Recently, Tikkun has published various articles about the renaissance occurring in the Jewish world as the result of changing attitude and demographics. In the spirit of that discussion I offer this piece, which examines the issue from a “macro” perspective of changing attitudes towards “religious identity.”

(Credit: Alex Grey)

It seems that Western society has entered into a “post-religious” age. Attendance at religious services has steadily decreased while those who eschew religious labels are the fastest growing demographic.This shift in our cultural consciousness has been both celebrated and vilified by all sorts of people with various agendas. In popular media, a strict dichotomy between “fundamentalists” and “secularists” is often presented as the driving force behind this cultural shift. The popularity in recent years of books such as “The God Delusion” and “God is Not Great” concurrent to folks like Bill O’Reilly declaring a “culture war” feed directly into this narrative. Nothing like a good passionate “debate” between irreconcilable ideologies to sell books and drive TV ratings, after all.

As usual, the media narrative is an overly dramatic representation that does not reflect the complex reality that we find ourselves immersed in. The reasons for our shift in cultural awareness are varied and while it’s true that polarity exists between religious fundamentalists and passionate secularists, it would certainly be a stretch to identify that tension as the driving force that’s shaping the changes in our culture. Ultimately, it’s the universal human impulse towards a greater sense of unity and connectedness that is driving all of this. The religious labels of “Catholic,” “Protestant,” “Jewish,” etc. are becoming increasingly irrelevant, and this is a beautiful thing. It means that people are coming together and treating each other as equals; that love between people of differing ethnic and religious backgrounds (and same sex couples as well) is being celebrated rather than condemned; that friendships that would have been impossible a generation or two ago are flourishing today. This is the great paradox: As religion is increasingly seen as irrelevant and divisive, the embrace of secular values like pluralism and egalitarianism is fulfilling spiritual needs where religion simply hasn’t been delivering. The human spirit’s drive to be free and evolve simply won’t be held back by the systems of old any longer, and if those systems want to remain relevant, they are going to have to change.

If institutional religion is to be relevant to the 21st Century Westerner, it must recognize that humanity is waking up to its connected nature on a historically unprecedented level. This is cause for celebration, not a “demographic crisis” as it is often interpreted by clergy who cling to a world long since passed. For the visionaries and mystics of all the great wisdom traditions, this sense of unity with the cosmos is the greatest underlying truth. These experiences have happened to people for thousands of years, starting long before cultures had contact with one another. And while the symbolism and narratives that emerged from those experiences have varied from culture to culture, the underlying message is the same: humanity – in fact, the entire universe – is connected in a strange way that we don’t fully understand. The response to such an experience can only be a sense of awe and appreciation for what is.

As religions continue to cling to dogma, creeds, and outmoded expressions of the spiritual for the sake of “preserving tradition,” they dig their own graves. Secularists and skeptics have successfully and rightfully driven a movement that has led to an unprecedented level of appreciation for reason and science in the world today. While this is very healthy, however, it would be a shame for us to fully embrace secularist ideology (or any ideology, for that matter). The wisdom traditions have much to teach us. Spiritual communities can still be relevant to our lives, and many people would flock to them under the right conditions. What’s needed today, more than anything else, is a resurgence in appreciation for the mysterious, the numinous, and what these ancient traditions have to teach us about these truths. This generation’s pushing back against the negative aspects of “religious identity” have largely blinded it to all that exists to appreciate in all of these traditions. What’s needed now is a push for such appreciation and interest and a letting go of divisive ideals of “religious identity.” As religious institutions evolve in this direction, our often arrogant secular culture will receive the balance of awe and appreciation for the mystery of life that it needs. Our Cartesian dominance culture, which posits that we can be “masters and possessors of nature” has clearly run its course, and we need a new vision: a humble vision that recognizes our interdependence while simultaneously celebrating the advances of science and applying them to goals that will enhance our lives and our happiness while honoring our responsibility to the planet. The choice between “spirituality” and “rationality” is a false choice. Both of these are key aspects of our nature, and we should honor them.

So, what is the future of “religious identity?” Is adopting an “identity” in the context of the wisdom traditions even desirable? If so, to what end? Here is my idea: Religious identity of any sort must first and foremost recognize the Unity of All Being. Failure to do so pits us against one another in the name of God. We have seen this needless destruction for millennia. But, in the proper context, religious identity can be a great vehicle of pragmatic authenticity. Most of us find ourselves attracted to certain traditions more than others for various reasons. Just as marrying the person of one’s dreams should not be seen as an act of alienation from the rest of humanity, religious affiliation should be viewed in a similar way. To this end, the mystics, clergy, and scholars of various wisdom traditions can set up various “appreciation societies” that are open to all who seek to learn from them. These appreciation societies need not require identification with the tribe, but rather could serve as an open door to such membership. These societies could be frequented by members of the broader spiritual community who may have a preference for other paths, as a means of growth in learning new ways of looking at the Unity of All Being, and of finding new practices that might be enriching. Likewise, communities might emerge on the basis of combining practices from various traditions in ways that the community finds enriching. The possibilities are as exciting as they are endless. So what do you think, Tikkun readers? What does “ReligionNext” look like?


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