Freedom of religion is fast becoming synonymous with religiously free. Findings from the 2008 American Religious Identity Survey reveal that the numbers of Americans who have opted out of any formal religious affiliation has almost doubled since 1990. Then the number of people marking “None” when asked about religious affiliation was 8%, today it is 15%.
This is a huge shift in the American religious landscape. Where are these newly minted Nones coming from? The data is suggestive: those Americans identifying as one kind of Christian or another has dropped 11%. Even Baptists have lost 4% of their membership. And Americans who no longer believe in a personal God now totals almost 1/3 of the population.
Is this something worth cheering about? It depends. If those self-proclaimed Nones are making their choice based on a serious study of religion and an equally serious quest for spiritual maturity and wisdom, then, yes, I am applauding. If, on the other hand, the Nones are simply bored with and untouched by all things religious and spiritual, then I am saddened. The survey interpreters suggest the latter is true. Religion is simply becoming more and more irrelevant to more and more Americans.
Almost 1/3 of Americans are simply numb to the soul. This is not only saddening, it is frightening. For me the soul is that aspect of human consciousness that realizes the interdependence of all life. It is that aspect of human consciousness that lifts the “I” into the “We” and gives rise to deep compassion for all life. In Judaism this is called Chayya or Life consciousness, what we might now call Cosmic Consciousness: the awareness that we are all one with and in the One. It is from the perspective of Chayya consciousness that we have the opportunity to slip into Yechida consciousness, that level of pure awareness where the realization that “we are one” shifts to reveal that the One is us.
I don’t mean to imply that 2/3 of Americans are soul-conscious, however. Far from it. Most of what passes for religion in America is simply a sacred tribalism worshipping a god of its own making who rewards those who sacrifice blood and treasure to him and his chosen leaders. And as long as this is so, the numbers of Nones will grow, as will the numbing of the soul that causes this.
Religion isn’t the enemy, but it isn’t the solution either. Reducing God to an “ism,” and insisting that those who reject that “ism” are damned isn’t going to resuscitate the soul. Religion in this form has no interest in or use for spirituality, the cultivation of universal justice, compassion, peace, courage, wisdom, and humility. The goal of religion as currently defined is simply to grow the ranks of its members, and the only tools they have are guilt, fear of damnation, and triumphalism over the damnation of those who choose a faith other than the that of the self-righteous and self-proclaimed triumphalists. Of course this is a generalization, and the varieties of religions make any such generalizations suspect. But numbers matter or we wouldn’t both with surveys that count people’s membership in this or that religion.
I will leave the religions to fend for themselves. It is the Nones that appeal to me. These people have freed themselves from religion but not necessarily for spirituality. They need to be offered a way to uncover the soul that honors their individuality, their freedom, and that doesn’t devolve into a mere feeding of the ego.
This may require a new kind of “affiliation” that offers deep community and disciplined spiritual training when needed, and individual autonomy and aloneness when that is needed.
I am not sure how this would work, but I am interested in hearing from you if you have any ideas. Here are some questions you might considered addressing the Comments section of Toto: If you are a None why are you a None? What are you looking for as a None? What would your life look like if you found it? How much community do you want and need?
PS: Since writing this post I have been introduced to www.sbnr.org. This is a website and “movement” for those 50 million Americans who are “spiritual but not religious.” It is just getting of the ground and I am assisting a bit. Check it out, and let us know how such an effort can be of help to you.