by Marcela Muricy, September 21, 2020
This is a kind of mix-and-match approach to spirituality where people who are alienated by organized religions are in many ways cobbling together their own.– Tara Isabella Burton, The Argument
Morality is relative. The lens through which people view the world is fabricated depending on how they’ve been socialized by those around them and what they’ve been exposed to throughout their lives. Every individual has this distinct perspective of life and, in the same sense, morality and what is considered ethical. In this context, it is difficult to imagine how one may fully benefit from being enthralled in a sole religious institution, because it restricts them to a single viewpoint, a single message being broadcasted to hundreds. Everyone’s moral compass is distinct from the next, so it is naive to assume one institution’s teachings are tailored individually to them, and that following it will automatically exonerate their past mistakes. There are flaws in the system of institutionalizing religion as well as the institutions themselves, which are often more dependent on their power and status quo than communicating the best moral standings to the public. This is especially true considering the common hypocrisy in the leaders who advocate for them, as well as the expired messages and traditions most religious institutions utilize to gain social and political power. If religion is meant to serve as a catalyst on the path to being a better person, it would be more beneficial if people considered keeping religion personal rather than placing their beliefs in the hands of an institution which profits off of their membership. Religion itself can be a beautiful, crucial aspect of one’s hope, motivation, and desire to have positive impacts on people and the world. Yet, it is known how dangerous this double-edged sword can be in malicious hands, and whose are ultimately more trustworthy than one’s own?
The “Take It Or Leave It” Stance
A 2019 Gallup poll estimated that 37% of Catholics have questioned if they should leave the Church due to the cases of sexual abuse, monetary greed, and homophobia within it (Jones). No matter their frequency of attendance, members are experiencing a grappling of morality, unable to ignore certain issues taking place within organized religion. This realization of institutional imperfection, for many, presents a set of choices in front of them — a complex, life-changing round of “would you rather”: either leave the institution and all it stands for, or continue being a member simply for the love of the practice.
This polarized perspective of religion — this “take it or leave it” — is harmful, and impacts both the incredibly devout and atheists alike. On one hand, the devout may feel like they have less of an option, required to tolerate aspects they don’t agree with. On the other, atheists may credit the religion for all the wrongdoings of the institution and decide to distance themselves from both entirely. This upholds the idea that religion and institution are synonymous, that they cannot be mutually exclusive.
The more accurate lens could be understanding the use of spirituality in society and how it exists separately from organized religion. It can be beautifully beneficial and even essential to human existence, providing people with a source of hope, motivation, and purpose as a foundation to their lives. With this in mind, it seems nonsensical to discard the ideas within religions simply because of the twisted way they have been reflected by institutions. What should be discarded is this limiting binary, replaced with a third option not many realize exist: the ability to mold your own.
A Devotion to Power
What likely tipped the boat of dissatisfaction with organized religions, spoken of in CNN articles and scholarly books alike, is the multitude of scandals within them. Jason Berry, an American reporter and writer, has been investigating issues in the Catholic Church for years, even having won the Guggenheim Fellowship for Humanities for his work. In his 1992 book, Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children, he details how “in the decade of 1982 to 1992, approximately four hundred priests were reported to church or civil authorities for molesting youths. The vast majority of these men had multiple victims” (Berry 1). These instances are not exactly uncommon, making the doubt and uneasiness of many “struggling catholics” (as Berry identifies himself) very rational and justifiable. The evidence of hypocrisy is so voluminous that Pope Francis himself has spoken of these twisted ulterior motives, stating, “On the outside, [cardinals] present themselves as righteous, as good: they like to be seen when they pray and when they fast…[But] it is all appearance and in their hearts there is nothing” (Martel 68). This quote, mentioned in Frederic Martel’s 2019 book In the Closet of the Vatican, specifically concerned the cardinals of the Curia. However, Martel goes on to discuss how it is one of many accusations Francis has made since he became the Pope, to several separate institutions. These scandals have been perpetually occurring within the Catholic Church for decades and are as visible as ever. Jason Berry began his investigations not for his own curiosity or interest, but with the desire to uncover the environment his children would grow up in if they remained members, concerned for their safety and morality considering the recent crimes. The Gallup poll indicates Berry’s questioning is not unique, with over one third of Catholics debating the same. These issues are most likely contributing to the shift in the demographic of religious affiliation in the US, causing many people to shun the institution and the religion altogether. This is not the ideal solution, because what should be perceived as the enemy is not the religion, but rather those who wield it with ill intent.
