Archives For spiritual but not religious

For the last year and a half, 2011 census data has been trickling out from the United Kingdom and Commonwealth nations, each giving a picture of the growth of modern Pagan religions and related belief systems. First out of the gate was Australia, where Pagan faiths grew, though modestly. Still, that growth was enough to underline the expanding religious diversity of the island nation.

ABS Queensland census figures. Picture: Megan Slade Source: CourierMail

ABS Queensland census figures. Picture: Megan Slade Source: CourierMail

“Religion is the only optional question on the census form; there is no requirement to give any answer. But in the last census 16,849 were happy to declare themselves as pagans, 8413 Wiccan witches, 2454 Satanists, 1046 said they were druids, 1395 pantheists, 2542 Zoroastrians, 2921 follow Jainism, 2161 Scientologists, 1485 are into theosophy and 1391 are Rastafarian. The cloak of secrecy has dropped. ‘We live in an era in which there is a religious supermarket and punters pick and choose the religion that corresponds best to their line of thinking,’ said expert in religion, Associate Professor Pradip Thomas from the University of Queensland.”

After Australia, came England and Wales, where the number of modern Pagans nearly doubled since the last census.

“Now, initial 2011 religion figures for England and Wales have been released, and while the numbers haven’t exploded into the hundreds of thousands, adherents to some form of modern Paganism has nearly doubled in the last ten years. Depending on how forgiving you want to be as to which groups are “Pagan” in some form, they now number over 80,000. In addition, the base number of people identifying as “Pagan” shot up to nearly 60,000.”

Now, Scotland has released its 2011 census data, including how many Scottish Pagans there are.

other_religions

Putting it all together, it means we have over 5000 adherents of Pagan-related faiths in Scotland. Meanwhile, the number of people claiming “no religion” continues to rise in all of these countries. As James R. Lewis might put it, Pagan faiths have continued to mature and grow at normal (and sustainable) rates after the 1990s “Teen Witch” boom. Plus, looking at new data from the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC), which looks at the religious beliefs of American college students, it seems clear that steady growth will continue for the foreseeable future, and may even expand in the next couple decades.

Worldview by Religious Identification

Worldview by Religious Identification

“Overall, the Spirituals are closer to the Religious when it comes to the supernatural but closer to the Seculars when it comes to the social and political. Most claim an institutional religious identity. They are closest to the tradition that the American religious historian Catherine Albanese calls Metaphysical in her magisterial volume, A Republic of Mind and Spirit. While Kosmin and Keysar’s survey is not a random sample of college students in a statistically strict sense, the range and size of their sample is more than sufficient to make a strong provisional claim. A dozen years ago, they transformed the world of American religious demography when they discovered that the proportion of Nones had doubled in the 1990s. The rise of the Spirituals may be next.”

As you can see “spiritual but not religious” students are far more inclined toward “other religions” than their secular or religious peers, and there’s growing evidence that this category is on the rise. In short, modern Paganism is growing, will continue to grow, and shows no signs of slowing down in the years to come.

Yesterday the BBC News Magazine posted a look at “spiritual, but not religious” people, cobbling together various studies and perspectives to try and understand this rather nebulous (yet growing) demographic. Interestingly, the lump modern Pagans in as part of the larger “spiritual” trend noting that “the spiritually aligned range from pagans to devotees of healing crystals, among many other sub-groups.”

Mike Stygal, is a secondary school teacher who practises paganism in his private life. He believes in a divine force in nature. “I believe everything is connected, I feel very in touch with nature and the changing seasons. Awe is a very good word for how I feel. It’s a sense of deep respect for nature. I can communicate with the deity.”

They also point to a quote from pop superstar Pink where she talks about her spiritual-but-not-religious makeup.

Pink on the BBC, October, 2012

Pink on the BBC, October, 2012

“I love Native American spirituality and paganism, and I’ve studied Buddhism. I think organised religion is one of the top problems of the world actually, so no, I’d say I steer clear of religion and go straight towards spirituality.”

Increasingly, I think more and more people are finding Paganism not as discrete religions, but as a part of an open-sourced kit to build an individualized belief system or practice. They aren’t Wiccans, or Druids, or Asatru, they are practicing “Paganism” as a syncretic and eclectic system in its own right, people like Shirley McMichael a community engagement worker with the Policing Board in Belfast.

