The recent, rapid decline of religion in the West should not have been a surprise since it has been forecast since the Enlightenment. Some interpret the collapse of transcendence and rise of secularism as the death of God. But from my vantage point, the rumors of God’s death seem quite premature.
Many who reject religion embrace spirituality. The majority of those who describe themselves as being spiritual but not religious believe in God and many pray and observe other private “religious” practices as often as those who regularly attend churches, synagogues or mosques. Often what these people are rejecting are the dogmas of institutional religion – things they can no longer believe. Some also feel an urgent need to dis-identify with the abuses committed in the name of religion. Others simply find institutional religion to be irrelevant to their lives.
But the magnitude of the decline of traditional religion is even greater than this suggests because while one in three describe themselves as spiritual but not religious, another third of the population self-identify as neither religious nor spiritual. This reduces the market share for institutional religion to only the final third – a group that begins to appear pretty small when you realize the number of institutions that are dependent on the money and involvement of these people if they are to survive.
However, rather than describing this as the decline of religion it seems to me that it is merely a decline of institutional religion. But there are many non-institutional ways of responding to the fundamental religious impulse of the soul.
To be human is to be drawn toward the horizon of transcendence and ultimacy, even when everything around us denies that there is anything that transcends materiality and personal subjectivity. Something within us makes us grope toward the ineffable, even as we realize that Ultimate Mystery is shrouded in a cloud of unknowing. Something within us knows that our wholeness is dependent on realizing our place within the larger wholes that form the nest of our being and to which our self-transcendent longings point. These and other human predispositions are the foundation of religion.
Institutional religion is not the only way in which we can respond to this religious impulse. The essence of religion is not buildings and beliefs. The essence of religion is our groping response – both individual and collective – to the impulse of the soul to find meaning, purpose and larger places of belonging through creative engagement with the transcendent Ground of Being. A communal component of this response is essential if we are to avoid being drawn into a narcissistic quest for self-fulfillment. Meaningful engagement with others who share our longing to be authentically and fully human allows us to journey, learn and grow together in ways we could never do alone.
Many find this engagement online. Although these communities are often described as virtual I am convinced they can be as real and as important as any other. But once we realize that religious institutions are not the only containers for such engagement we quickly see that there are many other opportunities for religious engagement. I think of the millions of people around the world who are actively engaged with Alcoholics Anonymous or other 12-step programs and for whom their support group forms a non-traditional religious community for them. I also think of communities of artists who help each other engage creatively with the ineffable and live with depth and authenticity. I think of people in psychotherapy who seek not just symptom reduction but help in knowing themselves and finding a framework for meaning-making that will hold them. I think of book and movie discussion groups that never use the language of religion or spirituality but who use their engagement with and dialogue about these media in the same ways. I think of friends and partners who journey together in deeply soulful and spiritual ways and who, in doing so, help each other live out the religious dimensions of human becoming. Although none of these things are necessarily religious they become religious when they involve our stumbling engagement with the transcendent as part of a quest to be fully and authentically human.
I feel little regret around the decline of institutional religion. I fully expect it to survive but think it has forever lost its force and vitality. Although some of the old forms of church are still meaningful to me, obviously they are not for most people. And the percentage of the population who find them meaningful is almost certain to continue to decline. That is why I am less invested in preserving those forms than in supporting the development of non-traditional containers of religion – not simply new ways of doing traditional religion but alternate ways of people helping each other respond to the orientation toward the transcendent that is part of the psyche’s basic operating system. Doing so is participating in religion’s evolution.
What non-traditional forms of religion have you encountered? What have you noticed about the way in which they serve a religious function even though they may not appear to be either religious or spiritual? How have they served the purposes of deep religion for you? Perhaps you continue some connection to the older institutional forms of religion but also know the value of engagement with these non-institutional expressions. If so, how do they complement each other? Let’s begin a conversation about these things.