People worship many things. Making money. Becoming famous. Having sex. God. Not all of these, however, are created equal. How can one validate what they worship? Divine messages, and the prophets that deliver them, remain the prime proof of religion.
Prophets delivered divine messages in the form of scriptures and stories, providing believers with a way to connect with the divine. In modernity, however, the supernatural is condemned, faith in the sacred is lost and congregation is frowned upon. We are living in an age of pseudo-spirituality.
The last Pew Research Center surveys conducted in 2017 showed that 27 percent of all Americans see themselves as “spiritual but not religious,”; the number of people who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” has increased “8 percentage points in five years.”
The trend originates in Americans’ interpretation of secularism — which is believed to be the abandonment of the sacred. This is evident in Thomas Jefferson’s attempt at taking out supernatural elements and rewriting the Bible. Many people now subject religion to the same experimentation; rather than rely on the innate truthfulness of a given prophecy, people twist religious messages to adhere to their personal beliefs.
Reza Aslan’s CNN show “The Believer” is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Aslan traveled the world, showing viewers different religious practices, methods of worship, sites and scriptures belonging to the world’s many religions.
In a New Yorker piece, Elias Muhanna, a Harvard graduate and scholar on Islam, pointed out the issues with the show: “‘(The) Believer’ amounts to a canny sort of Evangelism — not for any one religion in particular, but for Aslan’s own brand of universal spirituality, which regards religions as nothing more than different languages for expressing the same meanings.”
In order to fulfill their spiritual void, people unsatisfied with their own religious sect will often depart from their group and rely on gurus, meditation and yoga. Even these practices are taken out of their contexts, being practiced individually and disassociated from their textual foundations. Devoid of their origins, devoid of prophecies, scriptures and revelations, these tactics lose their claim to the unknown. That’s not to say that they’re bad things, they just don’t make one spiritual.
In Abrahamic faiths, humans communicate to God through religion, building their relation with him; but by practicing western spirituality practices, people are worshipping not God but themselves. A sacredless religion is still religion, just one that intrinsically false, based upon man’s own whims. Being “spiritual but not religious” is a way for people to escape religious obligations; “It's plain old laziness,” said James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at America magazine.
Aslan, however, does document a powerful thing: the power religion provides communities. When a religious sect gathers to pray, mourn or celebrate a religious holiday, it creates deeper, more personal relationships. Shared beliefs tie a community together.
In that way, congregation is an exclusive practice. Not everyone can identify with each faith, and it is precisely through that exclusivity that each member attains a sense of belonging. Without those differences, we lose the value of religion because the first step toward true religious plurality is accepting our differences. Yet, the new wave of spirituality leads us to believe that communities are irrelevant.
Religion is not merely an identity or a title, rather it is a way of viewing the world. Its role in society is too large to be ignored. When will Americans open up about the elephant in the room and have a deeper conversation about religious plurality?
By enveloping ourselves in our own communities, we are able to spread our knowledge to others and bring them closer to understanding others. By doing that, we realize our humanity, attaining a level of spirituality that no 21st century secular Buddhist guru provides.