According to several recent surveys (Gallup, Pew Research) people who say they are spiritual, but not religious are growing faster than any other group. The atheist Sam Harris has recently written a book entitled Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, which according to Amazon achieved # 1 bestseller status even before it was released! As a Mental Health Counselor and Chaplain, I have heard increasing numbers of people echo the same idea. Drawing on the results of these surveys and my own practice, I have compiled in this article the top ten reasons for this exodus away from religion.
1. A growing skepticism of taken for granted ideas
Over the years, the practice of religion has fostered some ideas that have solidified and achieved taken for granted status. The current environment breeds a strong skepticism over these previously taken for granted ideas and fuels the movement away from organized religion. One of the main ideas is that religion and spirituality are one and the same and that religion is the only path to God. However, surveys have shown many persons are redefining spirituality and challenging the notion that religion and spirituality are inseparable.
- Spirituality is more about relating to God than practicing specific modes of worship
Although many Christian religions do emphasize the fundamental importance of relating to God, many persons perceive this to mean relating to God in the way the religion dictates. Religions are seen as promoters of their kind of God, while minimizing the God promoted by other religions. This type of thinking way has left many feeling disconnected from God and unable to make any progress in their spiritual lives
- A greater emphasis on communion over conformity
Many of the persons I work with are often frustrated by the fact that they spent years trying to conform to the requirements of their religion, but still feel spiritually empty. They are convinced that spirituality has the answer for them, but are equally convinced religious practices are getting in the way. The hunger is for communion, a type of support that promotes spiritual and emotional healing, personal growth, and a sense of belonging.
- A Greater need for Acceptance over Condemnation
Acceptance is the gift of love; it is one of the fundamental spiritual needs we all have. Unfortunately, many persons who are struggling with significant spiritual, emotional or mental issues often feel a deep sense of shame even while sitting in the pew. Many have come to believe that the church is not a safe place to be. For them, the church, like the society, is a place where I cover my pain under the latest fashions and never let my true feelings out. It is a place where I follow the script and “act appropriately”, never getting to the heart of ‘what’s the matter’.
- Religion seen as Limiting
Religions define themselves not only by what they are, but by what they are not. In the postmodern environment of the 21st century, religion is often seen as one form of spirituality. Additionally, there is the feeling that spirituality transcends religion therefore one does not need to be religious to be spiritual.
- Shift to Individual Satisfaction over Corporate Loyalty
Traditionally, churches have relied on the loyalty of their members. Individuals largely accepted the view that the church is the body of Christ and members are expected to sacrifice self so the body may grow. Over the last few decades, however, there has been a societal shift toward individual fulfillment. This has translated to less loyalty toward institutions and a greater expectation that institutions of all kinds, including the church, should do more for those they claim to serve. Surveys have shown that such attitudes have resulted in individuals looking inward for spiritual satisfaction, rather than outward to God and religion.
- Less Tolerance for Corporate Failures
My sense is that church members are less tolerant of corporate failures. Furthermore, research has found that trust in institutions is at its lowest in three decades. The abundance of information and misinformation readily available through the internet allows for rapid dissemination of the latest issues afflicting the church. Individuals, who previously were like voices in the wilderness, now have a tool to carry their message far and wide. Over time, this has eroded the willingness of members to stay with the church.
- Growing Conviction that Church Organization is no More Sacred than any other
Traditionally, loyalty to religion was partly based upon the belief that church organization was divinely ordained. As members have observed the practices of of religious leaders, many have begun to question that belief. They now regard church bureaucracy as similar to Government or coorporate bureaucracy. The deep mistrust this sort of thinking fosters has helped fuel the exodus away from organized religion.
- Greater Openness to Diversity
Historically, church members liked the idea that they were members of an exclusive group. It fostered a sense of security and belonging. However, the increase of travel and exposure to other spiritual practices and beliefs have fostered a greater awareness of the importance of diversity, even in spiritual things. As a result, individuals are now more likely than ever to embrace other ways of being spiritual.
10. Focus on doing what works for me
Another manifestation of the focus on individual fulfillment is the idea that I do what works for me. Many persons I talk with in my practice feel that restricting themselves to one religion limits the range of spiritual experiences open to them. These persons emphasize the experiential aspects of spirituality, while downplaying doctrinal distinctiveness and loyalty. They embrace the notion of many paths to God and each person is to find their own path. Increasingly, that path leads them away from religion.
This movement away from religion continues to gain momentum. Those who believe that religion still has something to offer the individual, the society and world need to act quickly to stem this bleeding before it’s too late.