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Religiously unaffiliated 'nones' are pursuing spirituality, but not community

Religiously unaffiliated 'nones' are pursuing spirituality, but not community
A Qigong teacher, leads the group in energy cultivation practices from China at an open source spiritual community in Venice Beach. (Los Angeles Times)

In the 1980s, only 10% of Americans said that they had no religious affiliation. Three decades later, more than 23% of Americans describe themselves as nonreligious, according to the Pew Research Center. This growing group is referred to as the “nones,” meaning those whose religious affiliation is “none.”

Millennials, in particular, are much more likely to reject organized religion, Pew found. About a third of all millennials are nones. And who can blame them? They were raised in an era of sex abuse scandals and jihadist extremism. Corruption of institutions and ideologies have turned many young people away.

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But contrary to the hopes of neo-Enlightenment thinkers like Steven Pinker, millennial nones are not abandoning organized religion to become secular, science-loving humanists. Rather, they are turning toward more individual forms of spiritualism, including yoga, meditation, healing stones, Wiccan spell casting and astrology.

These nones tend to believe in the soul, divine energy, mystical realities, ghosts, fate and myriad other superstitions that traditionally fell under the umbrella of religion. They also tend to eschew formal social gatherings and regular group activities.

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Young nones, in other words, are adopting one of the least helpful aspects of organized religion (magical thinking) while abandoning one of the most beneficial (social bonding).

According to a number of studies and surveys, religious people tend to be happier, have better health, stay married, live longer and commit less crime. In recent years, a growing body of research has suggested that organized religion reduces the risk of depression.

But these advantages don’t come as a result of beliefs alone, nor from inner mental states achieved by the individual. Rather, they are obtained through the social activity of a group.

A wave of spirituality apps promise to supercharge your mindfulness and positive thinking. Although beneficial, app spirituality leads to solitary practice.


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Communal prayer, storytelling, singing, celebrations, rite-of-passage ceremonies and even fasting: These group activities create the deep bonds that positive psychology recognizes as the main ingredient for a happy life, or what Aristotle called “eudaimonia,” which roughly translates to “well-being” or “flourishing.” Strong social bonds, forged through group activity, are not just lucky accidents of religious life. They are the very point of religion.

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Even though religious life comforts, it is not itself comfortable. Often it is inconvenient for the devotee or practitioner, and that struggle helps to join people. Shared adversity amplifies the sense of connection, be it within a congregation, temple, sangha, church or mosque.

Today’s young nones, immersed in their online lives, may feel as though they are very connected. But as many are collectively realizing, online connections are weaker than advertised. We may have many aquaintances within digital reach, but numerous online relationships are no substitute for deep, real-life friendships. Similarly, a wave of spirituality apps promises to supercharge your mindfulness and positive thinking. Although beneficial, app spirituality, too, leads to a solitary practice.

Many spiritual nones see themselves as authentic and liberated from the empty formalism of age-old ritual. There is some obvious good in this. But this strain of spirituality is largely detached from religious responsibilities and inconveniences, and it signals a generational shift toward isolation and short-term comfort.

If spirituality is whatever I choose to believe — a mashup of different faiths, say — then I can’t be judged, criticized, held accountable or bothered to serve others, particularly if my retro-fitted brand of spiritualism emphasizes belief rather than action.

What nones are pursuing, eudaimonia, comes only when you stop chasing it and start serving others through communal action. Religion figured this out a long time ago.

Stephen Asma is a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago and the author of “Why We Need Religion.”

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