Soul seekers: How spiritual is secular America?
Editor's note: This article is part of "The Ten Today," a series that examines the Ten Commandments in modern society. This story explores the first commandment: "I am the LORD thy God thou shalt have no other gods before me."
Hunched over her dining room table in a dark apartment, Danielle Walker sobbed into her hands.
For a while, the drinking and late-night partying had felt liberating. As a 20-year-old who left behind her parents' house and the rules of her Baptist upbringing, Walker was euphoric as she explored the real world.
But after five months, her first real relationship ended, her self-esteem crumbled and she realized she was drinking for medication, not recreation. Counseling didn't help and she'd often spend days on her couch, lost in a spiral of negative thoughts.
Reflecting on this that March night, she slipped from the chair to her knees.
" 'You know what, God,’ ” she cried. “ ‘You have to do something. You have to save me.' And that's when everything started to change in my life."
Over the next year, Walker — who left church, fed up with its rules and less-than-friendly peers — embarked on a relationship with God stronger and more life-changing than anything she had experienced as a child.
"I would never have thought that by turning my life around I'd have such a positive outlook on life and feel so motivated," the 23-year-old said. "Now that I do have a relationship with God, I see how good it is."
For several years, the United States has seen a decline in religious affiliation. Currently, 20 percent of Americans don't claim a particular religion or church — up from 15 percent just five years ago. Some worry that this shift into secularism will turn the United States into Western Europe.
Yet others are more optimistic. They point out that polling data don't always allow for a nuanced discussion of faith and spirituality, and that many individuals still want to have a relationship with God, albeit on their own terms and with their own timing. These individuals may not relate to specific dogmas or rituals, but they still seek and find solace in believing that God is in charge and that when they put him first, their lives go smoother — an acknowledgement that is at the foundation of most religions and the first of the Ten Commandments.
"To argue that America is suddenly becoming vastly secular is not the case," says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of Gallup. "You can't say (religion) is fading out of importance when a lot of the central events of our time, for better or worse, are based on strong religious convictions. I think that rather than becoming increasingly more of a straight, old-fashioned secular society, we have the potential to be religious, but in some different ways."
Walker considers herself a Baptist but is looking for a new church home in Orlando, where she feels comfortable, even a non-denominational one. For now, she prays and studies the Bible daily to strengthen the relationship she prizes the most.
"You cannot let people or a bad experience keep you from God," she says. "That's the same thing I did. I let people and bad experiences keep me from the church, when that is not what matters. God isn't the one who hurt you."
Broadening the discussion
When the Rev. Maureen Jeffries asks someone to think about the color blue, she knows it could be one of a thousand shades.
"Even if we are saying 'sky blue' I don't know that you're perceiving color in the same way," says Jeffries, an interfaith minister in New Jersey. "It doesn't matter if you call God 'Allah', 'Jesus', 'Yahweh', because God just is. How can our human vocabulary encompass something as beautiful as God?"
A Catholic by upbringing and choice, Jeffries ministers to those who don't have a spiritual home, knowing that no matter how they refer — or don't refer — to God, having a relationship with something bigger than themselves is crucial.
"I help them find the thing that resonates with them and feels safe and protective, knowing that (they're) a part of the universe and being taken care of in a really beautiful, loving way," she says. "And they can find that for themselves. They don't have to see sky blue the way I do. You can call it what you want, it's still God."
One of the potential problems with discussing religion in today's culture is that it often becomes tangled in labels, outdated definitions and incorrect assumptions, thus failing to address the complicated and nuanced shifts happening across the religious landscape.
Individuals who declare themselves religious and attend a house of worship may often be unfairly accused of blindly following or rigidly adhering to leaders, which often overlooks their deep, soul-searching personal journey of faith.
And calling someone a "none" — a person without a religious affiliation — may promote an incorrect assumption that they don't care about spirituality or faith, despite a desire to develop or deepen a connection to a diety.
"People are increasingly unhappy being nailed down to one particular denomination for various reasons — they don't like its politics, don't like its liturgy, have other ideas," said Peter Berger, a professor emeritus of religion, sociology and theology at Boston University and director of the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs. "People are becoming much more selective in their religious affiliations, and if they have none, or haven't found one that they liked that's very interesting. But to conclude from this that America is becoming less religious would be a big mistake."
Pew Research Center data shows that nearly two-thirds of religiously unaffiliated Americans say they believe in God, 37 percent of them call themselves spiritual, and one-in-five (21 percent) report praying every day.
Many younger Americans, particularly millennials, aren't in church because they're frustrated with religious institutions that they feel are "out of touch, corrupt, biased, or too politicized," says Penny Edgell, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota who studies religion in the United States and how it shapes the moral culture.
"Among the younger generations, religious institutions have not always promoted something that they would consider authentic spirituality," she said.
