Sooner or later, the good things of the world pass from private or elite ownership and become shared. Education is an example. Once a privilege for the few, it is now almost universally available and regarded as a basic human right. Political power is another example. Authoritarian regimes remain but democracy has become the norm for most countries and for decision making amongst countries. A third example is technology. Gadgetry remains in many ways in the hands of boffins, but it has also passed into everyday living and given birth to the do-it-yourself movement which we are all a part of.
Religion has followed a similar path. The picture around the world is mixed but two things are evident: there is a withdrawal from organised religion, and a withdrawal from religion altogether. Religion in the sense of being bound to a particular world view has given way to pure secularism or to spirituality which is in the hands of the individual. This process whereby things move into individual control we call atomisation.
Atomisation can in some ways be good. It gives us more freedom to make our own choices, for we are less bound to follow rules set by churches or religious organisations. Associated with this freedom is more independent thought, which presumably increases the chances of finding wisdom (though it has to be said that this independence is not always matched by quality). Arguably, atomisation is a necessary corrective to the unduly tight control that some branches of religion have exercised over their followers’ lives.
Control over people’s lives is apparent in many ways. Some relate to major life choices, for example the choice of a life partner, keeping or not keeping a baby, or following a certain career. Others relate to smaller matters – or matters which may seem smaller, like the wording of liturgy or the ways in which faith is taught. Control, however, is not what religion is about, or at least not what it should be about. Religion in its essence is connection, not just the cable and satellite variety but something intangible that flows through us all. We have religion when we connect in a deep and meaningful way with other people, other beings, earth, the sea, the sun and so on. Religion also includes the way we connect with tradition, heritage, music and other things that are perceived to have something of the sacred. Atomisation, conversely, implies some loss of connection.
With this in mind, we can start to understand some of the harms which may flow from atomisation. The break-up of traditional religion has led to negative emotions like alienation, loss and resentment. These emotions are fed by misinformation and lazy thinking which thrive unchecked. Error goes unchecked largely because people no longer care. The result is that a large part of the population now lives without spirituality altogether or calls it up only when it feels the need, as in crises or major life events.
Sounding a warning about atomisation does not mean necessarily that we should all adhere to the established forms of religion just so that we can remain “connected.” Clearly there are many people, myself included, this does not suit. Rather, I believe we should think more deeply about what we value in the spiritual life and how we can find ways to retain and enhance that value. The solution may lie in compromises. For instance, we may choose to attend certain assemblies of organised religion for certain purposes close to our heart – discussion groups, charitable activities, concerts or whatever. As an example, I found it useful for two years to attend meetings of the Bahá’í community which were designated as Soul Food Sundays – meetings where we could listen to and ponder on a themed range of readings drawn from all sorts of sacred and secular sources. It was something that worked for me and was all the more enjoyable because there was no unseemly pressure on me to join the Bahá’í. The readings, accompanied by music, were like a stained-glass window of thought connecting me with the Divine – and all with the prospect of tea and biscuits with congenial people afterwards!
While existing faith traditions all fall short one way or another, they can in different respects help us in putting our personal spiritual impulses into practice. This is sometimes criticised as mere cherry-picking, and indeed there’s some truth in the criticism, but it’s a valid way for individuals to grow. There’s a reasonable chance too that the existing faiths will retain critical mass, especially if they show themselves ready and willing to accommodate diversity within their ranks. To be clear, just because I’m out of step with existing churches, it doesn’t follow that I wish them to disappear. Indeed, far from it.
While religion is under challenge, it retains a partly unseen presence, for it underlies much of modern ethics – ideas like valuing others, holding to truth and so on. To some degree it can also be said that religion has become displaced by ethics, with devotion to God and saints being overtaken by secular impulses towards social justice, animal rights, environmental ethics and the like. Ideally, in my view, religion and ethics should both be flourishing, for each performs different and necessary functions, which are complementary. It’s a moot point whether ethics alone can lead us all into a bright new day of civilisation. We need as well as ethics the enlargement of the soul that religion can provide, the absolute imperative to submit to ultimate reality and its potential for Good.
As we move deeper into the twenty-first century we cannot truthfully say our world is becoming better, for it seems to be ever more conflicted and wasteful, trashing human resources and the natural world alike. Organised religion is rightly being held to account for its part in this sorry saga. However, this does not mean that a complete collapse of religion would serve us any better. In the difficult period of history we are presently undergoing, we need more building up and less breaking down.
The process of atomisation may be seen as both a symptom and a cause of the overall decline of religion. There are many reasons for that decline which we might sum up as disconnect from everyday life. Abuses of office by religious leaders have accelerated the trend, but it was already under way. Atomisation most likely would have occurred in any case, as ordinary people have felt empowered to take control of their own spirituality, in many cases ditching it altogether.
This essay is not concerned with the criticisms of religion but rather with the perceived need to get a sense of religion back on track. This means simplifying and getting to the essence of things: realizing, for example, that all the rules around Christianity revolve around two very simple rules, loving God and loving one’s neighbour as oneself. Similar sorts of “essence” can be found when we look at other faiths as well. If we can construct a view of spiritual matters with this sort of clarity, difference will become less of an issue, and we can then live more constructively as spiritual citizens of the world.