Easter is one of the busiest services on the religious calendar, but the number of those who consider themselves religious is rapidly declining. Before Notre Dame Cathedral burned down, I had the privilege of walking through it. The cathedral was dark from time, crowded with people admiring art and history, but there was also a mass in front, with very few people present. Why was there such a large crowd admiring the beauty of the building, but not engaged in the ritual for which it was built? Europe has some of the finest places of religious worship, but they are largely empty of worshippers.
America is not far behind. The Pew Research Foundation reports that about a quarter of American adults (27%) consider themselves spiritual but not religious (SBNR). This group was 7% in 2004 and 10% in 2017. This SBNR title started with the rise of dating sites in 2000 when a person wanted to distinguish themselves from a cold-hearted atheist, but was not no longer a moralizing prude: “I am kind, friendly, spiritual, but not religious” (“What It Means to Be Spiritual But Not Religious” Caroline Kitchner, The Atlantic, January 2018).
Let’s define spirituality and religion. I am the chaplain to veterans, their families and the staff who care for them in Montana VA. The VA defines spirituality as “that which gives meaning, purpose and hope to life” (VHA Guideline 1111(1). Meaning is the quest to find Design and Designer in life, or is it that I am part of something bigger than me? your answer is to this question is your meaning. Purpose is my identity, or my contribution to that meaning. Hope is my growth in that meaning and purpose, a hopeless person doesn’t believe they have anything to contribute to their world. While spirituality is the quest to bring meaning, purpose and hope to my experiences, religion is an organization for me. help with spiritual matters.
Why do people leave religious organizations to explore their own spirituality? George Barna defines SBNR as self-identifying as spiritual, even agrees that religious faith is important in their lives but has not attended church in the last 6 months. (“Meet those who love Jesus but not the Church” Barna Group – barna.comApril 2017).
Research gives many reasons why people abandon religion as they become aware of their spirituality. As I work with military veterans, I have had very few pretensions of not being spiritual, but many have abandoned religion because their experiences in life and especially in combat are shunned by religion. The civil culture of their religious background tends to ignore the uncomfortable stories of failures and wars in the Bible. But these are exactly the experiences of world veterans. In my Christian tradition, King David was a warrior and wrote a lot about it, but his life is filled with uncomfortable and complicated things.
While veterans may have a higher percentage of SBNRs, the reason so many people leave religious systems may be for similar reasons. Kitchner gives some reasons why the SBNR finds no help in religion. Religion has become identified with political issues, or they feel limited by dogma or shun formal organizations of any kind. A veteran with PTSD or moral injury or addiction thinks about religion, they often worry about being judged rather than finding a place of healing. If I speak out of a struggle with something I have done, or in a teaching of my faith, rather than allowing confusion, I will often receive a quick response. For example, a man struggled with the death of his father when he was 13 years old. “The church told me that my father’s life was in God’s hands, so it seems that God could have kept him alive when I needed him most!” What about the parent who continues to struggle with addiction, because their baby died in the crib, when a parent is supposed to protect their child? When the conclusion (the dogma) comes first, we avoid the ability to overcome the conflict of grief.
Barna’s research shows that the SBNR tends to have more orthodox dogma than the Church faithful, but they have abandoned the religion because it does not allow them to grapple with the conflicts they have experienced. Most SBNRs come from evangelical traditions, but they walk away because they focus on dressing up, singing old songs, lecturing on topics they don’t question. Maybe instead of telling unbelievers they should go back to church; it is time to ask why religion has become irrelevant.
Everyone is spiritual, but not everyone is religious. We all share the desire to connect with meaning and purpose. Religion can be useful in deepening my spiritual life. But when religion is passed on to me and assumed by my culture, my country or my family, religion tends to neglect the deeper issues of life. Religion turns into dwelling on beliefs that you don’t feel comfortable questioning, even if you do.
How do I nourish my spiritual life? Albert Einstein said that “the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all art and all science. The one to whom this emotion is foreign, who can no longer stop to marvel and remain fascinated, is, so to speak, dead; his eyes are closed” (“Living Philosophies”). Let me suggest a few useful things that I have found.
First, cultivate curiosity. A friend of mine said that when I judge someone, I lose my curiosity. Find friends who can handle the struggle rather than those who try to correct you.
Second, give relationships the honor they deserve. Brene Brown said the spirituality of relationships is “defined as much by how we treat our enemies as by how we treat our friends.” (The gifts of imperfection). Religious places of worship can provide a diverse community or get in the way by becoming a gathering of those who think like me.
Third, return to beauty and create it. While religion has done its share of abuse and warfare, it has also been the greatest benefactor of art, music and poetry. Worship is awe, wonder, which covers a wide variety of places and genres. Genesis begins with the story of creativity and beauty in the universe. From the third day, when God did something beautiful, he stopped to admire it and declare it good. Then God made people in his image to do the same.
Caring for our spiritual life is the pilgrimage of a lifetime. This is a task which cannot be entrusted to a religious organization, but which can be completed by religion. How could you feed your soul today?
Tim Weidlich Pastor in South Carolina, Texas and Montana for over 30 years. He works as a chaplain in Montana VA and lives in Helena. He has three adult children and enjoys connecting with people, experiencing the beauty of nature, reading and teaching. You can contact Tim at [email protected]