As more and more individuals drop out of religious participation, it will be up to religious institutions to recognize that they've lost a generation or two and change "how we do church," Edgell said. Some individuals may come back, others may not, but an increasingly secular society doesn’t automatically mean a worse one, she argues.
While it's too early to write off religious institutions as irrelevant, Edgell says, the rise of the "nones" cannot be ignored.
In the past, similar drops have been cyclical. Individuals became more religious as they married, had children and grew older, Newport said. He argues the same is likely to happen with millennials. But it may not happen to the same degree, other scholars say, given that marriage rates are dropping (only 51 percent of adults were married in 2011, compared to 72 percent in 1960) and the fact that "there is much more freedom for people to feel like they can pursue a spiritual connection, larger meaning and purpose without reference to formal religious institutions," Edgell said. "That is a trend that is here to stay."
Benefits of belonging
In April 2009, Pamay Bassey's grandmother died. A few months later, she lost her dad to complications from prostate cancer. By December, a years-long romantic relationship ended.
In despair, Bassey, who had always considered herself a Christian, realized she hadn't invested in her faith and had nothing to fall back on for comfort.
So she set out to reclaim her connection to God.
One year later, Bassey had visited 61 different places of worship from the United States to Nigeria, developing an appreciation for the breadth of spiritual expressions and renewing her faith in a loving, omniscient and deeply interested God.
"I am still a Christian, but I have a much more powerful and authentic connection to God," she said. "I have a religious practice; I attend church, have daily prayer and meditation. It's an active faith.
"If you don't subscribe to God, I think it's possible to be a good person," she continued, "but there is enormous power for those who have figured out how to connect to a divine force, a driving force in their life."
That driving force can offer a wide array of benefits. A recent study out of Oregon State University found that religiosity and spirituality each had distinctive benefits: religiosity was associated with health benefits, while spirituality was associated with psychological well-being.
"When trying to understand the connection between spirituality and health, one doesn't neccessarily need to invoke anything mystical," said Jeff Levin, an epidemiologist and director of the Program on Religion and Population Health at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. "I don't rule that out, but faith, spirituality encourages positive healthy lifestyle behaviors (and) the fellowship that comes from being with like-minded others can be very beneficial as social support, psychological support. Spirituality deserves a place on the table along with diet, exercise, genetics, environment, access to health care, all the various things that we know influence mental health."
For Levin, the terms "faith," "spirituality" and "religion" all blend together to mean an interaction with the divine and the spiritual part of life. But for others, spirituality and religion belong in very different worlds.
Jason Lilly, 37, feels more spiritual than ever but is quick to say he's not religious. Raised as a fifth generation Jehovah's Witness, Lilly planned to spend his life spreading the faith, but left at age 31 due to some unresolvable concerns. He has no plans to ever go back. "I found that I became a better person, more comfortable with myself," he said. "(I have) a better sense of morality because it's my own morality that I've defined, as opposed to having it hoisted upon me. I don't believe in God, but I do believe in the universe," he continued. "When no one else is controlling things, a lot of the weight is on you to be a better person."
For others, the quest to become a better person is aided by religious institutions and rituals.
In a study of Israeli Jews, Levin found that attending synagogue is associated with greater happiness, while prayer increases happiness and life satisfaction and serves as a coping mechanism for those dealing with physical challenges.
Going to church and praying have even been found to help promote positive self-esteem and reduce depression among young women with eating disorders.
"The belief that one has a close relationship with a loving, powerful God who can intervene in personal affairs and offers the promise of eternal life may foster feelings of self-worth, confidence, and hope," according to the study in the Journal of Religion & Health. "Compared with their counterparts, young women who perceive that they enjoy a close personal relationship with God may find struggles over body size and physical appearance to be less threatening to their core sense of self."
That sense of self blossoms when one understands their relationship with and responsibility to God, say religious leaders and Judeo-Christian scholars, citing the first of the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai thousands of years ago: “I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me."
While most attention is often focused on the latter end of the verse, which instructs individuals against deifying other religious figures, material objects or worldly pursuits, many scholars say it's just as important to remember the entire commandment, as it establishes the "ruler-subject relationship that governs everything that follows," writes Leon Kass, a physician, scientist and public intellectual.
"On this understanding, 'I the Lord am thy God' emphasizes that the speaker is the individual hearer’s personal deity: not just the god of this locale, capable of making the mountain tremble, rumble, and smoke, but the very One who brought you personally out of your servitude in Egypt," Kass writes.
Or, in Mindy Smith's life, helped her become the mother she'd always longed to be.
"In difficult times, having something to be anchored to helps me be a healthier person," said Smith, 39, who was raised in a nonreligious home but now attends an Assembly of God congregation in New York City. "Hurt is easier to deal with if you have a relationship with God."
Smith has been through her share of trying moments, but when she looks at her 5-year-old adopted daughter, Lily, she knows God is actively involved in her family's life: "We've just had too many giant miracles in our lives to ignore."