Regarding the UK, it is said the pews are empty because going to church is no longer in fashion. But examining church attendance figures for many years, it can be readily seen that the decline of organised religion is not just a recent matter but actually a long-lasting social trend that has gathered pace over many decades.
The World Values Survey, which is claimed to be the most reliable survey of beliefs across the globe, suggests that there has been a substantial cultural change. William Bloom writing in The Complete Encyclopedia of Mind Body Spirit reports that in modernised and free societies, where people have access to diverse views, up to seventy per cent of the population has moved away from a single faith tradition. Many seem to be acknowledging a spiritual dimension to life without affiliating with organised religion.
Why has organised religion become unpopular?
Everyone knows about the sexual abuses by some priests overlooked by the Roman Catholic church, the religious divide and bigotry in Northern Ireland, and the racial prejudice found among many religious fundamentalists. But more generally, religious believers have often been seen as not being particularly spiritual people. Some have been seen to show narrow-minded intolerance, to have a self-righteous awareness of their own virtues, to try to appear ‘better than others’, to find fault in a judgmental way, or to hypocritically live below professed standards of conduct.
‘If you don’t believe in Jesus as your Saviour then you will not be saved,’ has been the orthodox Christian message. The spiritual dimension seems to be absent from a tradition that is so openly discriminatory and which relies only on the intellect rather than also the behaviour of a person to determine one’s destiny.
The notion of three gods in one still lurks within Christian liturgy. To put it crudely, the traditional idea that has been put about is that one god sacrificed his life to appease the wrath of one of the others. People these days are just no longer willing to believe something that makes no sense to them. How can they be expected to believe in a punitive god of love? Or of a god where one creative source is divided into three divine persons?
Need for dogmas and hypocrisy to die within organised religion
Just as an established perspective in science needs to be criticised and its limitations fully recognised before a paradigm shift can take hold, so perhaps only when mistaken dogmatic religious views die out, can a more enlightened understanding flourish. Maybe only when hypocrisy has died and belief is authentic to the character of the believer, will what believers say be heard. Only when believers stop being so ready to see fault in others can they start looking for the good in them. Only when a believer stops blaming others can he or she have a chance to learn tolerance of their frailty.
Spirituality despite decline of organised religion
Yet despite the decline of organized religion there’s no getting away from it, the notion of a deeper spiritual reality is a highly personal perception. It cannot be proved by science yet for many is a divine spiritual healing force deep within the human soul.
According to Wikipedia, “Spirituality can refer to an ultimate or immaterial reality; an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of their being; or the deepest values and meanings by which people live.” “Spiritual practices …develop an individual’s inner life; such practices often lead to an experience of connectedness with a larger reality, yielding a more comprehensive self; with other individuals or the human community; with nature or the cosmos; or with the divine realm…”
The right kind of organised religion might appeal
Daniel Bateson, who completed doctoral studies in both theology and psychology, described the ‘quest orientation’ as characterised by complexity, doubt, and tentativeness. Here we find a spiritual kind of person with an open-ended, responsive dialogue with existential questions raised by the contradictions and tragedies of life.
In his book The Spirituality Revolution, David Tacey compared a conventional to a deeper approach to religion. He wrote that the latter is a spiritual approach which is “based on personal experience, tolerant towards difference, compassionate towards those who make different life choices, and relatively free of ideological fanaticism.”
According to psychologist Gordon Allport, the beliefs of many people who have an intrinsic religious orientation are what really lie behind their whole approach to life. Their private prayers carry much meaning and personal emotion. These surely are spiritual people.
Emanual Swedenborg’s idea of a new spiritual age for organised religion
Swedenborg’s view is that under divine providence when organised religion becomes hypocritical and full of irrational notions then that religion is allowed to die away. Hypocrisy will otherwise block what is holy and sacred. What is false will distort what is true. Only after the old organised religion dies can a new religiosity take hold. He says we now are at the dawn of such a new age. For him there is a new illumination in the world which he thinks of as new wine. This is in line with the parable given in Matthew chapter 9 about new wine that cannot be poured into old bottles without the wine being spoiled. We need new bottles to contain the new wine.
Nor must we put the new wine of spiritual truth into the old maxims of moral expediency and worldly prudence; but we must put our new principles into their only suitable receptacles – honesty, integrity, and sincerity.
Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems