It's all over the news: America is a post-religious nation, millennials are a post-Christian generation, God is dead in 2013. As I responded in a recent series of articles, this is not quite the case. The key to stats about religion is understanding the "spiritual but not religious" phenomenon.
"Religion" has become a dirty word, according to several surveys over the last decade. As Robert Fuller pointed out, in the 20th century, "the word spiritual gradually came to be associated with the private realm of thought and experience, while the word religious came to be connected to the public realm of membership in religious institutions, participation in formal ritual, and adherence to official denominational doctrines."
And it has been a bad decade for religious institutions.
Sociologist Diana Bass considers this to be a time of fundamental religious upheaval, in part caused by a crash in religious participation that can be traced to five events:
1) September 11 was terrible press for religion, especially for Christian crusaders who blamed American infidelity for the attacks.
2) The Catholic sex abuse scandal, which broke in 2002, revealed systematic institutional cover-up of heinous crimes. One-third of American Catholics’ have actively left the church, meaning about 10% of Americans are ex-Catholics. This has led to a general disrespect for all clergy: in 2010, only 53% of Americans said that ministers had high ethical standards, which makes them as bad as post-recession Wall Street bankers.
3) The Protestant conflict over homosexuality boiled over in 2003 with the election of Gene Robinson as an Episcopal bishop. The media storm led to schism and bad reputation for the more mainline protestant churches, which had always been seen as friendly, open and progressive.
4) The political victory of the religious right in 2004 came at the expense of alienating everyone who is not comfortable mixing politics and religion, especially millennials. "Christian" and "Religious" were made synonymous with anti-homosexual, judgmental, exclusive, hypocritical, insensitive, and boring.
5) Finally, the economic recession of 2007 destroyed many charities, including religious organizations that could no longer afford to serve their primary missions.
What does this all mean? People with spiritual beliefs will continue to form communities outside of restrictive religious institutions. Open spiritual networks will likely involve a greater scientific literacy, more pluralism, and less hierarchy. These communities are already thriving online and in cities.
Are you spiritual but not religious? You're in good company. Read more at millennialfaith.blogspot.com