“The widow described herself as a pagan rather than a witch — although she does have a small ceremonial broomstick, a wand and casts spells. “Wicca (witchcraft) is more structured than our Pagan Voice group but we have quite a lot in common” she said. For Mrs McMichael, paganism — the worship of natural forces often personified as a god and goddess — is a way of being in tune with the environment.”

I think McMichael’s quote there is important because it highlights that she sees Wicca as a religious system that she chooses to work outside, though finds some affinity with. Likewise, turning back to the BBC News Magazine article, we find a woman reviving “ancient traditions” but with no real interest in labeling herself as a Pagan.

Bridget McKenzie, a cultural learning consultant, does daily walking meditations. “It’s about making time to contemplate the awesomeness of life on earth, the extraordinary luck this planet has in sustaining life.” She is not a pagan but for the summer solstice organises a Garlic Man Parade in south east London to reconnect with ancient traditions. “We all sense changes in the light as the seasons change. It’s important to mark the occasion.”

When the census data for England and Wales was released, I noted that as impressive as Paganism’s growth was, they may have been many more of “us” hidden in other categories.

Bringing to just over 80,000 (or so) Pagans. That number doesn’t count how many Pagans there might be lurking within the category of “Mixed Religon” (23,566), “Own Belief System” (1,949), or “Spiritual” (13,832). Other figures of note in the “Other Religion” category include Vodoun at 208, Traditional African Religion at 588 (both numbers that I think are too low), and New Age at 698 adherents.

The spiritual category might have included the Garlic Man Parade organizer mentioned above, the one who wants to reconnect with ancient traditions, and “mixed religion” would most certainly have encompassed a pop star who loves Native American spirituality, Paganism, and Buddhism. In short, Pagans are indeed much larger that some give us credit for, but our numbers will always be diffused through several categories because Paganism doesn’t demand brand loyalty or exclusive rights to your soul.

People are rejecting “religion” in ever growing numbers, and a growing number of individuals are defining themselves as “spiritual but not religion” even if they claim a religious affiliation. This decline simply speeds the decline further, as it becomes easier and more attractive to jettison religious labels.

Pagans dance in "nonreligious" Estonia. Photo: BBC.

Pagans dance in “nonreligious” Estonia. Photo: BBC.

“The idea is pretty simple,” said Richard Wiener of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and the University of Arizona.”It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility. [...]  In a large number of modern secular democracies, there’s been a trend that folk are identifying themselves as non-affiliated with religion; in the Netherlands the number was 40%, and the highest we saw was in the Czech Republic, where the number was 60%.” The team then applied their nonlinear dynamics model, adjusting parameters for the relative social and utilitarian merits of membership of the “non-religious” category. They found, in a study published online, that those parameters were similar across all the countries studied, suggesting that similar behaviour drives the mathematics in all of them. And in all the countries, the indications were that religion was headed toward extinction.

What happens is that you start to encounter cultures where “nones” dominate, and where spirituality is often shaped by the landscape, and by the people living in it. This can be very Pagan as in the Pacific Northwest, where the authors of “Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia,” note residents are “eclectically, informally, often deeply ‘spiritual.’” Specifically, New Age and nature-oriented spirituality loom large among “nones” here.

“According to the just-published “Cascadia: the Elusive Utopia.” … a lot of these “nones” in the Pacific Northwest are actually very spiritual, walking a path of their own making, but not into organized religions and churches. Sociology professor Mark Shibley of Southern Oregon University wrote the lead essay called “The Promise and Limits of Secular Spirituality in Cascadia.” “This region is different. The people here are not as connected to religious institutions,” he says. The alternative spirituality here shows itself in two main ways, Shibley notes: “nature spirituality,” such as you see in the secular environmental movement, and the more well-known New Age spirituality, where the gaze is shifted inward.”

