In September 2017, the Public Religion Research Institute published a study of religion in America that showed a tripling of the religiously unaffiliated since 1990, from 8 percent to 24 percent of the population. The majority of the unaffiliated call themselves secular; a quarter of the unaffiliated call themselves atheists or agnostics. Consistent with this trend, a Pew Research Center study showed that half of Americans now attend religious services rarely or never, while half of these people admit their attendance represents a decline from the past. Basically, today’s religiously unaffiliated separate into two groups: determined atheists hostile toward religion, and a much larger group of people who are unsure, uninterested, undecided, or just too busy for religion, and who live in “belief limbo.”
Most media attention focuses on fights between atheists and the faithful. Less attention is paid to the inner lives of those in belief limbo. Many of the latter just drift along in life, following the world’s way. Some of them dislike organized religion, while others simply fell out of the habit of going to a house of worship. Some of them are superficially resolute, but in the depth of their minds feel puzzled about how to live their lives, while others admit to spiritual hunger. They are a diverse group, and no single factor accounts for their attitude toward religion.
The Pew study interviewed some of these people. “I feel that there is something out there, but I can’t nail down a religion,” one person replied. Another person explained, “Right now I’m kind of leaning towards spirituality, but I’m not too sure.” A third person said she was “seeking enlightenment.”
These people are typical of many living in belief limbo. They live average lives, but they also want answers to big questions. They want explanations for how they live besides the fact that others live similarly, or that they have no chance of living differently, or their own world might fall apart if they lived differently. They want a philosophy of life. They are willing to consider religion, and the Pew study confirms this. Among the religiously uncertain, only 37 percent cited lack of belief as the reason. Still, something stays their hand, and in my experience the reasons vary over the course of a person’s life.
Childhood serves as an apprenticeship to life. Through parental love, children learn that the world is not altogether hostile, that affection and kindness exist, and that there are people who can be trusted to give without asking for anything in return. Then again, especially on the playground, children learn that the world is full of conflict and deceit. They experience communion through their family, yet also their first moments of groupthink and interior boredom, when no one in their family seems to understand them.
Because life’s complexities reveal themselves before the child’s mind can fully understand them, religion wisely avoids peddling a philosophy of life at this stage. Instead, it teaches through experience. It provides an atmosphere of simple humanity, one that cannot be generated autonomously; it arises from others, from family and friends. Children learn that they cannot be themselves wherever and whenever they please. People must play a role, sometimes an assigned one. Thus, religion comes with holidays celebrated with warm fires and candies, but also with a duty to be respectful and not to fidget while sitting on a hard wooden pew. Children learn a complicated message that although each of us has a special integrity, for a part of our lives we have no right to be ourselves.
When religion grows worldly, it foolishly philosophizes to children. One philosophy preaches self-esteem. It tells each child that he or she is the center of the universe. Not surprisingly, when children grow into adolescence and cease to be the universe’s center, they sometimes lose interest in religion. As a boy, I watched several friends abandon religion starting the day after their confirmation or their bar or bat mitzvah. With the party over, and foreseeing no more religious celebrations of their specialness on the horizon, they looked elsewhere to recapture the feeling.
Another error occurs when religion becomes political philosophy. Once, when I was a boy, my religious teacher spent the day lecturing on the evils of the death penalty. Toward the end of class he had each of us write a letter to our state senator asking him to ban the practice. After a while, I couldn’t tell the difference between religion and the left wing of the Democratic party. Friends of mine, exposed to an alternative philosophy, likewise wondered about the difference between religion and the right wing of the Republican party. It is no surprise that when their politics changed, their faith waned.
For people in their twenties, almost every turn in life has some seduction. These individuals know that others have streamed the same way before through college, dating, and living on one’s own. Still, many young people expect a personal sensation—a bit of one’s own—in the whole experience. This is especially true in matters of love.
In the beautiful continuity of hope that is youth, religion seems irrelevant except for its morality, which threatens to limit love, making some young people suspicious. They think older religious people played around when they were young and had a good time, but later felt guilty and got scared, and became religious to save themselves from God. “Why should they feel guilty?” some young people ask. Others suspect religious believers of ferreting out sexual events for the pleasure of condemning them.
Religion does have a philosophy of life for people at this age. It warns them that the mechanical repetition of sexual indulgence may be fun, but over time it dulls the sensations and causes miseries that often come with loose living. Feasts of sensuality eventually bore even libertines. But contemporary religion ignores those worries and adapts to the world in a way that makes few demands on life, especially on young people. Rather than preach a moral vision of life that addresses these worries, it marginalizes the moralizers and waters down moral strictures.
I felt this as a teenager. My mother yelled at me whenever I got a bad grade in regular school, but when I brought home a bad grade from religious school, she didn’t care. Grades in religious school had to do with a nebulous thing called the “soul,” while grades in regular school determined futures and salaries. For her, the world was more important, and the authorities at my religious school seemed to agree. They rarely fussed about my grades and seemed content that I was moral enough by the world’s standards to enter one of the world’s careers.
