Sunday, June 6, 2010

Why People Are "Spritual But Not Religious"

A good friend of mine recently sent me a CNN article entitled "Are there dangers in being 'spiritual but not religious.'"  One of the amazing trends I found in this article is that 72% of millenials (i.e., 18-29 year olds, i.e., my generation) consider themselves "more spiritual than religious."  With this in mind, it should go without saying that in terms of looking at past generations in contrast with millenials, millenials are the most irreligious. 

From a theoretical sense, religion offers all the spiritual needs a human needs: a way to connect to a Higher Power, a path of how to lead a good life, and ways (i.e., beliefs and rituals) to find ultimate meaning in life.  But, as the article shows, millenials have made a shift from the traditional approach on spirituality (i.e., religion). 

Upon sending me the article, my friend asked me the question "Why do you think young people are getting away from organized religion?"  This question made me pause for a while, and ultimately led to my response to below.

1) We live in a pluralistic society.  With the expansive multiculturalism and diversity in America, most millenials have been exposed to every major religious practice in the world.  As important as it is to have a sense of comparative religion, it has created a backlash of moral relativism.  From a statistical standpoint, it is not possible that all the religions can be correct.  You cannot simultaneously have one god, multiple gods, and no god(s).  An erroneous assumption made by millenials is that since one can only statistically be right, they just automatically go with the assumption that no religions are right.   

Plus, the backlash of moral relativism has also developed a mentality of "no one has a monopoly on the truth."  This is why you see many millenials [in the article] cherry-picking certain tenets or rituals from different religions, mainly because they want to view themselves as having more savoir-faire than past generations, but also because they're testing out the spiritual landscape.

2) Individualism and autonomy are two resultants of the hippie counterculture movement back in the 1960s, and they have stayed within the psyche of the typical American individual ever since.  American society emphasizes the society, whereas religion emphasizes the community.  In addition, for many millenials, organized religion translates into conformity, societal pressures, and dogmatic extremism.  Most millenials feel that strictures of organized religion impede them from having any sincere relationship with a higher power.   

3) People are lazier than they used to be.  Due to many technological advancements, millenials are more accustomed to instantaneous results.  We go online to chat on an instant messenger.  If we don't get through the fast food line in 30 seconds, we become irritable.  Programs of how to lose weight in just two weeks or "seven days to a happier you" are common in a society that wants everything right now.

Religion is a life-long journey that takes a lot of effort, time, and discipline.  If you are looking for a quick-fix for your spiritual problems, you're not going to go to religion because that would take too long.  Saying that you're spiritual might make you feel all wonderful on the inside, but the irony is that it usually turns into nothing more than a highly-self indulgent form of hedonism.  Being "spiritual but not religious" ignores the fact that there is a highly subjective element to it, and this is particularly true when it comes to morality.  If everyone turns down this path, who are we to say that Joe Schmo's spiritually-based morality isn't better than mine?  Also, the hubristic nature of the "spiritual but not religious" individual ignores the fact that priests, monks, imams, and rabbis have been pondering the important questions of life for centuries.  When it comes to developing wisdom, insight, or realization, there is something irreplaceable about millennia of tradition and the pensive thought that has come with it.

4) Religious institutions are not meeting the demands of its congregants.  It's time to shift over the analysis from society and its individuals over to religious institutions.  In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we get a sense of what went wrong with religious institutions:

"It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society.  It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats.  Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, [and] insipid.....when religions speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless." (Between G-d and Man, p. 35)     

Ever since the Enlightenment period, religion, as an institution, has had problems in responding to the constant change that the period brought with it, whether it would be how to deal with science, technology, emerging ideologies that happen to conflict with the given religion's teachings, globalization, and a sincere pursuit for social justice. 

Although Heschel spoke these words over fifty years ago, the sad truth is that religious institutions have an overall problem with presenting a relevant, vibrant spirituality to millenials.  Since religious institutions are failing in providing something as simple as the spiritual needs of the millenial, the millenial seeks spirituality somewhere else, mainly within themselves.

5) Christianity is partially at fault.  It might seem harsh at first glance to blame a religion that a third of the world practices, but it is a theory I have been kicking around, and it merits analyzing.  As I previously stated, we are a multi-religious society, and millenials have had unprecedented access to information regarding other religions.  However, in spite of the increase of "spiritual but religious" millenials, 76% of Americans still consider themselves to be Christian.  The reason why this has any bearing on why people become "more spiritual than religious" is that in spite of being exposed to many religions, most Americans, even millenials, still view religion through a Christian lens.

Many millenials were raised in Christian households.  With the advent of the Internet, not to mention an unprecedented amount of children question authority figures, millenials have come to view Christianity as a non-sensical theology.  They sit in their church pews and realize how stupid it all is.  Not only do I have a lot of friends my age who have done that, but I also have done that myself.

However, millenials take their newly founded sentiment and translate it into faulty logic: since Christianity doesn't make sense, that means other religions do not make any sense.  As innacurate as this is, it causes millenials to discredit all religions in their mind, hence them becoming "spiritual but not religious."

Postscript: We have many factors in play.  Society has induced the notions of individuality, autonomy, and the need for immediate results.  This permeates a spiritual laziness because in all honesty, who wants to work at a long-term relationship with G-d when you can feel self-satisfied with vibrational healing and New Age music?  One also has to figure that if religious institutions hadn't let their guard down by not doing their job, none of this would have happened in the first place.  Religion without spirituality is boring, dry, and ultimately lacks any meaning.  This is what most religious institutions, whether that would be on the Left or the Right, face--an incapability to meet the spiritual demands of the millenial.  One the other hand, spirituality without religion (i.e., G-d) is nothing more than a wishy-washy subjectivity that attempts to justify hedonism and bad behavior.  By becoming "spiritual rather than religious," what many millenials have done is throw out the baby with the bath water.  Religious institutions have much to offer.  It's no accident that they have survived for so long--it's because what they have to offer has no substitute good.  Rather than do away with religious institutions, what millenials should be doing is fixing our religious institutions to provide both religiosity and spirituality.  However, before we can even discuss repairing them, we need to first realize that America is becoming spiritually bankrupt in more ways than one. 

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