While some Pagans seem to scorn this growing contingent of eclectic, syncretic, label-free, spiritual people, I think it is this growing phenomenon that will deliver vital cultural shifts for those of us who are explicitly members of a Pagan religion. The rise of the unaffiliated in the world weakens the power of the religions that seek to create a homogenous “united” religious identity under their moral guidance. Call them wishy-washy, or unable to commit, or whatever invective you choose, but the “spiritual” people are the buffer that allows for the continued growth of Paganism around the world. Pink’s love of Paganism helps create a future where even more people can learn to love us.

Director/producer Alan D. Miller seems like a very intelligent guy, he participates in the NY Salon after all, so I was disappointed to see him participate in the religious pundit class version of “hippie punching”: criticizing all those “spiritual but not religious” people for CNN’s Belief Blog. You see, these spiritual (but not religious) people are very shallow, and don’t realize how darn important the Christian Bible has been to human history.

“A bit of Yoga here, a Zen idea there, a quote from Taoism and a Kabbalah class, a bit of Sufism and maybe some Feing Shui but not generally a reading and appreciation of The Bhagavad Gita, the Karma Sutra or the Qur’an, let alone The Old or New Testament. So what, one may ask? Christianity has been interwoven and seminal in Western history and culture. As Harold Bloom pointed out in his book on the King James Bible, everything from the visual arts, to Bach and our canon of literature generally would not be possible without this enormously important work. Indeed, it was through the desire to know and read the Bible that reading became a reality for the masses – an entirely radical moment that had enormous consequences for humanity. Moreover, the spiritual but not religious reflect the “me” generation of self-obsessed, truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking, where big, historic, demanding institutions that have expectations about behavior, attitudes and observance and rules are jettisoned yet nothing positive is put in replacement.”

So, you see, spiritual-but-not-religious people are dilettantes who should, I guess, be really respectful and thankful for the Bible? They should know that Christianity has dominated Western culture for a long, long, time? Ultimately, according to Miller, there are just two sides and we all, but especially these self-absorbed yoga-breathing spiritual types, need to just pick one.

“Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either. Take a stand, I say. Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action? Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide.”

Ha-ha! Take that straw-man spiritual-but-not-religious demographic, you’ve been defeated again!

So I have two problems with Mr. Miller’s essay, aside from the lazy broadsides against a diverse demographic that he most likely only thinks he understands. First, people who actually define themselves as “spiritual but not religious” account for less than 0.3% of the US population (even if you include all “liberal faiths” you only get to 0.7%). So he’s taking the time to complain about what a tiny demographic does because they get up his nose? Because he’s tired of hearing about their latest guru at cocktail parties? That’s just petty, unless he actually means people who refuse to associate themselves with a religion, the “nones,” in which case you’re talking about a far larger demographic, and one that won’t slot easily into Miller’s conjectures.

Secondly, I want to talk about the importance of the Bible. I completely agree that the Bible (particularly the King James Bible) has had an immense influence in Western culture, but let us not pretend that this is because the book excelled in its prose, was especially unique, or won in some metaphysical literature competition. The Bible was dominant because Christianity was dominant, and Christianity is dominant because of a Constantinian turn, not because it fairly competed against other forms of religious literature. To believe that the printing press, great art, and great music, would not have occurred had the pagans triumphed is folly of the highest order. Miller is praising the Bible for the role any number of other works could have taken had Christianity not enforced strict controls on who got to read what for generations. Are we suddenly going to forget that the ancient world had a thriving literary tradition (one that smart Christians constantly cribbed from)? That the Rennaisance and the Enlightenment had as much to do with access to pre-Christian works as it did the Bible? For a long time Christianity has only had to struggle with itself, and to praise the flowers that bloomed in its tended garden is to ignore the forest it razed to plant those seeds.

In my opinion the outsize reactions to spiritual but not religious people are knee-jerk and ultimately telling. You “punch the hippie” not because the hippie is necessarily wrong, but because it benefits you in some way to engage in the punching. Right now there are a lot of people involved in institutional religion who are working very, very, hard to remind you how much good they’ve done you in the past. Art! Music! Pretty buildings! Don’t forget! This is despite the fact that a majority of people are still professed Christians in the United States. That a tiny minority has shaken off institutional faith and is searching for something different, and maybe hasn’t found it yet, is threatening because people are worried that it will catch on. That they may even stop searching and choose to be Buddhists, or Hindus, or Pagans, and weaken the cultural throne that institutional forms of Christianity have long taken for granted.