Later, during my twenties, while living in southern California, my friends and I would often go to the beach with our girlfriends. We were carefree and happy. Once in a while, we would turn our faces west toward the ocean. We would stand respectfully and still, as though some earth-shaking event were happening before us, and watch the water glisten in the sunlight, and listen to the hiss of waves sucked back into the sea. We would dream that heaven had stolen a slice of the earth; we would think the most important thing was how many days a person would have in life like this one; and we would imagine ourselves lying on beach towels with girlfriends forever.
Rather than play the role of truth-teller and tell young people how living blissfully forever is impossible—and incite their hatred—religion for the most part lets young people be. Even when they do join a religion, the young often discover they can pretty much live as they did before. Without an attitude toward morality differing significantly from the world’s attitude, religion seems altogether unnecessary to young people, as it did to me.
People in their thirties get a first sense of life’s limitations. All is not picturesque and glowing with promise. Less in life is new and varied. It is not exactly worry but something else, an emotion of a different quality—worry in its infant state—that makes its appearance among thirty-somethings. People at this age sense it is harder to make new friends. Student cafeterias are long gone, while bars and clubs have grown tiresome. Loneliness becomes a problem. This time, religion steps in by offering up a version of “community.” Already in the mid-twentieth century, journalists noticed how churches in the U.S. began to function more like social centers.
Nevertheless, people in their thirties still expect some original and exciting things from life. To their minds, they just have to organize their schedules and join the right groups. On this score, the world’s communities are more fun and accessible than religious communities. Lifestyle enclaves built around triathlons or dancing, for example, provide more stimulating experiences. Virtual communities on social media are easier to join. Fully half of those who have stopped going to a house of worship cite practical reasons rather than disbelief as the cause. One in five say they are too busy, usually because of work. One in ten admit they have just “gotten out of the habit” or grown “lazy.” These people want amusement out of life; they want passion. When they attend an activity, they act like lovers looking forward to a rendezvous. As worldly communities go, religious communities simply cannot compete, especially on weekends. It was foolish of religion to think it could.
I know a thirty-something who plunged into a lifestyle community. Before he did, he confessed to me a feeling of irrevocability, of being cut off, the kind of feeling one gets after funerals. He was experiencing the death of youth. To boost his spirits, he joined a group of cyclists and began racing on weekends. His pessimism for life ebbed, and a new hope arose. For him, winning a bike race was exhilarating, something to strive for and believe in. It transported him into a paradise of glamour and romance; the impossible and the unknown came alive; it filled that sacred space in his life where the real and the imaginary, the actual and the hypothetical, overlap.
My friend claimed to catch a glimpse of the unity of the universe while biking. The green hills, rustling trees, and birds darting across the sky connected him to something bigger than himself. Religion’s philosophy of life would have warned him that obnoxious bikers, back pain, and insects flying into his mouth would eventually pick apart his dreams, and if they didn’t, time and repetition would. There is no permanent equilibrium in human affairs; even the most ardent love, if one analyzes its separate moments, is littered with tiny conflicts and inconveniences.
But my friend never heard religion’s message. He had stopped going to church in his twenties. A church nearby was starting up its own bike group, but he saw no reason to join, since he already had a bike group.
People in their forties finally realize life is not an enchanted garden. There is less fun to enjoy, and even less new wisdom to acquire. Many people at this age grow jaded and cynical. They have spent two decades inside the walls of official buildings. They look at their office chairs and realize a succession of people have sat in those chairs—people who also dreamed big, but who were eventually swallowed up in that immensity of life that keeps no memories and frankly doesn’t care. In their youth, these people felt invincible, but from life’s perspective, even their troubles are no longer great.
These people are upset, but they get used to it because they see the same thing has happened to most people their age—they have all gotten used to it. A peculiar fatalism joins their cynicism. Although they might protest, deep down they know they can live the way they’re living for a long time, and that they will live so; everyone does so. It is what makes the forties so depressing: the sense that nothing can or will change.
Realizing that unknown powers shape their destinies, these people might be expected to gravitate toward religion, but instead they extend their cynicism to religion, for they see religion as one more suspect worldly institution. In the Pew survey, one person said she no longer believes in religion because “I think religion is not religion anymore. It’s a business.” A second person referred to “the clergy sex abuse scandal” as the cause of her disbelief. A third person said, “I think that more harm has been done in the name of religion than any other area.” These people conflate organized religion—or religion the worldly institution—with religion the philosophy of life, and tar both with their cynicism.
When I speak of organized religion, I don’t mean the tangible aspects of religion, such as music, ritual, or liturgy. I refer instead to the array of motivations that draw people to worldly organizations in general. People want some immediate benefit when they transact business with a worldly organization: higher status, better health, more happiness, or an insurance policy against some evil. Organized religion offers all of these services. With a peculiar mixture of boredom and devotion, many people go through the motions of religion, practicing religion artificially, mistakenly, or even senselessly, while waiting impatiently to get the goods they have been promised.
