Many of us are frustrated by religion. According to the General Social Survey – a large, representative survey done every few years for the past several decades – the number of Americans who say they have no religion increased from 5% in 1972 to 29% last year, for example. The COVID-19 pandemic also provided a pause from religious attendance that allowed many of us to take a step back and reconsider how we really feel about our religious beliefs, practices, and commitments.
Why are so many people “done” with religion? Researchers in one study asked individuals who said they were once – but no longer – religious to write about their primary reason for the change. By far the most common reason (52%) was intellectual, such as when a person felt their previous religious beliefs conflicted with science or logic, or when they felt they simply “outgrew” their old beliefs. Another common reason (22%) was because individuals said they didn’t feel they could be a part of an institution they felt caused trauma to themselves or others or that they believed perpetrated hatred toward certain groups, such as members of the LGBTQ population. A third reason (15%) was because people experienced personal adversity they couldn’t reconcile with their religious beliefs. Finally, some (11%) noted social reasons, such as feeling like they didn’t “fit in” with a religious community.
Research suggests “religious dones” tend to have a history of religious and spiritual struggles but that these struggles often lift when they form a non-religious identity. On the other hand, studies show how, in religious settings and groups, formerly religious people often hide their newfound beliefs and values, again feeling a lack of belonging. In addition, a good deal of research points to the significant positive resources provided by religion and spirituality. Relinquishing these resources may come with some long-term costs. For instance, doing away with all of our religious and spiritual customs may mean our children do not experience several significant rituals or rites of passage that aid in their development.
It’s not healthy to suppress our struggles with religion. Are there ways to be honest with our frustrations while still pursuing a religious or spiritual dimension to our lives? Below are five ideas for how we might do so.
1. Go deeper into religion.
Sometimes, there are resources in our religious traditions that can help us work through our frustrations. For example, many religions have insightful analyses of how faith and science can be integrated. Traditions frequently have resources for helping us reconcile the suffering we’ve experienced with our religious beliefs. A deeper exploration often points to how our religious frustrations are rooted in how religious teachings are commonly interpreted and practiced – frequently by people less informed – instead of the best a religion has to offer. In this way, digging further into religion can be the spark for personal growth and deeper understanding.
2. Create a niche in a congregation.
Religious communities often contain more diversity of thought than we might guess. Even in a congregation that seems to hold different beliefs and values than we have, we might be able to find pockets of individuals who are more similar to us. With sensitivity and grace, it may be possible to influence a community to grow together into a different direction. For instance, individuals may ask questions, suggest book studies, or encourage programming more open to LGBTQ inclusion, even in a conservative congregation. In this way, we can help our religious traditions to change from the inside out, to become more what we hope they would be.
3. Find a different religious community.
There are limits, however, to how much we can adapt to a particular religious congregation. Sometimes, the divide may simply be too big. In this case, we can use our frustrations to guide us to what we want in a new community. In an era where many religious services are livestreamed, podcasted, or shared via YouTube, some options may be virtual. Just as all jobs and all relationships are imperfect, we won’t be able to find a perfect religious community, but we may find one that addresses our frustrations and feels “good enough” to begin to form relationships and engage in mutual growth and service.
4. Participate in alternative groups.
If it’s not possible to find a religious community to call our own, other options may be considered. As discussed by the Sacred Design Lab, many secular organizations and opportunities exist that meet needs historically connected with religion and spirituality. For example, Alcoholics Anonymous, On Being, Soul Cycle, TED, The Moth, Oprah, and even summer camp can function in similar ways as religious and spiritual groups. One specific idea would be to create a sort of book club or podcast discussion group that regularly gathers to discuss meaningful living.
5. Focus on spirituality instead of religion.
A final option for dealing with religious frustration is to focus more on creating a personally meaningful spiritual life. We can engage in practices related to meditation, awe, forgiveness, compassion, and gratitude. For instance, as Dacher Keltner writes in his book “Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life:”
“People who do not identify with a formal religion [can] create their own ‘temples,’ finding mystical awe in nature, or in a collective activity such as singing in a choir, or in dance… Or in meditating or practicing yoga. Or in music… Today, the Divine comes in many forms.”
The five suggestions above for rediscovering a religious and spiritual life aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. We can combine these. For example, one could delve more deeply into religious teachings, join a new religious congregation, participate in activities of most interest in that congregation, start an intentional book club, and practice personal spirituality on a daily basis. Perhaps what is most important for our long-term religious and spiritual growth is to be open to the quest.
Never markdown the marvel of your tears. They can be mending waters and a surge of bliss. In some cases they are the best words the heart can express.