Problems of a “Sad Atheist”
Despite this, the number of atheists in the United States has been rising. There was an increase of 19.2 million people from 2007 to 2015 within the category of those “religiously unaffiliated”, according to a Pew Research Poll (Pew Research). Among the entire group polled, 65% claimed religion was “not too/not at all important” to their lives. This distancing from religion, however, can be an ineffective solution, because what may linger is a feeling of absence in their lives and an even stronger feeling of hopelessness. In a 2019 Vox article, writer and atheist Jay Wexler describes himself as a “sad atheist” due to the frequent existential thoughts he has, including “the world is meaningless and I am just standing on a giant rock swirling pointlessly through the universe” (Wexler par. 7). Atheism lacks the foundation that keeps many people motivated: that which explains the spiritual meaning of human existence and fills in the emotional gaps that science does not. Religion is essentially the assurance that everything will work itself out, that a “higher being” is present and caring, easing the existentialism Wexler experiences. As Zat Rana, a writer for Medium, expresses in a 2017 article, “People often think of belief as irrational. From a survival perspective, I can’t think of anything more rational than finding something to live for” (Rana par. 29). This is something psychologists would argue is one of the key factors to spirituality, what keeps humans healthy and sane. Rana himself explains in his article how he saw the corruption in organized religion (Catholicism specifically) and became an atheist very early in his life. As he matured, however, he felt the absence of a certain foundation, with no idea of life’s purpose and what comes after it. Rather than isolate himself from religion completely, Rana sought to, instead, benefit from learning and practicing several new religions so that he could make sense of the world without having to rely on an institution.
So what if it were perceived differently? As less of a binary, but more of the spectrum Rana eventually tapped into? As more personal instead of a public occasion? What if it were viewed as ever-molding and -developing so that people could customize their beliefs? This is a practice sociologist Tara Isabella Burton, in an episode of the podcast The Argument, claims is on the rise in the US today:
While it is true that traditional organized religion is in decline, an important statistic to remember is that 72% of the so-called “religiously unaffiliated” say they believe in some sort of higher power. This is a kind of mix-and-match approach to spirituality where people who are alienated by organized religions are in many ways cobbling together their own.(“Should Facebook Be Fact-Checked”)
Burton’s book Strange Rites, released in June 2020, covers this transition from organized religion to what she calls “DIY religious culture”. She brings to light how many people have already begun to understand that spirituality can vary and should vary for each individual. This supports the broader notion that religion is a personal aspect of someone’s life, suddenly opening up the conversation and the mind to new possibilities. With this fresh perspective, people can distance themselves from an institution yet continue to appreciate the emotional foundation the religion provides. Although this is increasing in the general public today, it cannot be considered a truly innovative idea; even nineteenth century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson lived his life with a similar narrative. Despite being deeply religious all throughout his life, Emerson gave a speech at Harvard Divinity School in 1838 in which he advised graduates to “go alone…and dare to love God without a mediator or veil” (Emerson). He was an advocate for self-reliant religion, able to detect the flaws with organized religion even during a time when it was the default. He saw, as many see now, the many possibilities that arise once someone considers this idea of customizing their religion — tailoring it to their own needs and preferences in a meaningful and enduring way.
The Familiar in Disguise
This way of living can seem abnormal and foreign to members of organized religions, but it actually holds a strong resemblance to how people already practice their religions today. Most members have at least one opinion that misaligns with the belief of their institution, such as abortion, contraception, or LGBTQ rights. According to a Pew Research Poll, for instance, only 8% of Catholics believe contraception is immoral, with 48% believing it is not a moral issue at all (“Very Few Americans”). The Catholic Church itself, on the other hand, is strictly opposed to anything preventing pregnancy aside from abstinence. This highlights how people may remain in an institution yet disagree with some of its teachings, taking from some pieces of the religion while excluding others. In a similar sense, religion has very much drifted from the conservative way it was viewed hundreds of years ago. Many people neglect parts of the Bible which claim wearing two different textures of clothing to be a sin, along with tattooing, divorce, and eating bottom feeders (e.g., crabs, snails, codfish). These are explicitly forbidden in the Bible, but have become viewed as outdated or impractical over time. That does not invalidate it as a whole, but the shift to modern culture has caused the exclusion of certain beliefs from the minds of everyday members. The process of customization, then, already exists to a certain degree, because many people have individual beliefs that may contradict the institution or the holy scripture.
