Losing Your Religion… Over Science?

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Between 18% and 27% of the US population see religion as almost entirely antithetical to spirituality. In fact, these Americans, who tend to be younger, call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” or SBNR for short. They seek some type of transcendence or even God (variously defined) and may even make their way into church.

SBNRs strongly resist affiliating with religious institutions. They are sometimes referred to as “the nones”  because in surveys they check the box for “none of the above” when asked about their religious affiliation.

But why? Many SBNRs disaffiliate in part because they believe they have to make this choice on the basis of science. In their minds, spirituality and science are compatible only if they let go of religion. This fact alone fascinates me, but the reasons behind it do even more: SBNRs observe that religious institutions (i.e., “religion”) devalue the discoveries of science while claiming to “have all the answers,” instead of relentlessly pursuing truth like science does.

Let’s consider the question of whether SBNRs have to give up any form of religion in order to embrace science.

Ironically, I’ve found that scientific studies of religious life reveal that we don’t have to give up “religion” to be “spiritual.” In fact, religion at its best makes us more deeply spiritual.

For those who care about the vibrancy of the church, particularly those who lead congregations: instead of feeling discouraged at SBNRs walking out the doors of the sanctuary for good, my hope is that engaging science you can lead them to the deeper spirituality they seek.

First, Religion is Not Antithetical to Spirituality

Two weeks ago, I highlighted the importance of developing an authentic spirituality for psychological health. Amen. I noted how we need to engage our faith personally in order for it to make a positive difference. That’s when we enter into a deeper spirituality, which both science and Scripture affirm. Still, if I made it sound like I’m fully on the “spiritual, not religious” bandwagon, I misled you. As scholar of SBNRs Robert Fuller says, “The words spiritual and religious have historically been synonymous,” even if we sometimes make distinctions today for good reasons.

As a pastor, I’m all too aware of when religion goes off the rails. A lot of what falls under the title of “religion” is hardly spiritual. Some of it is detached, cold religious practice and doctrine that creates “whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth,” to use Jesus’s rather striking language in Matthew 23:27.

There is a difference between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” religion. Social scientist Jonathan Morgan describes it like this: “The extrinsically religious go to church with another end in mind (although likely subconscious),” like meeting a potential spouse or observing external religious rules. “The intrinsically religious see religion as valuable unto itself.” To put it bluntly, when we pursue God intrinsically, the Spirit powerfully renews our lives. And statistically speaking (according the work of Lisa Miller, which I highlighted two weeks ago), this intrinsic religion, or personally-engaged spirituality, leads to lower levels of depressive symptoms; buffers the negative effectives of events like illness, divorce, and loss of someone close; and decreases the risk for alcoholism or substance abuse over one’s lifetime.

Second, Religious Community—For Us, the Church—is Actually Integral to Spirituality

In fact, Pew Research Center found that the longer SBNRs stay away from organized religious practice, the less spiritual they become. As Linda Mercadante, author of Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious, states: “Even when simply looking for a sense of the sacred in everyday life, a full-orbed spirituality needs to be embedded in some sort of organized religious community.”

Again, there are many reasons why people don’t attend church, not least of which is because, frankly, churches can be abusive. This is a sad reality that my colleague Dan Koch often discusses on his podcast. At the same time, Dan and I had a great time earlier this year discussing social scientific research that finds religious life can also foster mental and physical health.

Why? The Third Reason: Religious Community Reminds Us We Are Social Beings

Nurturing vital spirituality necessitates community. I learned this first from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt: we are social beings who think, feel, and act in groups. I’m reminded that many of the people who have been part of my congregations came because they were invited by others (i.e., social bonds) and stayed because of the social connections they subsequently made.

Will Rogers once quipped, “I belong to no organized party. I’m a Democrat.” SBNRs could claim a similar motto. At religion conferences I’ve attended (eg. meetings of the American Academy of Religion), I frequently hear from SBNR presenters, “It’s really difficult to create community. Everyone who’s like me is too independently minded.” Though I love felines, the image I get is that organizing SBNRs is like herding cats.

The problem is spirituality without religion promises a great deal, but—if we listen to science—it doesn’t entirely deliver. By way of analogy, C.S. Lewis once commented that even in seeking to uncover the essence of our faith, “mere Christianity” is not a final destination. “It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.”

At its best, true Christian spirituality is finding, not a hallway, but a home. And, as far as I can tell, science and Scripture can help us arrive there.

P.S. Science for the Church has just received two commitments to match end-of-the-year gifts. Please consider a donation to support our work.

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