So the next time you see someone knocking the “nones,” or bemoaning the spiritual people, ask yourself what their agenda for doing it is. Why are they punching the hippie?

Don Lattin, author of “The Harvard Psychedelic Club” and “Following Our Bliss,” reports on growing pains at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, for the Religion News Service. According to Lattin’s piece, there are growing complaints about the “corporatization” of Esalen, long a haven for spiritual seekers, with some claiming it is “turning into a spa for the 1 percent.”

A view of Big Sur, California.

A view of Big Sur, California.

“David Price, the son of the late Richard Price and a former general manager of the institute, is one of many Esalen veterans who complain that the place has lost its edge. Others point to upgraded rooms in which a spiritual seeker can spend up to $1,595 for a weekend workshop. Standard rooms, with two or three people sharing a room and bath, cost $730 per person for the weekend. What began with a burst of hippie idealism, they say, is turning into a spa for the 1 percent. There’s even some talk of an “Occupy Esalen” protest. Some staff members, workshop leaders and temporary “work scholar” volunteers have begun gathering in a daily “circle of silence” to protest recent layoffs and staff changes designed to improve efficiency. Meanwhile, the blogosphere is abuzz with “Esalen Friends” letting off steam on a Facebook page.”

Jeffrey Kripal, author of “Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion”, tells Lattin that what Esalen is going through are classic generational struggles that all religious movements face, the “institutionalization of charisma.” In addition, Esalen President Gordon Wheeler says “we certainly don’t want to turn into one of today’s big bad corporations” and that those stirring up discontent aren’t tuned into what Esalen is like today.

Esalen President Gordon Wheeler said most of the people stirring up discontent “have not been here for quite a long time.” ”They are remembering a time when the world was different. People didn’t have to show up in the same way,” said Wheeler, a Gestalt therapist who first taught here in 1997 and went onto become the CEO. ”Sometimes we make mistakes, but we certainly don’t want to turn into one of today’s big bad corporations … Everything we do here is about the evolution of spiritual transformation.”

Interestingly, Lattin’s article doesn’t directly cite the critical site Esaleaks, or mention the recently released (and earlier leaked) leadership culture survey, which showed a cautious, “reactive,” culture of leadership at Esalen. As the resort hits its 50th anniversary, their troubles ask larger questions about the overlapping “Human Potential” and “New Age” movements. Movements that have had quite a considerable influence on modern Paganism (take a look at Esalen’s past teachers list as confirmation).  Lately, with the United States dealing with one of the worst economic downturns in recent history, with the high rate of unemployment, and with the rise of populist backlashes to the status quo (especially in the Occupy Movement), we are more sensitive than ever to the money and power-related failings of movements which claim to be working for the benefit of all.

This crisis of identity at Esalen comes during a time of scandal for the New Age/Human Potential movements, from Anusara’s sex-and-power shake-ups, to the deadly power-tripping of “Secret” teacher James Arthur Ray. It truly does seem like a “midlife crisis,” but I think it’s more about a lack of accountability to the values that these communities claim to espouse. There has always been scandal in the New Age movement, but in better times it didn’t seem to hit as hard, nor did the stakes seem to be as high. There was a long-running joke in the Pagan community that the difference between a Pagan event and a New Age event was where the decimal point was placed in the check you wrote to attend, but I’m starting to think it goes a little deeper than that. Yes, our relative poverty compared to the New Age has kept us humbler, less out of touch with the world around us, but I also think that because we’re a movement of religions, we are fundamentally different from the “spiritual but not religious” elite.

The New Age movement is, at the end of the day, a means towards transmitting a set of technologies for living, usually acquired for a monetary price. Your theology is ultimately immaterial, which is why it can encompass both Oprah and Robert Anton Wilson. Because a number of those technologies overlap with the beliefs of modern Pagans, we have sometimes seen our teachers “cross over” to their high-paying events (though not often), and many Pagans have happily attended New Age seminars looking to pick up new teachings. That overlap, however, should not be mistaken for one being the other. Wicca and other Pagan faiths were once mistakenly called “New Age religions,” but that’s a misnomer, one that was eventually corrected as more research was done. We are spiritual and religious.

