What Do You Do When Religion Haunts Your Faith?

Photo credit: Sandy Reich

By Hannah Gourgey and Melanie P. Moore

The two of us have been selected to lead a Circle at the Festival of Faith & Writing next year in Grand Rapids, MI. Our topic is one we both spend a good deal of time thinking and writing about, along with our mutual friend Shakeel Rashed (both Hannah and Shakeel have written posts on other topics for Practicing Presence). In this post, we’re sharing our work on the topic we’ll be facilitating at the Festival. We invite you to join the conversation here in the comments.

With the writers at the Festival, we will facilitate a discussion about how, across Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there are strategies to write about, embrace, and practice faith in community while rejecting and seeking to change the power dynamic that continues to marginalize and oppress in the name of religion.

Across the United States, religious zealotry, particularly in American Judeo-Christian practice, is resulting in tectonic socio-political shifts that undermine personal, religious, and civic freedoms for women, for LGBTQ+ persons, racial and ethnic groups, immigrants and refugees. These clashes can become so toxic that generations of believers from X to Millennials to Z are fleeing organized religion despite the reality that most claim a connection to God and to holding a deep faith. Steven Bullivant, professor of Theology and the Sociology of Religion at St. Mary’s University, calls the younger generations (Millennials and Z) “nonverts,” having grown up in homes where families did not attend church regularly, and therefore did not seek community in that sphere. A study by the Public Religion Institute (PRRI) reinforces this research finding that older Americans comprise the primary constituency of religious membership, and Barbara Brown Taylor mentioned the “Nones,” in her conversation with Krista Tipett:

Yeah, I’ve been offended by the category of the nones, N-O-N-E-S, because it sounds like a null set. I don’t know if this is what you’re talking about, but the whole way for many years that people who were embedded in church communities dismissed the spiritual but not religious was being frivolous, non-committed individualists who just wanted to design their own religion. And now, lo-and-behold, it turns out they’re really part of an evolution we’re in the middle of. And I hope we find a word better than “Nones” to describe them, not only because they’re now 30 percent of the US population.

The Fetzer Institute completed a study of spirituality in the United States where they found that 68 percent of people believe their spirituality guides how they act in the world, and a whopping  86 percent of people consider themselves to be spiritual. The numbers are surprising and the sustainability of church as we have known it is changing dramatically. For example, in the Episcopal Church USA, more than 50% of parishes nationwide cannot afford a full-time rector. Diana Butler Bass is currently re-visiting (and revising in her Substack, The Cottage) her book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.

For many, faith no longer binds to a specific set of beliefs or practices, and for a significant share, concern over the current trend toward politicization has led to these religious breaks. This spiritual dissonance results in a loss of community, a sense of isolation, and a shaken belief in self and communal agency. In a study published this year in the journal, “Psychology of Religion and Spirituality,” researchers found that “Still practicing religion after having de-identified from religion is associated with poor mental health.“  And yet there are those who still find meaning in communal religious structures, not unlike Erasmus who famously said, “I put up with this church, in the hope that one day it will become better, just as it is constrained to put up with me in the hope that I will become better.”

How should we, as people of faith engage with this dissonance? What strategies can help us come to terms with our own “recovering X” self definition? How can we as a community of believers share our spiritual journeys in ways that serve as a beacon of hope for the religiously disconnected? More, how can we help shape institutions of organized religion into the welcoming, healing, thriving communities they were meant to be?

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