‘Spiritual but not Religious’

In many parts of the Western world, belief in God as creator and as active in history is in decline. Yet people are increasingly looking for the meaning of life in ‘the Spirit’. This is occurring both within the churches, through Pentecostal and charismatic movements and through mystical movements, and outside the churches through the New Age movement and through interest in holistic wellbeing. Why is this happening and what is its significance in understanding our changing Western culture?

In the 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, the number of Australians describing themselves as spiritual (47%) exceeded the number describing themselves as religious (39%). According to the International Social Survey Program which conducts surveys in 40 countries and of which one part is the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, identification as ‘spiritual’ is growing in many countries, while identification with religion is declining in almost every country. In Australia and in many other countries around the globe, more younger people than older people describe themselves as spiritual (Hughes, 2011). Twenty-nine per cent of young people under the age of 30 described themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ compared with just 10 per cent of people aged 60 and over in the 2009 Australian survey.

One of the common themes among those who describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ is the rejection of religious systems of beliefs, rituals and instituions. Eighty-five per cent of them agree that religions bring conflict and 82 per cent say that religious people are too intolerant. Just 4 per cent of them say they have a great deal of confidence in churches and religious organisations and 62 per cent have very little or no such confidence. While these people have rejected religion as traditions which are ‘owned’ by religious institutions, there is a strong sense that there is something more to the world than its material composition. Just 13 per cent disagreed with the statement ‘There is something beyond this life that makes sense of it all’ although many were not sure how to respond to it.

Westerners began the turn towards inner experience in the 19th century in the forms of pietism and the devotionalism of such expressions as the Oxford movement. However, at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, some radical expressions of the emphasis on human experience began to appear, perhaps partly as a reaction to the excessive moralism of the Victorian age and the power of the major religious institutions. Spirituality fits more readily into our anti-institutional and individualistic age than does religion. For many, an emphasis on rituals and doctrinal beliefs owned by communities or institutions does not have the immediacy or sense of authenticity that is found in personal experiences. Spirituality’s focus on the ‘here and now’ rather than, as some religions have, on life after death, fits with a world focussed on personal wellbeing.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 4, Pages 13-17

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