Keeping What Matters
People may shy away from the idea of this “DIY religion,” not just because they would be customizing their beliefs, but because they would be losing what makes organized religion appealing to begin with: the sense of community. It fosters unity and familiarity, as well as emanating a feeling of moral accomplishment. People create habits around attending the holy building, may it be with their family, friends, or even just familiar faces. Going to the Church, Mosque, Temple, etc. means having a community and contributing to its improvement, being a part of the good. Just as there is no limit to how someone can believe, there is also a wide range of alternatives to this feeling of unity outside of an institution. The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), for example, is composed of people from several different religious backgrounds who come together to practice their own individual beliefs. They draw from science, scriptures, philosophy, and a variety of other sources for their teachings. Their goal is to “create spirituality and community beyond boundaries, working for more justice and more love in our own lives and in the world” (Unitarian Universalist Association). A transition away from organized religion can seem daunting with nothing to fall back on, but this is an example of another group people can become a part of, one with much more curiosity and exploration. Another alternative to involvement in the community would be to join a local community service group, taking part in food drives, aiding homeless shelters, and volunteering for charities. This offers the opportunity to impact the world positively without having to sacrifice any personal or political beliefs in order to participate. Being conscious of these other options — that comfort someone morally, socially, and emotionally — can make the prospect of stepping back from organized religion less intimidating and accessible even to those who love having a familiar community.
Explore the Religious Spectrum
“DIY religious culture,” as Burton describes it, is where the religiously unaffiliated “nones” seem to be headed, to a freer form of belief. The institutions that people have traditionally attended have been exposed as having fundamental flaws, causing a shift in how people identify religiously. William Chittick, Professor of Islamic Studies at Stony Brook University, claimed in a personal interview that he considers institutions “counterproductive because they’ve become less personal and more focused on power” (Chittick). The results of it, he claims, are these sexual abuse scandals and the reluctance to adapt scriptures to modern-day standards. Yet, even though this has become more blatant than ever, members of them have been hesitant to leave; they might assume the alternative to be a lack of belief, community, or morality. Understanding the other ways in which they can check off these boxes — through groups like UUA, community service, or even a local religious group among friends — can help expand their prospective options to more than just one institution and one set of beliefs. The customization of religion is ever present in the way people practice today; this “DIY religion” would simply be taking it one step forward, to a more flexible religious environment. By definition, religion and spirituality are philosophical entities — by no means rigid or caging, experienced and viewed differently by every individual. When people become more aware of the options they possess — whether they choose to believe in one religion or several — the spectrum of spirituality is theirs to delve into and explore.
Berry, Jason. Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children. LevelFiveMedia, 1992.
Chittick, William C. Personal Interview. 21 October 2019.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Divinity School Address.” Harvard Square Library. Andover-Harvard Theological Library, 15 July 1838, Cambridge, Divinity School.
Jones, Jeffrey M. “Many U.S. Catholics Question Their Membership Amid Scandal.” Gallup, 4 Sept. 2019, news.gallup.com/poll/247571/catholics-question-membership-amid-scandal.aspx.
Lipka, Michael. “Religious ‘Nones’ Becoming More Secular.” Pew Research Center, 11 Nov. 2015, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/11/religious-nones-are-not-only-growing-theyre-becoming-more-secular/.
Martel, Frédéric. In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy. Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019.
Rana, Zat. “Why Everybody Needs a Personal Religion.” Medium, 22 Feb. 2018, medium.com/personal-growth/why-everybody-needs-a-personal-religion-304255c9962b.
“Should Facebook Be Fact-Checked?” The Argument from the New York Times, 31 Oct. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/31/opinion/the-argument-facebook-mark-zuckerberg.html
Unitarian Universalist Association, “Our UU Faith.” UUA, 7 Jan. 2019, www.uua.org/beliefs.
“Very Few Americans See Contraception as Morally Wrong.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, 28 Sept. 2016, www.pewforum.org/2016/09/28/4-very-few-americans-see-contraception-as-morally-wrong/.
Wexler, Jay. “6 Things I Wish People Understood about Atheism in America.” Vox, Vox Media, 14 June 2019, http://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/6/7/18652423/atheism-america-facts.