The New Silent Majority?

The New Silent Majority?

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When Thanksgiving dinner conversation drifts into religious dogma, here is the way I’ll respond, with a wink and a smile: “That’s nice, Aunty. Thank you for sharing. But I am spiritual, not religious. I love the Brussels sprouts and chestnuts. Did you make that dish?”

It is a polite way to change the subject.

In the U.S., it is increasingly common for people to describe themselves as “spiritual, not religious.” The phrase is repeated on campuses and in workplaces, at family gatherings and community meetings. It is repeated on social networking sites and in online dating profiles.

In their book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell surveyed religiosity in the United States. The third largest “religious” group today is those who declare no religious affiliation at all. The unaffiliated represent 17 to 22 percent of the U.S. population. They now outnumber mainline Protestant church members. Putnam and Campbell call these the “nones,” but they actually represent something very interesting — a seismic shift in American religiosity.

The “nones” are overwhelmingly not atheists or agnostics. Instead, they are “spiritual, not religious,” a phrase that Putnam and Campbell don’t use, but which mostly fits the case. Their numbers are growing through the passing generations of pre-boomers, boomers and post-boomers. In the 1950s, the “nones” constituted 3 to 5 percent of the population. Among those who came of age in the 1990s and 2000s, roughly 25 percent say they have no religion.

I wonder what I would say if Putnam and Campbell came to my door with their questionnaire. “I am a member of the Religious Society of Friends,” I would answer. “But the chances of finding a Quaker on a randomized survey of the United States with a sample size of 3,000 are near nil,” I’d add. “Perhaps you’ve made a mistake in choosing me.”

When the sociologists asked about the frequency of my church attendance, I would feel a pang of guilt and a flush of embarrassment. The truth be told, I haven’t attended Meeting for Worship in many years. Instead I attend the Church of the Sunday New York Times, followed by an afternoon yoga class at the gym. The latter sometimes involves some chanting in Sanskrit and a silly, but mercifully brief, dharma talk by the instructor, but I wouldn’t call it church. There is no coffee hour afterward.

Perhaps the truth will not be told after all, or at least it will be exaggerated slightly in favor of my imagined ought-to-be-so self. If I am representative of others, and I suspect you may be a lot like me, then there is likely a large portion of the religiously affiliated types who over-report the frequency of their religious attendance. For others, frequency of church attendance is the wrong question. It doesn’t apply to the Diwali-is-fun Hindus and the selectively observant Muslims partying at Eid.

Some large percentages of the religiously affiliated have low levels of commitment to the congregation and the creeds. These are the High Holiday Jews and Christmas-and-Easter-only Christians. Except for weddings, funerals and seasonal holidays, we rarely go to church or synagogue. What shall we call ourselves? How about MIAs — “members in absentia” or perhaps “missing in action.” And while not exactly the “nones,” we have much in common with them.

The MIAs are, more or less, spiritual, not religious. We declare our affiliation, but it doesn’t mean a lot to us. We occasionally enjoy the music and social life at our local congregation. Like the nones, we do not differ much from the rest of the U.S. population in terms of education, income or social standing. We have grown cynical about religious institutions and enthusiasts. We are skeptical about a lot of the creeds and dogmas. We want good spiritual feelings without the long histories of failures and hypocrisy of organized religion.

When we add the MIAs to the nones, we end up with probably the largest “religious” group in the United States today. The new Silent Majority is spiritual, not religious, and it is not socially conservative. In fact, Putnam and Campbell correlate the dramatic rise of the unaffiliated with the rise of the Religious Right in American political life in the 1990s and onward. The new “nones” tend to be politically and socially liberal. They overwhelmingly approve of pre-marital sex, birth control, homosexuality and the legalization of marijuana. Religion is perceived to be incompatible with these values.

This is born out by other studies. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life conducted a large survey of the unaffiliated on why they reject religious identification. They perceive religious institutions and people as judgmental and socially conservative. Their rejection of religion is based on politics and not on theology or science. There is a sprinkling of atheists and agnostics, to be sure, but the nones are overwhelmingly spiritual, not religious.

Spirituality is thought to be something an individual can have without the ambivalent complexity of human societies and institutions. Spirituality is seen as an individual preference, so it enables hospitals, schools, and governments to better serve a religiously plural population. Medical schools now teach physicians about “spirituality and health,” but not “religion and health.” Spirituality is a way of defusing sectarianism in the public square and at holiday dinners.

The rise of spirituality, however, can also be understood as simply a recurrent pattern. Religious revitalization and reformation movements occur throughout history. They seek to recapture some imagined origins, unmediated revelations, authentic interpretations, purified communities, and mystical moments.

Yet those of us who are “spiritual, not religious” are generally not interested in returning to the past. We are more oriented toward living in the present and creating modestly better futures. We favor mystical experience and charisma over tedious scriptural debates, in part because we are distracted and can’t be bothered; there are more interesting things to read and discuss. While we tend to like science, we also tend to not know very much about science. We are easily seduced by pseudo-science. Our lack of rigor can sometimes reflect laziness and wishful thinking.

“Spirituality” turns out to be messy. There are businesses involved, conferences to attend, treatments to try, retreats to experience, books to read, schools for certifications, sports to pursue, and providers to pay. Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) practitioners are a telephone book of spiritual healing techniques. New Age conferences and publications offer a Walmart of esoteric practices collected from around the world. Building a diversified spiritual portfolio takes research and time. The rise of spirituality can be understood as the product of a culture that emphasizes individualism and consumerism. The independent variable — spirituality — turns out to be a dependent variable in the age of global capitalism.

So what is it that we mean when we invoke the word “spirituality”? Is there something there? The term derives from the Latin verb spirare meaning “to breathe.” The connotation is that we are surrounded by a divine reality as pervasive, intimate, necessary and invisible as the air we breathe. Similar concepts can be found in the Hindu word prana. The Chinese concept of chi energy may be analogous. Jewish mystics noted that the sacred name of God in Hebrew, YHWH, a name written in the Bible but never pronounced aloud by pious Jews, might itself be understood as the sound of human breath — an inhalation YH and an exhalation WH. Thus, every time a person breathes, she is actually saying the name of God. Muslim mystics make similar claims about the aspiration of the name Al-lah. There is a Presence that is everywhere present.

To talk of spirituality, then, is to affirm that there is an all-encompassing realm, an invisible reality that somehow transcends and sustains human life, consciousness, and values, indeed the entire universe. You don’t need to go to church for this, but you do have to apply yourself to your life. Take a deep breath — and a deep exhale. Pay attention to the details.

Take pleasure in your devout sister and brother-in-law, who go to a Pentecostal church with their children. Break bread with your younger brother, who joined Chabad Lubavitch in college and is now a strict Orthodox Jew. Drink wine with your New Age aunt, who is enthusiastic about some new Indian guru or Sufi sheik. Forgive your conservative, authoritarian father. He can’t help himself and neither can you. Woody Allen couldn’t write a screenplay quirkier than the eclectic mash-up of foods and faiths gathered around our Thanksgiving tables.

Unlike Sunday morning, the extended, blended reunion of families and friends on Thanksgiving mixes spiritual oil and religious vinegar in a big chopped salad of American religiosity. That’s how religion unites us, according to Putnam and Campbell. The diversity of our friends and families is the grace in American in the midst of inane political polarization and vicious culture wars.

Thanksgiving is an icon of that perplexing mix, so be sure to claim your rightful place at the banquet if you are a member of the new Silent Majority — the spiritual, not religious. Be thankful for the food you are about to receive and the crazy quilt of religiosity that is the world today. And don’t forget to breath deeply and pay attention. The Spirit is present.

This blog was first published on the Huffington Post Religion section or 2011/11/22. For the original, go to