Research informs us that more and more people are describing themselves as being “spiritual but not religious,” accounting for over 30 percent of the American population. Furthermore, historically popular religious practices (e.g., meditation, yoga) have turned more and more secular in recent years. What many people seem to be embracing is the individualistic and do-it-yourself style of spirituality while avoiding much that is dogmatic or rule-based that comes from the traditional religious traditions. In a nutshell, mindful meditation and yoga are "in" while church is "out!" Many people seem to seek out transcendence, connection with the eternal, and spirituality but avoid anything to do with the traditional religious organizations. I can't say that I'm surprised by these developments. Can you?
At least partially fueling this unfolding "spiritual but not religious" trend is the daily media reports that focus on the down side of religion. Islamic terrorists, Jewish-Palestine fighting, Catholic sexual abuse scandals, various church groups protesting abortion clinics and gay marriages, and so forth all underscore the notion that religious people and groups can be intolerant, repressive, highly opinionated, judgmental, cruel, brutal, and should be avoided at all costs. Religion can be deadly! For example, when people murder or rape others and justify their behavior in the name of their religion it seems like we are living back in the Stone Age. So who can blame people from wanting to avoid religion completely and at all costs? It is easy to point to numerous examples where religion and religious people look pretty horrific and even evil. Spirituality certainly sounds much more palliative and peaceful without the all of the baggage that is associated with traditional religions.
One common conversation question that comes up at my dinner parties is: “Overall, has religion been good or bad for the world?” Many people immediately say that, on balance, religion has been a bad influence on the planet and that we would have been better off without it. Yet, I beg to differ. While the very worst that religion has to offer makes easy headlines, the very best that religion offers never makes the press at all. Religious organization who offer soup kitchens, homeless shelters, NGOs offering all sorts of services to those who suffer greatly across the globe, educational institutions in challenged communities, diverse religious organizations to help those during various important life transitions such as births, deaths, coming of age ceremonies, marriages, serious illnesses, and so forth have been remarkably helpful and a tonic to many. Religious inspired efforts to help others and make the world a much better place for those who suffer. The Mother Teresas of the world have been a great blessing. Plus, religious explanations about the world, relationships, and so forth have offered comfort and support to countless people. Religion can provide great solace and peace. This is not to say that those who have no interest in religion don’t do terrific things for others and for the world but the religious institutions and structures have the organizational infrastructure and world-wide reach to offer a great deal to make the world a better place and a way for people to live their lives in a healthy way. Plus, they can offer great wisdom since they have been at this for centuries to boot.
If people look behind the headlines they’ll likely find that religion is a very mixed bag. This is true of so many things. You hear about airline flights or cars that crash but not about the ones that make it to their destination without incident. You hear about crime in big cities but never about the great acts of kindness that occur there all the time. You hear about ethnic or racial conflict but not about loving diverse communities. When religion goes very wrong you’ll hear about it...loud and clear! But when it gets things right, you’d never know about it. This shouldn't be a surprise, by the way, since we know from research that we attend to negative news and information much more than to positive information. And all sorts of folks justify their awful behavior in the name of their religion when many of their own religious leaders would be completely horrified by their behavior.
Perhaps more people would embrace being "spiritual and religious" if they had a fuller view of the whole picture of spirituality and religion. In a nutshell, don't throw the baby out with the bath water! Having an open mind and looking behind the headlines can be quite revealing. Like most things in life, these issues tend to be more complicated and nuanced than they appear at first.
So what do you think? Are you spiritual, religous, both, or neither? And why?
Copyright 2014, Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP