- A majority of young adults do not identify as Christian. Forty-nine percent of millennials describe themselves as Christian compared to eighty-four percent of adults in their mid-seventies and older.
- There has been a decrease of twelve percent of adults in the last decade who consider themselves to be Christian.
- "For more young people Christianity is associated less with love than with hate."
- The group identified as "nones" numbers more than Catholics in the U.S., amounting to one-quarter of the American population.
- In a recent study of religious identification, the Pew research group announced that "The United Sates is becoming less Christian and less religiously observant."
In other words, one can be religious but not be Christian. This leads us to consider not just the matter of statistics concerning Christian faith and participation in communities of faith. Rather, we are led to ask what is happening to us in terms of human nature to be "religiously observant." The fundamental question then becomes what is religion? What does the Pew study group consider religion to be? What exactly are they observing in their study?
But, for that matter, what do you and I mean when we talk about religion? When people say they are "spiritual" but not religious, what do they mean? How would you define "religion" and "spiritual?" This is important because we are talking here about what it means to be a human. Is religion and the practice of religion simply a relic from the past, some old belief or superstition such as fears of black cats crossing our paths, breaking mirrors, walking under ladders, avoiding the number 666, etc.? It is true that a person could make a religion of any of those superstitions, and the reason for this is because the religious impulse is deep and universal. However, this does not mean religion is an old superstition. In other words, religion is not simply a belief; it is an attitude that is archetypal, an attitude of mind that might be "seized" by anything that carries a numinous character -- a character that is strongly emotional, exerting a strong influence on our mind and feelings.
Carl Jung defines religion not as a creed or dogma but as an archetypal encounter in which a person is moved profoundly by "powers" such as spirits, daemons, gods, laws, ideas, ideals which are experienced as powerful, dangerous, helpful, or meaningful enough to be devoutly worshipped and/or loved. (Collected Works, Vol. 11, para. 8). In other words, religion is more than "a particular symptom of faith and worship," as defined by The New Oxford Shorter Dictionary. Not just a system or organization, religion is:
... the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude,
so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they
may consider the divine.
This definition of religion was offered by William James in his Gifford Lectures on natural religion delivered at Edinburgh, 1902-1902, and recorded in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience (See page 42). And while his definition and language in general read today as somewhat quaint, nonetheless the book contains gems of understanding on page after page. James continues to inform, stimulate, and challenge us after more than a century, because he plumbed the depths of our psyche with an understanding that grounds religion in the nature of human personality.
But, to continue James' thesis on the nature of religion, the encounter with whatever we consider "divine" does not end with what happens in our "solitude." Because the religious experience is dynamic and transformative of our inner life, the experience wants to be shared, to be communicated and anchored within a circle of others -- family, friends, personal groups.
And thus is born the system and organization of what most people may understand religion to be. From the primal religious experience come (1) adoration of the founder; (2) words, writings, and stories of the founder; (3) a system of beliefs that formulate into creeds, dogmas, traditions; (4) a code of ethics; (5) a cosmology that attempts to explain the nature of the world, its origin, its possible ending, its place within the universe; (6) a spirituality that guides followers in dealing with the sufferings of disease, aging, death, the threat of meaninglessness, the catastrophes that come upon the group; (7) worship experiences and rites of passage that guide the followers through life's passages including birth, coming of age, courtship, marriage, and funerals; (8) the establishment of institutions in the greater society to further the growth of life, such as hospitals, universities, places of worship, and protection of the natural environment; (9) the formulation and enactment of policies to combat disease, overcome violence, support understandings of just wars or the affirmation of pacifism, and the establishment of an alliance with the ruling government or in some cases the formation of a theocracy; and (10) the management of media to communicate within the organization as well as to reach outside with commentaries on current events, educational materials regarding the group and its purpose and mission in the world.
Such are the ways of religion when understood as a system or organization. But in the most basic sense, as Jesus of Nazareth would probably answer if asked today, and as William James and Carl Jung were quoted earlier, religion begins as a "way" within the solitude of each human. This is the "Way" of Lao Tzu, the legendary Chinese founder of Taoism. He left this simple description of religion before he went up in the clouds, sometime in the 6-5th century B.C.E., never to be seen again.
The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.
Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.
-- Tao te Ching. Stephen Mitchell, Trans. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.