The Religious "Nones" Learned It From Somewhere

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Much has been made regarding the increase of the “Religious Nones” in recent cultural surveys. Houses of worship are being repurposed as congregations shrink, Religion News reports: “‘Nones’ now as big as evangelicals, Catholics in the US.” and the Los Angeles Times wonders in an Op-Ed about how: “Religiously unaffiliated ‘nones’ are pursuing spirituality, but not community.”

As Jack Jenkins summarizes for Religion News:

“In a shift that stands to impact both religion and politics, survey data suggests that the percentage of Americans who don’t affiliate with any specific religious tradition is now roughly the same as those who identify as evangelical or Catholic.”

Though there are theories about what has caused this shift, one constant is that many people are placing a sharper distinction between spirituality and religion. We explored this idea as it applies to prayer, but just to summarize again:

Spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning in life. It involves questions of identity, security, belonging and purpose.

Religion is the external form of spirituality. Church. Books. Rituals. Religion seeks to put spirituality in order. It seeks to define spirituality and religion uses boundaries and often identifies itself by excluding others. Many religions claim that their particular approach to spirituality alone holds exclusive truth.

In other words, Spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning and Religion is the form that pursuit takes.

What interests me here is that most of the focus of consideration has been young people. In 2017, Vox considered a Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey, saying:

The survey, which profiled about 2,000 American adults in the early months of 2017, found that 18 percent of Americans identify as spiritual but not religious. (By contrast, 31 percent of Americans identify as neither spiritual nor religious.) They tend to skew younger and more educated than religious Americans, with 40 percent holding at least a four-year college degree and 17 percent having some form of postgraduate education. They’re also far more politically liberal than their religious counterparts: 40 percent identify as liberal, compared to 24 percent of the population overall and 27 percent of Americans that are neither spiritual nor religious.

All of this may be true. The shift of focus from religion to spirituality resulting in outwardly declaring “No religious affiliation” might be centered in younger people, but they learned it somewhere. As a Hospice Chaplain, I deal daily with these people’s parents and grandparents as they near end of life.

I have been continually surprised by how many older people welcome Chaplain visits “as long as we don’t talk about religion.” I’ve only served in this role for three years and my evidence is only my subjective experience but, at least here in the Phoenix area, it is more common for my visits to be limited to visits, life reviews, communication techniques and things like that. The older people I meet decline religious services at a rate that would surprise many people. But this shouldn’t surprise us. After all, all these young “Religious Nones” learned it from somewhere.

I have come to think that there is a significant portion of the Boomer generation that has driven the cultural move from religion to spirituality. My thoughts on why we should focus not only on the younger “Nones” by the older ones are based on what I have heard from my patients and their families about why they are not interested in religion even at end of life. Here’s what I’m hearing and it begins with two different threads that seem to wind their way together:

First: After the horrors of World War II, the country set itself on providing a better life for the next generation. But in doing so, the “American Dream” was further fused with consumerism. Suburbia exploded and flourished and comfort became the goal of life. Advertisers bred discontent and our Supermarkets overwhelm us with choices. And church became a commodity that was so interested in just getting you in the doors that it required very little, so after a while, what’s the point of going to church when religion just seems aimed at making me happy? There are lots of other ways to be happy. Yes, I care about my soul and “spirituality,” but

Second: I was raised in a strict religious upbringing that emphasized my behaviors and didn’t seem to care about the resentment building up in my heart.

Couple each of these paths with the inordinate cultural influence of groups like The Family (which I discuss here) that emphasizes an approach to Christianity that seems more interested in cultural influence than actual changed lives: just get a confession: get someone to say they believe in Jesus. Get them into heaven and what matters here and now is cultural power. Therefore we have people living in fear of losing their particular sense of privileged cultural identity and claiming that their struggle to force culture into their mold is “Christianity.” It is not. And people know it is not.

The constant that I do hear; whether from shallow, meaningless consumeristic churches or rigid, grace-less religion is a failure of discipleship and the removal of repentance and faith from Christianity. What’s the point of following a system that just seems to want to make me happy or one that just seems to want to beat me up all of the time? Of course, neither is actual Christianity, but many people have been told otherwise for so long that they’d just assume stay away from the talk altogether.

Most of these people have plenty of religious experience but very little spiritual experience. They certainly have not encountered the Grace of the Crucified and Risen Savior or been wrapped in the love of a community that wants to be more like Jesus. I am reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s quote from Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage:

“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”

We have sowed years being careless with God’s Bride, the Church and we are now reaping people who don’t want anything to do with it. And, can we blame them? A church that doesn’t require any change in your life isn’t worth attending. Nor is one that wants to beat everyone’s external behaviors into submission to some preferred cultural identity.

