I came across this segment by the PBS News Hour program, about Millennials leaving organized religion. It got me thinking about how the segment was presented, about the things that modern spiritualists are doing to manufacture spiritual need. The video was dedicated to the perspective of religious groups doing what they can to boost membership. Much of what people talked about included a sense of building community and belonging. But, in a world that is becoming less religious, must people search in spiritual places for these things?
When I was religious, the idea of communities that existed outside of faith terrified me. I was told that they weren’t fulfilling, they were temporary, and at best they can’t compete with the community of people who believed in Jesus. It had been beaten into me so hard that even when I got out, I initially looked for replacements to what I had lost.
The problem was that I was equating support networks with community and being part of a group. While I needed support networks for what I was going through, I did not need to latch onto the first group of people that showed up promising me spiritual fulfillment. Even though some people will swear by their spiritual beliefs that they really work, nobody could make promises beyond what Christianity already offered.
When I see new promises of spiritual fulfillment, I can’t help but compare them to other failed promises.
The most pressing question I think of is whether there’s an actual need here. I get that people, as social animals, feel safer and better within a group. Positive reinforcement can go a long way to affirming one’s worth as a person. But those things aren’t a monopoly of religious groups.
People can derive satisfaction from any communal endeavor. Build a house. Raise money for charity. Donate time to helping neighbors make home improvements. Play multiplayer video games. All of these things can promote group functionality with tangible goals. None of them require a particular religious affiliation.
Why this is important to me.
Because the tangible benefits of group membership can be real, it helped keep me searching for religious answers even though they never did anything else for me. In some sections of faith, this discouragement is a powerful tool to keep people believing something. And because not everyone benefits from religious belief, such forces only serve to hurt people looking for the kind of peace that leaving religion can bring.
Moreover, I have to be concerned any time I see new, trendy spiritual groups popping up in places. These groups can become fertile ground for predatory leaders. Their beliefs pass without scrutiny because they’re kept private to members only. Part of that evasion relies on the notion that spirituality can’t possibly hurt anyone.
For people who want to join communities, those communities have to be healthy. Spirituality is not equivalent to group health. As such, it should be treated with caution instead of blind adherance.