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For decades, Americans have been turning toward spirituality as a protest vote against conventional religion. In the last dozen years, American religious institutions have undergone a myriad of crises–abuse scandals, conflicts, schism, and partisan political entanglement, to name a few–resulting in a great religious recession. Poll after poll reveals that organized religions –mainline Protestant, evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Jewish –are in varying states of disarray and decline. Sadness, even doom, has gripped many congregations, as the formerly faithful disaffiliate, and those who remain struggle to pay clergy and fix leaky roofs.
Asks Bass: Is this the end of religion or only the beginning of a new, and better, form of faith?
The bored and wounded have fled religion seeking new spiritual connections. Some 30 percent of Americans now identify as “spiritual but not religious,” around 9 percent are atheists and post-theists. But the growth of these two groups is not news. Their numbers have been rising for thirty years.
What is new? In my research, it’s the “ands.” Those who say they are “spiritual and religious.” In 1999, 54 percent of Americans said they were “religious but not spiritual,” while six percent said “spiritual and religious.” By 2009, the percentages had reversed: “religious but not spiritual” fell from 54 percent to nine percent as the “spiritual and religious” rose from a mere six percent of the population to nearly half, an astonishing 42 point change.
“Ands” want religion revolutionized by spirituality; they want spirituality grounded upon (but not guarded by) ancient wisdom, theologies, and practices. They demand more authenticity, meaning, justice, and community from religious institutions, not less. In these longings, the “ands” voice an older way of understanding religion, where faith should and must be an experience of God that transforms one’s life for the sake of the world. If the “ands” are the vanguard of change, then the great religious recession is about to give way to a great spiritual awakening. Is this the end of religion or only the beginning of a new, and better, form of faith?
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Belong is an excerpt from Bass’ book, “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.”
In “The Great Turning,” an influential book about contemporary prospects for human community, David Korten asks, “By what name will our children and our children’s children call our time? Will they speak in anger and frustration of the time of the Great Unraveling . . . Or will they look back in joyful celebration on the noble time of the Great Turning, when their forebears turned crisis into opportunity . . . and brought forth a new era of human possibility?”
The questions are good ones that point to the fact that we must make some choices in our day, as he contrasts the old order as “Empire” and the emerging one as “Earth community.” Empire can no longer be sustained; “Earth community” is the way forward; human beings must turn away from the former to create the latter. But the Great Turning is not inevitable. As Korten says, “We must each be clear that every individual and collective choice we make is a vote for the future.” The great turning is an awakening-a movement to reorient human culture toward connectedness, economic equality, democracy, creation, and spirituality. The great turning awakens us to becoming “fully human.”
An awakening is holy geography. Awakenings imply new awareness, inner transformation, a change of heart and mind, and a reordering of earthly things. Korten claims that spirituality will play a key role in the great turning. But what of religion? By what name will our children and grandchildren call the early twenty-first century? Will it be called the great unraveling of Christianity? The time when religion was part of the old order, the things that went wrong, when church organized the gods on behalf of the collapsing empire. When it all fell apart?
Insofar as religion was guardian and priest of the old order, it will have to give way and is already doing so. Western Christendom has ended; a “Christian America” survives as mythic memory and political slogan. Some suggest that a new Christendom is found in Africa, Latin America, or Asia. But that is merely placing old imperial dreams on new geographies of faith-and the whole vision of some new Global South Christendom does not really mesh with historical, economic, or political realities of the contemporary world. If not a new Christendom, then what? In some places, like Europe and Australia, perhaps, religion will give way to the secular; in others, it will give way to an eclectic and generalized sort of spirituality.
But there is another choice as well, the longing sounded by those who place hope in the and-that religion may be transformed and renewed by spirituality. This can happen in Christianity, even in worn-out, ennui-filled western Christianity, for it has happened time and time again in the last two millennia. And it can happen in Islam and Hinduism and Judaism and other religions as well. Indeed, if the Great Turning is about global community, then religion-with churches, buildings, and doctrines-is an essential component of global renewal.
According to the World Values Survey, the vast majority of the world’s people belief in God and say that religion plays an important role in their lives. World Values Survey data prove two distinct and seemingly contradictory theses: one, religion declines as societies become more successful; and two, that the role and importance of religion is increasing worldwide. In other words, in a global context, religion cannot simply be dismissed when searching out paths of human happiness and meaning. No matter how fractious, wounded, irksome, hypocritical, or potentially destructive it can be, religion makes a difference, especially in the lives of the disadvantaged, oppressed, and the poor. Even Christopher Hitches admits that religion will never die out, “at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other.” What the world needs is better religion, new forms of old faiths, religion reborn on the basis of deep spiritual connection–these things need to be explored instead of ditching religion completely. We need religion imbued with the spirit of shared humanity and hope, not religions that divide and further fracture the future.
Diana Butler Bass
is an author, speaker, and independent scholar specializing in American religion and culture.