As has been widely reported, a significant number of people when asked for their religious preference reply “none.” This is particularly true among younger adults. Many, however, affirm that while they eschew organized religion, they claim to be “spiritual.” While scores of us have attempted to nail down a definition of “spiritual,” the exact meaning of the term remains elusive. It seems to have something to do with the inner private life. It is accessed through prayer, meditation, yoga or a retreat to someplace in nature. It also is value laden. Peace, justice, outer and inner harmony are all part of the ethical essence of spirituality. For many “nones” one wonders where these values originated. The answer is probably from some religious or educational institution, or perhaps from a parent or mentor. They did not descend on the nones out of thin air. Nevertheless, perhaps almost a third of younger American adults claim to have no religious preference.
Joining the nones are the “no longers,” those who were once members of some religious body and have left it. These no longers are more often baby boomers or middle-aged adults. It is reported that there are more Catholics in the United States than any other religious body. But the second largest group is said to be made up of former Catholics. Examine the statistics of every progressive Protestant denomination and you will find a significantly diminished number of communicants. The denomination in which I have spent most of my life once reported in excess of two million members. The more recent figures have it at about four hundred thousand, and that includes the so-called inactive. Even many evangelical churches have plateaued, and these more conservative groups are already closing some former mega churches as fast at they are opening others.
The Dalai Lama takes the nones and no-longers seriously, noting that half of the world’s population is in these categories. He also notes that many of those who are identified as non-religious are in the vanguard of those profoundly concerned about compassion, justice, peace, financial equity and the care of the environment. He speaks of a “secular spirituality.” His call is for the religious and the non-religious to join hands in building a reinvigorated ethical foundation. While Buddhism is ordinarily listed as one of the world’s great religions, perhaps it is not regarded as a religion at all by those whose notion of religion is tied to the worship of a supernatural deity. Buddhism is essentially rooted in compassion and the universality of suffering, which are also at the core of the world’s religions. Thus Buddhism could be a bridge between religion and the nones and no longers.
Issues focused on peace, justice and harmony are the same concerns at the heart of both religion and spiritually grounded non-religion. We are grateful when politicians also focus on these values, so that they may be made visible in the public sphere. But at heart they are first of all spiritual, and only political by derivation. Both religion and spiritual secularism should never back away because we are accused of dabbling in politics. Justice, peace and harmony are at the core of religious faith. Religion and spiritual secularism may give us the moral and ethical underpinning for compassionate living. Politics give us the vehicle to bring it about. They are partners, not adversaries
The Dalai Lama holds that adopting a religion is optional, being a better human being, whose life is dedicated to compassion, is essential. Religion is an important ingredient in this matrix. Properly understood and practiced, religion can help make compassion visible in a violent, unjust brutal world. While religion may be the lynchpin, the non-religious secularists and the spiritually motivated must continue to play a vital role. None can do without the others.
Yes, I conclude we still need religion, perhaps more than ever, but only if it makes common cause with all those who seek a safer, more just compassionate world. If you are on that journey, no matter your religious commitment or lack of it, you have embodied the message of this holiday season. So, MERRY CHRISTMAS!