced by the experience of a "God within" that represents the highest elements of human potential.
Thus, instead of attempting to obey and please "God the Father" according to religious rules set down in the Bible or given by one's church, the spiritual aspirant strives to become Godlike in his or her attitudes and behaviors. Likewise, the traditional ideas of Heaven and Hell as real places that represent final destinations of post-life reward or punishment are regarded as metaphors about how we are living our lives in the here and now. As a popular saying in SBNR circles puts it, "Religion is for those who are afraid of going to hell; spirituality is for those who have been there."
- A release of guilt and the belief in "original sin" in favor of advanced self-awareness and transcendent forgiveness. Traditional Christianity identifies human beings as sinful by nature, and redeemable only by accepting the grace of Jesus Christ as one's "personal savior." By contrast, modern spiritual paths dispense with the idea of original sin in favor of admitting that while human beings are generally flawed and prone to making mistakes (sometimes very serious ones), their only "salvation" lies in learning to become more self-aware, responsible, and consistently forgiving. In A Course in Miracles (ACIM), by far the most popular SBNR discipline with recent Western roots, forgiveness is in fact the paramount value, expressed in such meditative lessons as "Forgiveness ends all suffering and loss" and "Fear binds the world. Forgiveness sets it free."
- The replacement of church-administered religious rituals like confession and Communion with spiritual technologies such as meditation, vision quests, and transformative disciplines. The location shift of Godliness from without to within also entails a shift in the methods that are used to maintain and advance one's religious or spiritual life. Instead of following set rituals prescribed by one's church, the modern spiritual seeker is usually engaged in self-directed explorations of "higher consciousness" — which may entail everything from Zen or Vipassana meditation, to the pursuit of visions quests in the wilderness or with the use of hallucinogenic substances like ayahuasca, to transformative disciplines such as the Course or the famed "Twelve Steps" of addiction recovery.
- The release of religion's traditional hostility to science and psychology in favor of a multi-disciplinary view of reality. At least since the Scopes trial of nearly a century ago, conservative Christianity has been waging a public battle with Darwin's theory of evolution and other, broader issues of scientific inquiry and theory. In recent years, religious activists have taken style notes from science and marshalled their own evidence for a Bible-based hypothesis called "creationism," instead of arguing for Biblical belief alone. But as the growing numbers of atheist and agnostic "nones" clearly show, this is a battle that religion is steadily losing, especially among younger people.
Christianity has also shown a lesser hostility toward psychology and related self-help philosophies — a hostility that was profoundly shaken by the 1978 publication of M. Scott Peck's ground-breaking book The Road Less Traveled. This perennially best-selling masterwork of Christian psychotherapy paradoxically became one of the first fundamental texts of the SBNR movement, which is heavily influenced by self-help and psychological thinking, especially the work of depth psychologist Carl Jung. SBNR enthusiasts also readily embrace the latest scientific findings in the fields of psychology, cosmogenesis, and subatomic physics (often with the unfortunate side effect of overusing and abusing the word quantum).
- The surrender of social moralism and religious discrimination in favor of social justice and a universal spirituality. Perhaps most distasteful to the younger generation of Millennials who are rapidly abandoning conventional Christianity is the fundamentalist tendency toward dictating sexual and social morals — as well as promising damnation and an eternal afterlife in hell if Christianity is not accepted as the "one true religion." Coming of age in an era that has seen the murderous effects of a similar extremism in Islamic fundamentalists, Millennials seem to favor a secular acceptance of social diversity, economic justice, and belief systems that can flex to meet changing societal conditions.
Although those with a "spiritual but not religious" bent are sometimes accused of navel-gazing self-absorption and withdrawal from social and political issues, the movement nonetheless has deep roots in the social activism of the 1960s. And some of its most outspoken proponents, like Marianne Williamson, remain fiercely political. Arguably the most prominent popularizer of A Course in Miracles — which advises its students to "seek not to change the world, but choose to change your mind about the world" — Williamson ran for Congress unsuccessfully in 2014 and has lobbied for the formation of a Cabinet-level "Peace Department" to counter the massive Defense Department and the military-industrial complex. She also currently supports the "democratic socialist" campaign of Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton, with whom she consulted in the early days of the Bill Clinton presidency (before that administration became nervous about being associated in public with the so-called "New Age" movement that substantially overlaps the SBNR following).
These five divergences between being traditionally religious and "spiritual but not religious" are broadly drawn, of course. One can just as easily find elements of SBNR in progressive Christianity as one can find strains of fundamentalism in some extremes of New Age cultism. The diverse evolution of contemporary spirituality perspectives has also led to the emergence of paradoxical atheists who are also veteran practitioners of mindfulness disciplines — notably Sam Harris, the well-known author of both The End of Faith and Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.
Five Questions for the Spiritually Inclined
In the end, what matters more than the substitution of one set of beliefs for another is whether any of our beliefs and practices actually serve to transform us. Because whether you believe you are a sinner who must surrender to the saving grace of Jesus, or an innately light-filled "child of God" who's struggling to recognize your inner perfection, the name of the game in religion AND spirituality is positive transformation: changes for the better in our self-awareness, behaviors, and ways of relating.
As a practitioner of SBNR for some thirty odd (sometimes very odd) years, with a personal focus on the study and practice of the forgiveness-driven Course in Miracles, I've devised five questions to serve as a test of value in following any "spiritual but not religious" quest. Over the years I've periodically reviewed these queries to check my own progress, as well as publishing them in the hope they are useful to others:
- Have I become more at peace within myself and in my relationships since undertaking my chosen spiritual discipline?
- Do I blame less and have more compassion about my own difficulties and those of others?
- Do I progressively experience more joy, empathy, and revelatory insight?
- Is my social and political conscience more informed and effective, regardless of how my forms of activism may have changed?
- Do I sometimes tap transcendent state of consciousness through the natural means of my own trained and focused awareness?
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