The Rise of the Unaffiliated

The Dallas Morning News Religion Blog’s question of the week addresses the rise of “none of the aboves” – people who are religious (or “spiritual but not religious”) but who don’t identify with any religious organization, even while interest in religion is high and megachurches are doing well. It asks “why are fewer Americans identifying with a religion, denomination or particular faith group?”

The responses from the panel of experts are interesting. I was late adding my comment, and many of the comments reflect a very simplistic view of religion (positive and negative). Here’s my take on the subject:

Fewer Americans are identifying with a religion because their perceived religious choices aren’t relevant to their lives.

Religions are human institutions that arise to meet human needs for meaning. At their best, they facilitate connections to God / Goddess / Ultimate Reality, other people and all living things. They comfort us in troubled times and challenge us to live the best lives we can.

At their worst, they spout false certainties to preserve outdated traditions and archaic social customs that are no longer helpful. Katie Sherrod hits on this when she says “Any religion that makes preservation of the institution a higher priority than meeting the needs of human beings is doomed to fail” as does Larry Bethune when he says “Some of the fault must be placed with the church: the tendency to place preserving institutions over serving people.”

But Cynthia Rigby points out the difficulty with unaffiliated spirituality: “To create one’s own religious faith apart from accountability to, and conversation with, particular communities is to risk unregulated self-projection.” It is a rare person who can live as a spiritual hermit – without a community it is far too easy to overlook important ideas and concepts, allow our lower instincts to overrule our higher values, and (speaking from personal experience) neglect helpful spiritual practices.

For some of us, the answer is to reform and reinvent existing religious institutions: to make sure timeless truths and traditional teachings are presented in ways that are meaningful and helpful today.

For others, the answer is to expand our search and find a religious community that meets our needs and doesn’t ask us to believe what we can’t honestly believe. Ric Dexter tells his story of finding Buddhism, and one of the commenters mentions Unitarian Universalism. There are groups practicing virtually every form of spirituality known to humankind, and the internet makes finding them very easy – particularly in a large metro area like DFW.

Humans are social animals – we need each other in religion and spirituality as much as we need each other in our everyday lives.

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