We’ve created a culture in which many claim to be “Christian” because of the radio station they listen to, the movies they don’t see, the lifestyles they oppose, the flag they pledge, and the political party they support. We’ve robbed Christianity of its defining characteristics and replaced them with a weirdly patriotic sense of morality and cultural norms. If this is religion, if this is Christianity, no wonder people aren’t interested.

If we want people to identify with Christianity as a religion, if the rise in “Nones” plagues our hearts, then the solution is right in front of us: wouldn’t it be powerful if Christians were known for their love (John 13:35)? for clothing and feeding the poor (Matthew 25:31-46), caring for widows and orphans (James 1:27), for seeking to better our cities (Jeremiah 29), for bringing light and flavor to our communities (Matthew 5:13-16), for being Peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), who had no one remaining needy in the communities we built (Acts 4:34) and just generally tried to live at peace with everyone we could (Romans 12:18)?

It breaks my heart to encounter so many people tell me that they don’t want to identify with Christianity when I’m fairly certainly they’ve never actually encountered Christianity.

There is much more to be said here but I just wanted to start getting some of these thoughts in order. I would love to hear your perspective. Are you hearing what I’m hearing? What is the solution // Does there need to be a solution?

Distilling Prayer

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Part of my role as a Hospice Chaplain is to help people distinguish between spirituality and religion. I know there is lots of debate about the topic and the point of this post is not really to mine that can of worms, but in order to proceed, here’s my working understanding of the terms:

Spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning in life. It involves questions of identity, security, belonging and purpose.

Religion is the external form of spirituality. Church. Books. Rituals. Religion seeks to put spirituality in order. It seeks to define spirituality and religion uses boundaries and often identifies itself by excluding others. Many religions claim that their particular approach to spirituality alone holds exclusive truth.

In other words, Spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning and Religion is the form that pursuit takes.

I say all of this to give you a little understanding as to what I deal with in my role helping patients and their loved ones face end of life. I don’t know that it’s like where you live culturally, but here in Arizona, a lot of my hospice patients and their families will accept Chaplain visits only if I agree to not proselytize. I know younger people often get the blame for the whole “spirituality vs. religion” conversation, but in my experience, this issue began with the Boomer Generation. I can’t tell you how many older people I talk with who are jaded by growing up in the Midwest or the South and want nothing to do with “religion.”

Enter the Chaplain.

Hospice care neither hastens nor hinders death and we strive to provide people with the best possible quality of life for whatever time remains. Part of this means finding spiritual balance, whatever your existing belief structure. One of the most common conversations I have is when I encourage people to pray, or assure them that I will be praying for them. The most common response is something like: Thank you, but I’m not a religious person.

This is where the distinction between spirituality and religion becomes important. If spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning and religion is the form that pursuit takes, then it is possible for even people who do not consider themselves to be religious to pray. I am a Christian. That is my religion. But when I encourage my patients and their families to pray, I’m not necessarily saying that they must adopt my understanding of religion or prayer.

Prayer is one of those spiritual exercises that transcends religious boundaries. Nearly every religion advocates some form of prayer. Prayer transcends religion. What then, is prayer? Before we can answer that question, let’s back up a minute and consider the idea that, as Indian philospher Krishnamurti says: Attention is the most basic form of love.

The deliberate act of paying attention on something/someone means that we are narrowing our thoughts to them/that alone. It shows that we care. It is an act of love.

At its fundamental nature, prayer is taking that act of love (focusing our attention) and throwing it out into the universe, often accompanied by the cryptic note in the bottle HELP ME! Prayer is simply the recognition that we need help and that there is something beyond ourselves. Because I love, I focus my attention and admit that I am not ultimately in control and that there must be meaning to whatever is happening. Understood from this vantage point, it doesn’t seem to me to be a stretch to say that everyone prays. After all, isn’t this just the summary of the first two steps of the famous 12 Steps?

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

This sounds like prayer to me. We need help and somehow, some way, somewhere out there, there is Someone or Something that can help me. This helps us place ourselves in the care of humility and guards us from arrogance. This also helps us pursue meaning in suffering and comfort in distress.

Prayer transcends religion but finds its fullness within it. I believe that Prayer is strongest when the Someone or Something are defined, but that that is not necessary to pray. When explained this way, many people who initially rejected my offers of prayer have suddenly found themselves on their knees. If “prayer” seems intimidating or off-putting to you, I want to encourage you to free the practice from the bonds of religion and to get on your knees.

Pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).