Do you identify as “spiritual?” How about having a spiritual practice?
For many years, having a spiritual practice often required religious affiliation. Popular religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam have historically provided a foundation for millions around the world to worship, gather, and find meaning in life’s biggest questions.
Over the last generation and a half however, that tide has begun to turn. In 1991, just 6% of Americans identified “none” as their religious affiliation, but by 2016, that number grew to 25%. Now, there are more people identifying as nonreligious than there are believers of any particular religion.
While for many, the move away from religion may provide a sense of liberation, it also begs the question: what gets lost in the move? While some belief structures may no longer serve us, are there perhaps other benefits to be derived from religious rituals and practices?
This article examines the shift from religion to spirituality, while highlighting the positive aspects of certain religious practices. Finally, it lays out ideas to cultivate a healthy spiritual practice in the absence of organized religion.
What Happened to Religion?
There are many reasons why people are finding resonance outside of organized religion. The top four causes cited in a report entitled, Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back, include:
- Lack of belief in the religious teachings
- Family was never that religious growing up
- Negative treatment of the LGBTQ community
- Sexual abuse scandals within the clergy
Further, over two-thirds of religiously unaffiliated Americans believe that, ‘religion causes more problems in society than it solves.’
We can also speculate on how the internet, and the “age of information” have allowed people to search for answers outside of religion. Whereas, for many years, “mankind’s search for meaning,” might have been geographically limited, we now can access enormous amounts of information about different belief systems across the globe.
Additionally, many scientific advancements made in the past few decades may have satisfied certain curiosities that religious hierarchy had previously deemed off limits. For instance, scientific evidence of quantum physics, astronomy, the power of healing and the science of spirituality have offered sufficient answers and belief systems for some.
Collectively, these factors play into our current landscape, and may explain the exodus of many from organized religion to unaffiliated ideologies.
The Argument for a Spiritual Practice
In recent years, more and more scientific research has investigated the effects of religion and spirituality on mental, physical and emotional health.
Consistently, studies show that people who profess religious or spiritual connection have better mental health, and adapt more quickly to health problems. These mental health benefits have physiological consequences that impact physical health, including lowering the risk of disease and influencing how we respond to certain treatments. Further, there are also plenty of studies evidencing the role that belief plays in healing and well-being.
In the absence of religion, many turn to literature or other teachings to overcome challenges and thereby grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. But in every religion, teachings are just one component. What about the rituals, ceremonies, holidays and practices that help reinforce and strengthen those beliefs on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis?
For the many who identify as “spiritual,” without any ties to organized religion, is it possible that while feeling ideologically liberated, they may also be feeling socially isolated?
While for many, abandoning organized religion means exchanging it for more spiritually-aligned practices, others may experience an uncomfortable spiritual vacuum instead.
The list below addresses this and other questions that beg examining as many move away from organized religion. Perhaps, by taking an unaffiliated look at the positive aspects of organized religion, we may integrate spiritual practices into our lives for greater health and alignment.
8 Spiritual Practices to Adopt in the Absence of Religion
1. Quiet Time
In the past few decades, the move away from organized religion has coincided with the rise of social media, an increasingly alarmist news media, and ubiquitous technology. During downtime, many of us have become socialized to fill it with feelings of productivity, including checking our phones for new messages, emails, and news briefings.
For many, religion is the only moment we fully step away from our digital lives, and take the time to tune into something bigger than ourselves.
Regardless of what you believe in, consider taking time out of your day and week to sit in silence or meditation, undisturbed by technology.
2. Space to Process Grief
It’s also important to look at the ways we may or may not be processing our grief without religion. When someone dies, for instance, most religions have traditions to facilitate the processing of grief–– saying goodbye, giving honor to the deceased, keeping their memory alive, and sharing stories that connect their journey to a larger map of human history. Without these traditions in place, are we creating new ones that also fulfill our human needs, or are we missing out on important moments for bereavement and solace?
Consider creating or rediscovering traditions to support processing grief, loss, mourning and remembering the deceased.
3. A Social Safety Net
For many, hard times bring them to their church, synagogue, mosque or elsewhere. Many houses of worship double as donation centers and crucial support systems for the most vulnerable. Many host support groups for recently divorced or bereaved. Without these spaces, it can be difficult to find a place to go, where you can feel completely safe and comforted in times of upheaval.
Connect with local nonprofits or community centers that serve this same function.
Additionally, organized religion can function as a place to seek mental, emotional and spiritual counsel in times of need. Of course, outside of religion, there are therapists and psychiatrists, but for many, this route may be cost-prohibitive or culturally inaccessible. For many, questions of marriage, career, and purpose are deeply entwined with spirituality. For this reason, many have historically sought counsel within spiritual institutions, rather than outside of them. Furthermore, the fact that religious institutions often hold space for this counsel-seeking can normalize the act of being vulnerable and asking for help, which is something that is not always socially acceptable outside of spiritual venues.
Join a support or spiritual group, and/or identify a mentor, coach or therapist whom you can sit with on a regular basis to ponder life’s bigger questions.
The science is very clear: giving helps us feel better. Many organized religions have the built-in feature of offering regular opportunities to give. Whether through clothing drives, volunteer opportunities, or just organizational support, many houses of worship serve as hubs to fulfill this aspect of the human experience.
Pick up a regular volunteering shift that allows you to practice the feeling of giving while increasing feelings of connectedness. Better yet, integrate the act of giving into your work, and all aspects of your life.
In our increasingly isolated lives, there are only so many places where we can make friends and gather as a community. Outside of school or our jobs, religious institutions are often the primary site for connection and community. Of course, there are plenty of ways to fulfill this need outside of organized religion, but it requires effort and diligence. We are social creatures, and science has proven that we fare better when in community with others.
Join meetup groups, start monthly dinner parties with friends, or join or form some type of regular gathering space with people in your community.
7. Wonder & Awe
One thing that faith leaves room for is the possibility for something to be “out of your hands.” The notion of “giving it up to God”–– whether it’s a question, a problem, or a roadblock, can leave room for outside influences to adjust your course of action, rather than feeling tasked with the responsibility to figure it all out by yourself.
Identify activities that allow you to feel a sense of wonder and awe–– for instance, spend time outdoors, practice a sport, garden, volunteer, or participate in other activities that give you a sense of inspiration and allow you to see the “big picture.”
For many religions, “saying grace” or being grateful is a part of every morning, meal, and bedtime prayer. Not only can practicing gratitude boost happiness, it can also help to improve your health and strengthen relationships.
Find a prayer, saying or poem to say before meals that reflects your values and expresses gratitude. Create a morning and evening ritual that allows you to feel and express gratitude for everything around you.
So there you have it. Beliefs aside, there are positive aspects of taking time out of your day for some form of prayer or meditation or time out of your week for some form of stillness and connection with something larger than yourself.
While for years, we may have felt pressure to claim one type of belief system or another, we now have a more open landscape to explore. These days, spirituality is less and less something we do one day a week or can tuck away and separate from the rest of our lives. Spiritual connection is becoming more and more integrated into our experience of being alive and human.
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