Pagan faiths are also going through generational struggles, though they are more about evolving our stances on social issues, or creating new leadership, than about money. We are more worried about building simple infrastructure than evolving that infrastructure into resorts for the rich. Perhaps a day will come when Pagans, too, will argue over corporatization and whether we are out of touch with the non-rich, but I somehow doubt it. Our open-source experiential nature will always unbalance attempts to codify our faiths into money-making machines, no matter how much some attempt to automate the process. We will never, I predict, collectively escalate far beyond the middle-class in our ambitions. That may frustrate some of us who yearn for “New Age money,” but it will also spare us the crisis of conscience and leadership faced by institutions like Esalen.

Back in March the BBC reported on a study that predicted the extinction of religion in nine countries: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland. The mathematical model used to make this prediction is very similar to one used to predict the extinction of languages. The idea is simple: as the population of religiously non-affiliated individuals grow, their preferences start to become attractive to more and more people.

Pagans dance in "nonreligious" Estonia. Photo: BBC.

“The idea is pretty simple,” said Richard Wiener of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and the University of Arizona.”It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility. [...]  In a large number of modern secular democracies, there’s been a trend that folk are identifying themselves as non-affiliated with religion; in the Netherlands the number was 40%, and the highest we saw was in the Czech Republic, where the number was 60%.” The team then applied their nonlinear dynamics model, adjusting parameters for the relative social and utilitarian merits of membership of the “non-religious” category. They found, in a study published online, that those parameters were similar across all the countries studied, suggesting that similar behaviour drives the mathematics in all of them. And in all the countries, the indications were that religion was headed toward extinction.

This trend isn’t isolated to Europe, a new study by Duke Divinity School professor Mark Chaves, a specialist in the sociology of religion, says that religion in the United States is “softening”.

In “American Religion: Contemporary Trends,” author Mark Chaves argues that over the last generation or so, religious belief in the U.S. has experienced a “softening” that effects everything from whether people go to worship services regularly to whom they marry. Far more people are willing to say they don’t belong to any religious tradition today than in the past, and signs of religious vitality may be camouflaging stagnation or decline. “Reasonable people can disagree over whether the big picture story is one of essential stability or whether it’s one of slow decline,” said Chaves. “Unambiguously, though, there’s no increase.”

Another sociologist, Bradley Wright, notes that “it’s not random who’s leaving churches, as Christians affiliated more through the Republican Party, liberal, marginal churchgoers became offended and left.” At his blog, Wright points out that religion in American society has become increasingly polarized, with the people who find religion only “somewhat” important (you know, the “Christmas and Easter Christians”) a dwindling population.

“The last two years *may* represent a change in the importance of religion. While the most devout religious people (i.e., “extremely important) hold on to their beliefs, there is a significant drop in those who religion as “very” important, with these people appearing to transition to viewing it as only “somewhat” important. It’s too early to tell, however, whether this is a robust long-term trend. If it is, it could portend further polarization—as the middle ground of religious importance disappears.”

Most telling is the opinion of Chaves, who, according to the Associated Press, doesn’t think these trends “can be reversed by ramped-up evangelism or other conscious decisions by religious groups.” Now it should be noted that people with “no religion” aren’t without religious beliefs or ideas, a large number claim to believe in a divine power, and a recent study of the religiously unaffiliated  in the Pacific Northwest showed that many of them had adopted an informal sort of nature worship.

“According to the just-published “Cascadia: the Elusive Utopia.” … a lot of these “nones” in the Pacific Northwest are actually very spiritual, walking a path of their own making, but not into organized religions and churches. Sociology professor Mark Shibley of Southern Oregon University wrote the lead essay called “The Promise and Limits of Secular Spirituality in Cascadia.” “This region is different. The people here are not as connected to religious institutions,” he says. The alternative spirituality here shows itself in two main ways, Shibley notes: “nature spirituality,” such as you see in the secular environmental movement, and the more well-known New Age spirituality, where the gaze is shifted inward.”

