Is spirituality the new religion?

Today, more people identify as spiritual than religious – it's label free, available to us 24/7 and likely to make you happy

10 March 2019 - 00:07
With the future looking bleak, it seems more people are turning to spirituality as a balm for our growing existential dread.
With the future looking bleak, it seems more people are turning to spirituality as a balm for our growing existential dread.
Image: 123RF/Ion Chiosea

After a puff or five of some good marijuana, armchair social trends theorists have been known to argue about the link between spirituality/religiosity and strife. The gist of their musing is that people tend to seek refuge in the spiritual when times are tough. Well, times are tough now. The world is steadily getting hotter and subsequently supercharging hurricanes, changing the unofficial motto of Cape Town to "If it's yellow let it mellow", adding kindling to the potential bonfire.

"Water wars" are threatening. The economy in most parts of the world has generally been trash, India and Pakistan are toying with nuclear Armageddon and nationalism seems to be coming back. The future is looking bleak and it seems more people are turning to spirituality instead of religion as a balm for our growing existential dread.

In 2017 a paper published by the Pew Research Centre showed that just over a quarter of Americans saw themselves as spiritual instead of religious. While similar research in SA isn't available, psychic Shannon Walbran says the trend here is similar.

"There's definitely been an uptick [in people coming to her for guidance]. From previously being illegal and covert, people are now open and talkative about their experiences with psychics and sangomas," says Walbran.

People now also speak more openly about their horoscopes without an accompanying chorus of sniggers. Esoteric shops that sell healing crystals and photograph your aura are in popular shopping centres like Rosebank Mall in Johannesburg and people in general seem to be looking for a higher power, unsullied by mores of organised religion.

"Given the many scandals occurring in our churches, and in my own Catholic Church in particular, I think people are recognising that priests are human beings who make mistakes, sometimes terrible ones," says Walbran.

"We no longer need intermediaries. Even as a psychic, my main point is: You Are Guided. I teach people how to contact the Divine Intelligence on their own."

Often those intermediaries have not been the best spokespeople for the religions they have championed. A further complication is that organised religion has a tendency to be applicable to just about any context. Ecclesiastical folk have used organised religion to justify even slavery. Despite that, organised religion isn't all bad.

On a podcast called After the Fact, experimental social psychologist Patty Van Capellen says: "Both religion and spirituality can provide a package that has a lot of different strategies ... shown to promote wellbeing and life satisfaction."

Religion is still valid as an ongoing practice to reconnect with God and community on a weekly basis, but spirituality is available to us 24/7 - it's who we are
Shannon Walbran

She found religion can have health benefits for its adherents that include increased longevity. It's debatable whether these benefits are due to religion or the incidental benefits of religion, such as a propensity towards healthier life choices. The evidence exists nonetheless.

"What research has shown is that religion is representative of the way that people cope with difficult life events," continues Van Capellen.

Walbran echoes that religion need not be the devil.

"Religion is still valid as an ongoing practice to reconnect with God and community on a weekly basis, but spirituality is available to us 24/7 - it's who we are," says Walbran.

The on-demand nature of modern spirituality may be the major driving force behind its increased popularity. Everything is geared towards the instant gratification economy. If you want to watch television, there is no need to wait till 9pm on Tuesday to watch your favourite show. If you want to do banking, you don't need to wait for a teller. You can do everything you need from the comfort of your porcelain throne.

So organisation may be organised religion's biggest problem. In an increasingly decentralised world the idea that you should have to get up and attend hours-long sermons in which the person on the pulpit punts their version of what God and wellbeing should be, doesn't appeal to everyone. Not when the same road to Nirvana can be reached without having to wake up on Sunday morning.

Digital spirituality also allows you to pick and choose the bits of various religious practices that work for you without the need to label yourself as something that gets someone else's hackles up.

Spirituality can be our port in the storm. Unlike religiosity, spirituality has a history that doesn't have to contend with doctrinal questions.

Add a few shiny crystals and interesting shapes in the sky and you'll find a belief system tailor made for today. It's label-free and likely to make you happy. Sounds like a good deal. Well, to me at least.


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