When Less Religious Affiliation is Good News
by Ian Lawton
“I think you have every right to cherry-pick when it comes to moving your spirit and finding peace in God. I think you are free to search for any metaphor whatsoever which will take you across the worldly divide whenever you need to be transported or comforted… You take whatever works from wherever you can find it, and you keep moving toward the light.” — Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love
What is the least religious state in America? Oregon. The most religious? Mississippi. Oregon, not Mississippi, reflects the emerging trend of the western world; cynicism about institutional religion and little desire to affiliate with any particular religion or denomination.
The most recent results of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life have just been released. They surveyed over 35,000 people. Twenty-seven percent of people in Oregon claimed no religious affiliation, compared to the national average of 16%.
Some other interesting results:
Protestantism is fast losing ground as the majority American religion.
40% of Americans have switched their affiliation from the religion of their upbringing. 10% of Americans are lapsed Catholics.
Almost four in every 10 married people have spouses of different religious affiliation.
“Unaffiliated” is a fast growing segment of American society. If you drill down the 16% “unaffiliated”, less than 2% claim atheism. Over 12% claim “nothing in particular” and about half of those say “faith is at least somewhat important” to them. More people claim “nothing in particular” than any single religion or denomination.
Among Americans aged between 18 and 29, 25% say they are not affiliated with any religion or denomination.
This is the way of the future. “Spiritual but not religious” is the catch cry of a generation or more of Westerners. The church alumni, those who no longer find any relevance in the archaic form and message of the church, but explore spirituality on their own terms, are part of the “unaffiliated” crowd.
If Christianity is to have any sort of future in the midst of these changing attitudes, it needs to be recast. Christianity that demands some sort of “affiliation” by way of assent to doctrine or ritual standards is outmoded. Christianity that fails to engage modern minds is irrelevant. Christianity that fails to connect with the hearts and imaginations of modern people will die off. Christianity that is soulless is redundant.
These latest Pew results are very exciting for independent spiritual communities. America is exploring its own spirituality, incorporating religion as it makes sense, and maintaining the founding principles of being a free thinking/ open hearted nation.
People are craving resources for a meaningful spiritual journey where common ground is found in shared values rather than particular beliefs. The values revolve around creating a more humane world with a strong sense of ecological and economic justice, celebrating people of all sexuality, and exploring the insights of science and all faiths.
Jesus is a great inspiration for the church alumni, and for free spirited communities. The religious people of his day often tried to pigeon hole him. Which commandment (belief) was most important? Where did his allegiances lie?
His answers were always brilliant. He positioned himself as spiritual but not religious. He claimed no affiliation with any religion or temple. His spirituality was to love God and neighbor with his whole being; mind, heart, soul and strength. What did he mean by loving God with mind, heart, soul and strength?
Thomas Paine, the early American revolutionary who fought against government sponsored religion, claimed the spirit of Jesus when he said “my mind is my own church.” Bob Dylan had his way of saying the same thing when he sang in “TV Talkin Time,” “Your mind is your temple. Keep it beautiful and free.” You love God with all your mind by keeping it open to new possibilities. You love God with your mind by being mindful and aware of the power of your mind to form subconscious attitudes, and to affect your environment with positive thinking.
When Jesus spoke about the whole heart, he was most likely referring to the whole will of a person. The Dalai Lama captured the essence of heart felt religion when he said, “my religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” To love God with your whole heart is to commit your life to the good of many. Loving God is not primarily a religious intention. Religion may help to resource this sort of living and loving, but it is not an end in itself. Loving God by heart is a choice and a set of behaviors that make the world a better place.
To love God with your soul, is to love life from the inside out. Soulless living relies on obligation and guilt. Soulful living is freely given. It cuts to the essence of things rather than focusing on surface matters, like different religious beliefs. Soulful living starts from a place of inner awareness, and increased consciousness to be the change you wish to see in the world.
To love God with all your strength is to be passionate, and not indifferent. This is the biggest challenge for the “unaffiliated”. Self motivated passion will come from being part of a world family who care about poverty, injustice and ecological destruction. You will be loyal to the sky rather than any particular brand of faith.
The holistic vision of Jesus to be spiritual and not religious resonates strongly with the growing number of “unaffiliated” around the world. The more that Progressive Christianity claims its kindred spirits as the world family of soulful justice seekers, the more hope I see both for the survival of Christianity and the betterment of the world.
The Pew research is good news. It doesn’t necessarily indicate more backsides in pews, but it does indicate more people finding their own authentic way to love God and neighbor with mind, heart, soul and strength. That is good news for the planet