America’s Spiritual Awakening: Religion Gets Personal

It’s not a great time for traditional organized religion, at least not in the United States. There are countless studies and surveys outlining the simple fact that church is just not that trendy anymore. Gone are the days where one’s friends, activities, or calendars revolved solely around Sunday services. Nowadays, “Sunday Funday” is the norm, and people are looking to fulfill their spiritual needs elsewhere.

Churches and organized religion used to be mainstays in the community for the simple fact that church was the only way to socialize. “It is no longer necessary to belong to a religious community because secular communities are plentiful,” states Mark W. Gura, author and President of the Atheist Alliance of America. Whether you prefer to hang out with chatty gardeners, amateur sommeliers, or a local chess club, it’s much easier with today’s technology to find groups of like-minded people who want to be sociable. Dr. María M. Carrión, Chair of the Religion Department at Emory University thinks that throughout human history, it’s just been more convenient to value spirituality over religion. “A feeling of spirituality, as a feeling first, and as a partaking of spirits, the spirit, or a spiritual life second, is more manageable, pliable, adaptable.” And humans are nothing if not adaptable.

If you examine the breakdown created by the Pew Research Center of people who don’t consider themselves affiliated with any religion in the United States, most of those people are young people, between the ages of 18 and 49. The Rev. Dr. Horace L. Griffin, Senior Associate for Pastoral Care and Outreach at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta sees a connection between the social movements that erupted in the 1970s when society was questioning itself and fighting for equal rights across the board, and with a waning in attendance at services today. “I think some of the reasons for that is a lot of those Millennials’ parents who were part of that change in our culture about religion in the sense of institutional religion or organized religion, I think that’s where it started changing.” As people start questioning the teachings of the more conservative denominations while seeking acceptance and community, a lot of marginalized groups find themselves left out on the fringes. The Rev. Dr. Griffin touches on this sentiment a bit stating, “a lot of those [more conservative] churches have been very closed to [the] inclusion of women, LGBTQ folks, and they’ve heard a lot of negative messages and don’t find that attractive.” And maybe a little tone-deaf when it comes to the social climate we find ourselves in today.

But it’s not that we’re losing touch with the spiritual. It seems more like we are seeking to feed our souls in other ways. Gary Laderman, Professor of American Religious History and Cultures in the Department of Religion at Emory University, thinks that our evolving school of thought on practices and rituals can lend itself to a new kind of spirituality. “The rules of the ‘religion game’ have changed in this new spiritual environment, and what once looked to be ‘secular’ activities are actually deeply religious practices that provide both stability and order to the cosmos, and rituals that bring people in touch with their true spiritual selves.” An example of some of these activities in his opinion? “Sacred practices … are all over the place: music festivals, sports events, celebrity tracking, political protest …” Meditation, a tried and true way to tap into our inner selves, always seems to score high on the list of spiritual activities as well, and for good reason, Gura argues. “Humans have an innate need to experience altered states of consciousness, which help us to release stress and help us to recharge. Secular forms of meditation fulfill this need.” And science supports this. Mediation, whether it’s in the form of daily prayer or mindfulness, is good for your mind and body. But so is any activity where you feel connected to your mind or other people in a safe and welcoming environment. That could be the main argument as to why people who belong to congregations are reportedly happier than those who don’t. It doesn’t necessarily mean that being part of a religion leads to happiness, but rather being surrounded by a steady support system does. Whether you’re tied to a religion or not, the more spiritually connected you feel, the healthier you are.

According to the Pew Research Center’s article about the U.S. becoming less religious, “About six-in-ten adults now say they regularly feel a deep sense of ‘spiritual peace and well-being,’ up 7 percentage points since 2007. And 46 percent of Americans say they experience a deep sense of ‘wonder about the universe’ at least once a week, also up 7 points over the same period.” The times are changing, and whether you choose to diligently attend church services every Sunday morning, or meet with your yoga group every Thursday night, just remember to feed your spirit since it is arguably the thing which makes us human.