So when we are talking about the decline of “religion” in the West, what we really seem to be talking about is a decline in traditional “churched” congregations. These “unchurched” individuals aren’t becoming atheists or religion-free agnostics, but are instead building their own spiritual practices, or turning to decentralized open movements like modern Paganism. Nor is that a trend isolated to the United States, as a recent BBC piece focusing on religion in Estonia, the world’s “least religious” country, will tell you.

“It is one in a chain of events that led the majority of Estonians away from God, but that does not mean they do not believe in anything at all. About 300km from Tallinn I journey to the forest to meet a group of nature lovers – nature worshippers you might call them. “We are pagan,” says Aigar Piho, father of eight children from the village of Rouge in southern Estonia. Sitting on a log in a forest clearing he tells me: “Our god is in nature. You must take time, sit down and listen.” Like many Estonians Aigar is spiritual. He defines his religion as Maausk – a form of Estonian nature spirituality – in which the trees and earth are cherished objects that possess power. Aigar says his place of worship is the forest yet with neither ceremony nor routine nor religious text, it is hard to say it is an organised religion.”

Sounds pretty religious to me! But I would say that, wouldn’t I? In any case, the idea that people who have “lost” religion will turn to Paganism, the New Age, self-constructed spiritualities, and nature-based religions isn’t just wishful thinking on my part, just listen to Bron Taylor, author of “Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future”.

“Where this cognitive shift has been made, traditional religions with their beliefs in non-material divine beings are in decline. The desire for a spiritually meaningful understanding of the cosmos, however, did not wither away, and new forms of spirituality have been filling the cultural niches previously occupied by conventional religions. I argue that the forms I document in Dark Green Religion are much more likely to survive than longstanding religions, which involved beliefs in invisible, non-material beings.”

It should be noted that these trends, while relatively fast-moving on a societal level, aren’t likely to produce massive shifts in power structures or political allegiances in the near future. Pagans, nature-worshipers, and the “spiritual but not religious” demographics will still have to deal with increasingly polarized mainstream religions fearful of a post-Christian future. That said, if you are looking for the hopeful note in all the stories lately about extreme and increasingly reactionary trends among the dominant monotheisms, here’s your light at the end of the tunnel. The promise of a more Pagan tomorrow.

BBC News has run a story on the Church of England’s efforts to reach out to “spiritual but not religious” people, complete with hipster missionaries sent out to psychic fairs, and alternative meeting and worship services. But do these experiments in boosting church attendance really work? Not so much, according to reporter Jolyon Jenkins.

Ian Mobsby, an emerging church guru, argues we live in the age of the “spiritual tourist”; a “world driven by individualism… where people want to experience something that brings peace, centredness and depth.” He sees parallels between today’s post-religious culture and the early days of Christianity, a time of prevailing mysticism in Europe. “We are entering a world where people aren’t interested in whether something is true or not, or whether they believe it or not, but whether it works,” says Mr Mobsby. In other words, if an emerging church can offer a sense of community and give a feeling of inner peace, that may be enough – belief will follow. But three years into his mission in Telford, Mark Berry’s core community is not spiritual-but-not-religious recruits, but already-committed Christians who use his gatherings to deepen and provide new perspectives on their faith. There may be a hole in people’s lives, but there’s not a great deal of evidence that it is God-shaped.

This isn’t scientific, but my own experiences with alternative Christian outreach programs have backed this up. While the  curious may drop in from time to time, the committed members are usually self-identified Christians already. So psychic-fair outreach programs, Church-led extreme-sport events, and goth masses,  act more as retention programs than anything else. Not that there is anything wrong with trying to lure estranged church-goers back into the fold, but I agree with “emerging church guru” Ian Mobsby’s claim that were moving into a results-based religious future. A future that doesn’t necessarily favor large institutional religions.

If your faith is losing members, a new marketing plan, no matter how effective, won’t stem the tide. Who knows though? Maybe hanging out in psychic fairs and doing extreme sports will end up changing the outreachers more than the (potentially) outreached. Perhaps these new “hip” emerging-churchers are simply becoming the change they want to see, and that may wind up being a more effective ministry than any sort of “alternative” event. (Thanks to Mike for tipping me off to this story.)