By: David Xi-Ken Shi
According to a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life report a growing number of people while not considering themselves as affiliated with any particular religion do not, however, consider themselves as atheists or agnostic either. The report indicates that one in five American adults now have no religious affiliation. While some do consider their spiritual interests as agnostic, a larger number have no interest in identifying themselves in any way when it comes to how they identify with their spiritual thoughts. Pew has been doing this survey for some years now, and they have found that those considering themselves as “non-affiliated” has risen to 19 percent from 15 percent just five years ago.
The number breaks down like this: there are 46 million religiously non-practicing American adults including 13 million self-described atheists or agnostics, and 33 million who don’t identify with any organized religious or spiritual practice. What is interesting is that two-thirds of those non-practicing individuals do not deny that there is a God, and feel some feeling of a deep spiritual connection with nature. These people think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. A major factor for this growing trend is the aging of America, where there is a growing number of younger adults that have been raised in non-religious households. The younger generation is less religious, but yet not totally disconnected from a sense of spiritual thoughts either. What is interesting to me is that this younger generation are not seekers. When the researchers ask this generation if they had thoughts that humans have been pondering for centuries about some of the really hard question, they seemed to have little interest beyond immediate interests.
Another interesting trend being reported is that less then half of Americans now identify with any Protestant religion. So while America is becoming less religious, it is, however, one of the most religious among the developed countries. While may Americans seem to be dropping out of more organized religious interest, they seem to be changing also how they talk about religion. Today, we are more comfortable talking about our religious and spiritual beliefs, or disbeliefs, and how we interpret the world around us without any sense of shame or fear of cultural backlash. It is becoming the new norm. The one religious group that has remained consistent are the Catholic faithful. But this group only makes up 21 percent of the religious community.
This growing non-religious community is developing across all income, education, gender, and social class groups. But the younger generation is not the only segment of our society that is becoming less faith-based associated, many older Americans have increased their numbers too. Now 21 percent of “generation-X” and 15 percent of baby boomers call themselves unaffiliated. This growing trend will have unknown impact on future political and social justice issues. We are seeing cultural transformation taking shape in our lifetime.
As Buddhism in America, and in the West in general, gains cultural authority, and integrates into main-stream acceptability over time, opportunities for alternative spiritual interest based on a different philosophical construct rather than a theological one may attract attention among this group that has turned away from beliefs stuck in the past. The challenge for Buddhism is to not forget that Buddhism is by its very nature causality based and subject to change and renewal. We must take Siddhartha’s enlightened experience and put it into contemporary language in order to give it a chance to reflect back to us the modern lesson that science can teach. Buddhism thrives in this enriched soil of modernity. It is up to the growing number of American Buddhist teachers now to touch the spiritual nature residing inside all of us in the language that our contemporary society can recognize, and spark the flame waiting to be lit to burn down the weeds obscuring how we can nourish the self within. This may be what is missing for those growing up in a static religious experience. It is an uphill struggle for sure, but my experience is that when given a chance to present Buddhist principles to those discouraged by their past religious experience, a different worldview can emerge that just may be the spark that shines light on a new path that is as natural as breathing. Master Shunryu Suzuki put it this way, “…it is not to difficult to give some philosophical or psychological interpretation of our practice, but that is not enough. We must have the actual experience of how our weeds change into nourishment.”