“Religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell. Spirituality is for people who have already been there.”
Those in programs of recovery from drugs and alcohol have no doubt heard this expression. For a while I thought I was alone in thinking that it was dreck. Now I know I’m not.
Religion is more than seeking a spiritual experience – it is a way to structure life around the search for deeper connections to the world, to each other, and to a sacred reality. With the vast options for religious structure in the world, spirituality without a religious structure doesn’t own the market on coming out of hellish and torturous experience.
Archbishop Rowan Williams made a not-too-startling admission that Britain has become “post-Christian.” The facts seem to support his claim:
- 56% consider Britain Christian where the remainder either consider it non-religious or are not sure.
- 38% of those who consider themselves Christian do not practice regularly.
- More Christians feel threatened to talk publicly about their beliefs.
None of this is all of that new. Steve Bruce (2002) argued this trend and its implications:
“Our critics might gloss our work as predicting the imminent disappearance of religion, but this is not our view. Our case can be summarized as saying that religion diminishes in social significance, becomes increasingly privatized, and losses personal social salience except where it finds work to do other than relating individuals to the supernatural” (p. 30).
Similarly Grace Davie (2002) argues that while Europe is seeing a decline not only in the practice of Christianity but in religion in general, this is an exceptional case when compared to the United States, Latin America, Africa, and the Far East.
“In short, many Europeans have ceased to connect with their religious institutions in any active sense, but they have not abandoned, so far, either their deep-seated religious aspirations or (in many cases) a latent sense of belonging” (p. 8).
While the condition of these “deep-seated religious aspirations” seems to be failing in health, the personal connection of religious belief to institutions also looks unhealthy not only in Britain and Europe, but also in the US. What remains is the desire for connection to a sense of belonging and meaning.
However, maybe Bruce is wrong. Maybe there is another salience to religion other than a connection to the supernatural. David Putnam (2000) argued that while our social connections have lost value, they are still vital to a happy and good-natured society. It’s more likely that the value of these connections is something we continue hold dearly, but we no longer know where to find it. If so, existing networks can, and should, be reconfigured to create space to recoup the value of social connections. Religion is one structure that can continue to provide a function to cultivate the value of deep connections to each other, the world, and deeper meaning.
As Christina Patterson from the Guardian writes:
“There is a place to go when we don’t have the words. There’s a calm, quiet peaceful place where someone else will supply the words when your heart is too full and your mind is too weary to come up with words of your own. There’s a place that will give us the solace of ritual. Human beings have always needed ritual. And the rituals we’ve developed in our still-quite-Christian country are on offer to everyone, and make almost no demands.”
There is a value to social connections, ways to structure our beliefs, and space to explore deeper questions about life without fear or threat. Much of religion today may over-value an intentional lack of structure. But what people seem to need most is a safe place to structure their experience of being together.
Bruce, S. (2002). God is dead: Secularization in the west. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers.
Davie, G. (2002). Europe: The exceptional case : Parameters of faith in the modern world. London: Darton Longman & Todd.
Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of american community. New York: Simon & Schuster.