THE VALUE OF ORGANIZED RELIGION
Prior to their converting to the gospel and joining the church at that time, The Book of Mormon described King Lamoni and his people as follows:
Now this was the tradition of Lamoni, which he had received from his father, that there was a Great Spirit. Notwithstanding they believed in a Great Spirit, they supposed that whatsoever they did was right;[i]
King Lamoni and his people were an innately moral people. They had a belief in a higher power, but they did not practice that belief. They connected to their belief but had no mechanism or organization to apply that in their lives. Described differently, they were a spiritual but non-religious people. They self-justified their actions, self-determined what was right was wrong, and their spirituality had little impact in their decision-making process. As a result, what spirituality they had, did not benefit them individually or collectively in a meaningful manner.
Recently, I received a kind note from a single man that reminded me of this description of King Lamoni and his people. He stated that he had come to the realization that he was a spiritual person and that he did not need organized religion to be a good person. For me, drawing the line between what is a good or bad person is neither easy nor monochromatic. Additionally, whether we belong to a religious organization does not in and of itself make us either good or bad. I believe goodness lies within each of us, irrespective of our beliefs and that the measure of that goodness comes through how we treat others and through the choices we make. Still, I have thought a lot about this man’s heartfelt comment and I believe it raises an important and fundamental question: Does organized religion have value in our lives? I believe it does.
According to the Pew Research Center, more people today feel a spiritual connection in their lives than in previous years.[ii] Trends show that people have increased spiritual feelings on a weekly basis and show an uptick in their wonderment and awe for the universe. These statistics are important and demonstrate an increasing trend for people today to recognize and reverence something more in their lives. It is an expanded and heightened pursuit to find individual meaning in the physical reality that we experience.
Yet these statistics also show that more people today are progressively delineating their spirituality through their own personal experiences and observations rather than through institutional opportunities. In other words, they are self-defining what spirituality is and they are less willing to have religion or other institutions define it for them.
Spirituality is thus becoming a non-religious, existential exercise where people connect inwardly with themselves to find purpose in their lives. People today are finding spirituality through activities that engage with nature (going to the beach, walking in the woods, sitting by a river, riding a bike, etc.) or by meditating on some fact or issue rather than through established or organized practices. As a result, the societal definition of what it means to be religious as opposed to spiritual is rapidly changing and evolving.[iii]
The following two charts are intriguing and show the decreasing trends in the United States toward organized religion.[iv]
This first chart demonstrates that the activity rate of people in organized religion across the United States is decreasing. People are attending services less frequently on a weekly and monthly basis while people who attend only a few times a year are increasing. This trend shows that people are becoming less active or have fewer touch points in the day to day practice of religion. As a result, the practice of religion is softening in the lives of Americans today.
This second chart demonstrates that the percentage of people who affiliate with or engage in organized religion is also decreasing. This means that collectively organized religion is constricting as more people today are choosing not to belong or to identify with any religious organization.
Both of these statistics speak volumes about the difficulty today that organized religions face to encourage people to be interested in and to practice their faith. While people in the United States have a belief in God, their practice or observance of that belief is performed less through religious institutions than in previous years. As a result, it is fair to say that Americans are increasingly perceiving themselves as less religious yet more spiritual.
Like King Lamoni and his people, the challenge with being a non-religious but spiritual person is that we individually justify what is right and what is wrong. We then tend to look inwards rather than outwards; meaning, we rely solely on ourselves for actions and support. There is spiritual awareness and acceptance but not application. As a result, spirituality has less influence in our lives and has less guidance for us in the decisions we make and in the outcome of our lives.
Personally, I think any increased awareness of ourselves, our surroundings, and of meaning in life is positive. Still I do not think that the value of organized religion should be discounted--especially if people desire increased spirituality. Organized religion gives purpose and activity to the spirituality we have. The value that organized religion provides me is a framework and foundation to work on my individual character. It gives me a community to engage with and opportunities to serve that I would not otherwise have. It also gives me a guidepost to direct my decision making and a hope and expectation that is not based solely on myself. Like a gym, organized religion allows a place and opportunity to exercise my spiritual muscles. Through my participation in organized religion I can engage in a process that augments and strengthens my spirituality. As a result, I, and those around me, are benefited.
This is not to say that participation in organized religion is easy or that obstacles and difficulties are not relevant. What I am saying is that organized religion has a positive benefit to our spirituality that is valuable. Even if we do not value or participate in organized religion, it is my hope that we recognize the spirituality we have and that we find beneficial uses for it to enhance and better not only our lives but those around us.
You can find similar discussions and ideas in my book, The Greatest Worth: Finding Oneself in a Family Centric Faith. I hope you enjoy reading it.
This Month's Comic
[i] Alma 18:5; The Book of Mormon [ii] “U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious,” Pew Research Center, November 3, 2015, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/u-s-public-becoming-less-religious/. [iii] IBID. [iv] IBID.