Heaven Can Wait
Can We Please Get God Out of Religion?
We all need a spiritual side. But not because of some make-believe afterlife. Because it makes us better in this life.
Millennials—soon to be the largest generation of Americans, surpassing the baby boomers—are fleeing organized religion in droves. As a result, a generation of Americans is creating a national existential crisis. How can a country that regularly proclaims “God Bless America,” emblazons its currency with “In God We Trust,” and mentions God so frequently that it could make a secularist nauseous, survive if the largest demographic is indifferent toward the Almighty?
According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, about 35 percent of millennials have no religious affiliation and thus are categorized as the “nones.” Approximately 56 million Americans are religiously unaffiliated, and the horde of “nones” grows steadily by the year.
As a millennial myself, I am part of the generation that has conspired to spread this heresy nationwide, from coast to coast, as a kind of modern-day version of Manifest Destiny.
I still remember when I graduated from children’s church when I was a tween and could now attend the sanctuary with the adults. But instead of being fixated on learning more about Christianity, I just wanted to take a nap. I loved it when I had soccer matches on Sunday and could skip church. By the time I was a junior in high school, church no longer interested me at all, and when I left home for college, the idea of waking up early on a Sunday to attend church had become laughable. I am most certainly part of America’s cumulative religious decline. I have helped bring the “nones” to the fore.
So my generation is heathen enough. But it might get worse: The looming question just over the horizon centers on how millennials will educate their children religiously. Because if a generation of devout Christians could not convince their children to keep the faith, then there must be no hope for religious salvation for the children of a generation that indifferently shrugs its shoulders at God.
A new book by Lisa Miller, The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving, provides a unique approach to this dilemma. Miller proposes that spirituality—which she describes as religion minus the belief in dogma, the veneration of prophets and deities, and the fixation on the afterlife—is an innate human trait that needs to be encouraged and developed. Through extensive research, Miller asserts that spirituality encourages children to believe in something greater and more powerful than themselves, and as a result they develop more resilience and less anxiety throughout life. People who engage in spirituality, she finds, are 40 percent less likely to use and abuse substances, 60 percent less likely to be depressed, and 80 percent less likely to have dangerous or unprotected sex, according to her findings.
In other words, if you remove dogma, concerns about the Almighty, and the afterlife, and only focus on the spiritual elements of faith you can still lead a productive and healthy life regardless of what you believe in religiously: if you even believe in anything at all. This should be a concept that the “nones” embrace, and plenty of organized religions, too.
Recently, Ayaan Hirsi Ali spoke out on Real Time with Bill Maher regarding her concerns about Islam, and regardless of whether you agree with some of her more incendiary comments in the past, it’s hard to argue with her assertion on the show that Islam could progress if it could “stop investing in life after death instead of life before death.”
Much of the appeal of organized religion is the guarantee of an afterlife filled with the greatest people the world has ever known, and/or anonymous virgins depending on your religious affiliation, so long as you follow the divine teachings of the chosen messenger.
But if the limitless authority of the messenger and the lure of eternal life are removed from the equation, can the teachings still have merit? As long as the practices encourage one’s innate spirituality the answer is yes.
If we think of spirituality in these terms, then it becomes merely a tool for a healthier life. An apt comparison could be playing recreational sports or studying a musical instrument. A parent doesn’t need to be a soccer enthusiast to see the benefit of his child playing recreational soccer at an early age. However, if soccer became a religion and a parent felt that soccer was the only sport that his child was allowed to play and that it would guarantee eternal happiness in this life and the next, then he very well could feel outraged if his child became uninterested in the sport or wanted to play a different sport.
Unfortunately, the emphasis in society today is not on benefiting the growth of the child in this earthly life. It’s toward focusing on the afterlife. This can be incredibly destructive and absurd.
I remember my parents’ frustration as I grew uninterested in religion. But we still had the common ground of doing things that could help us grow as people and improve the world around us. Religion became secondary so long as we all did good deeds. Worrying about the afterlife became secondary, and the present life became primary.
One of wisest things the millennial “nones” could do for their progeny could be to find a proper spiritual outlet for their children while still expressing a healthy cynicism toward organized religion. The “nones” should anticipate that their children will become religiously jaded but still hope that they are capable of believing in a force greater than themselves. Hopefully this will prevent the “nones” from creating a new generation of anxiety-ridden narcissists.
Since the beginning of recorded history most good deeds became valuable if they granted you access to an afterlife of VIP status. And sure, I would love to be a postmortem VIP who spends eternity chillin’ with my family and friends, and having dinner parties with Nelson Mandela, James Dean, Maya Angelou, Paul Newman, Abraham Lincoln, and countless others.
This environment sounds like a blast, but I would rather worry about divine dinner parties and family outings when that day comes. In the meantime, I choose to embrace my innate spirituality to improve myself and the world around me in this life.