Thursday June 26, 2008
We often look at the religious landscape in binary terms - believers vs. nonbelievers, churchgoers vs. atheists, the "religious" vs. "secularists". It's time too add a new group: "pious but not religious."
For a while now, some pollsters have tracked an increasing number of people who call themselves "spiritual but not religious." We've found at Beliefnet, though, that the people who identified that way tended to be, well, just not all that religious or spiritual. It's a moniker for those who have rejected organized religion and have a relatively small connection to spirituality.
It's also long been known that many people believe in God (90-plus percent) but don't really engage in much spiritual practice beyond that.
But the recent Pew Religion Forum survey confirms what we've seen on Beliefnet for a long time: There's a huge group of people in the middle - they don't just believe in God, they take concrete steps on a regular basis - but don't go to church.
Consider this: 39% attend church weekly yet 75% pray at least weekly -- and 58% pray daily. About 19% of the population is very devout - but doesn't go regularly to church.
How do they feed their spiritual thirst? They have become their own spiritual general contractors, pulling information and nourishment from a variety of sources. The burgeoning spiritual book industry, the growth of religion on the internet, and religious radio have all made it possible for Americans to devour spiritual content without regularly attending worship services. An internal Beliefnet survey found that that 69% of people read articles about spirituality in the course of a week, 53% listened to spiritual music each week.
Many also belong to 'small groups', which often are not affiliated with houses of worship. Almost half of those on Beliefnet who belong to small groups say the informal spiritual gathers - prayer, discussion or book groups -- are not connected to a church.
Many of these folks are NOT picking a bit from one religion and a bit from another, or acting as casual dabblers. They often are firmly grounded in one particular faith tradition but draw wisdom from teachers and preachers directly via books, the internet, tapes and the radio. Some of them have had bad experiences with religion that turned them off while others simply don't have the time to attend.
Religious leaders have spent many hours mulling this and trying to come up with innovative services or activities to draw these folks in. They tend to view the large number of "unchurched" as a sign of defeat, and that's understandable. This might be seen as yet another sign of the over-individualization of religious practice, each person cherry-picking their favorite creeds to fit their personal fancies. Overly private spirituality also can deprive people of a sense of community - mentors, support structures and educational rigor - that a house of worship can provide.
It does indeed seem to mean less focus on theology and more on personal experience. 57% of evangelical Christians say many religions can lead to eternal life - a direct contradiction to one of the most important teachings of evangelical Christianity that salvation comes ONLY through Christ.
But there's also another, more positive way of looking at the rise of the pious-but-not-religious group. Americans believe that prayer works, and have concluded that they can have an active and meaningful spiritual life without weekly organizational support, if they focus on prayer. They do it because they find it to be an effective way of gaining strength and, often, gaining help from God: 49% of those who pray say they received "direct answers" to prayer in the course of the year. They find that when supplemented with readings, discussion, small groups and music, they can create a genuinely meaningful spiritual plan.
Prayer, not church, has become the center of the American spiritual experience for many Americans. We're only beginning to grapple with the implications of that.
Find Article here: http://blog.beliefnet.com/stevenwaldman/2008/06/introducing-pious-but-not-reli.html