Problems arise when the goods seem bad. Here the problem is bigger than organized religion. Since the 1970s, for example, distrust in the medical system has gone from 4 percent to 27 percent; in Congress, from 14 percent to 47 percent; and in organized religion, from 11 percent to 28 percent. There is nothing particular about religion that arouses people’s ire in this situation. To think otherwise is religion thinking too much of itself. For many people, religion is just one more hypocritical and deceitful institution in a parade of institutions that raise hope in humanity and then dash it.
Who can blame them? What is organized religion other than religion that has adapted itself to the world—that plays politics, keeps budgets, attracts customers, sometimes employs second-rate people, and covers up scandal? All worldly organizations do this. But because religious people active within organized religion refuse to make the distinction between organized religion and religion, the religiously unaffiliated give up on religion altogether and miss out on religion’s philosophy of life.
Ironically, religion’s philosophy of life does preach the possibility of change. It is the world that is instinctively fatalistic. Religion counsels that the real evil is not getting old but the indifference of the soul; it is more the desire to act than the power to do so that one loses over time. A whole sub-philosophy in Christianity, for example, turns on being “born again.” But when forty-somethings know only organized religion, they hold onto their cynicism. Refusing to be cynical risks depriving them of their last weapon against life’s ugliness.
I know a doctor who left the city to retire in rural America. When I asked him why he was leaving, he said he wanted to be left alone. The fewer people, the better. He confessed to being sick of all the pretending in life—for example, when people express sympathy at church and ask, “How are things at home?” but really don’t care. He had a point. How is it possible to believe in the perfection of people once you’ve lived among them? How is it possible to believe in progress when you have discovered throughout life that institutions look first to their own interests? My doctor friend spoke as if all human actions in life were predetermined but also quite clear to him. A sense of powerlessness joined with a sense of omniscience. Yet his mantra “What’s the use of struggling?” seemed likely to degenerate one day into “What’s the use of living?”
When I asked him for his “thoughts on God,” he looked at me with contempt. “What could be more ineffectual than that absurd and pitiful phrase?” his eyes suggested. Organized religion had confirmed him in his fatalism, not rescued him from it.
By the time people are in their fifties, life has lost much of its glamour and flavor. Everything seems stupid and overrated. For many people, it is a dreary waste of days, waiting for retirement—a decade of boredom and dissatisfaction. One might expect such discontent would drive people toward religion, yet this is also a time when people pride themselves on their sagacity. Having long ago recognized there is little truth to be gotten out of life, they scoff at gullible fools who commit rash actions, who are prey to impulse, and who reach for unfailing panaceas.
This is when science’s criticism of religious superstition kicks in. Again, what many people distrust is not religion so much as religion that has made itself agreeable to the world, for it is the world, and not religion, that is instinctively superstitious.
New Age religions are the embodiment of worldly religion. Instead of exchanging ideas, adherents exchange rumors. They speak of winged creatures, masters, and other spirit beings with whom people can communicate through channeling. Some of them preach witchcraft. These people live half-modern, half-medieval lives. Yet traditional religion that becomes worldly also dabbles in superstition. More Americans believe in angels now than in the past. Speaking in tongues and praying for miraculous healing are also on the rise, in large part driven by the growth in Pentecostalism and charismatic churches. One in five Christians now speaks or prays in tongues.
Many of the religiously unaffiliated reject these irrational ideas in favor of science. Yet their embrace of science does not necessarily forestall superstition. I know a religiously unaffiliated biologist who cultivates superstition in her own way. She insists there are lucky days when everything works out perfectly, and on those days one must try to handle as many things as possible; and then there are bad-luck days when nothing turns out well no matter what one does. On one particular day she insisted on performing an experiment because, as she said, “Today is already a lucky day.”
When I ask the religiously unaffiliated who embrace science whether this life we live is everything, they reply, “Yes, this is everything; the physical world exists and nothing else.” I suppose there is something awesome about the honesty with which they look into the worthlessness of things and the bravery with which they accept it. Yet they don’t really accept it. They invent other ideologies to lift themselves out of the sordid into the sublime, for people have to live somehow and do live somehow, and whatever induces them to live one way and not the other is their religion. Even if people live a certain way because others live that way, it is a religion—the religion of submission to the all-powerful majority. The spiritual food that science offers would not suit even a canary, if a canary needed a religion, and so the religiously unaffiliated must look elsewhere for guidance on how to live.
Those who seek a religion on the scale of God worship the earth. Others worship a group of some kind: the nation, tribe, class, gender, or family. Others worship the self. Yet none of these ideologies—environmentalism, nationalism, identity politics, socialism, feminism, social conservatism, or libertarianism—meets a person’s deepest psychological needs. In the privacy of their minds, the unaffiliated still ask, “Is this really everything, or is there something else? Can this be everything? Can this, the life we live and nothing more, be the reward of all our struggles?”
No answer satisfies them, and so they find themselves trapped. Science tells them that God is an illusion, while religion, which has adapted itself to the world, often tells them that God lives among demons, spirits, and other illusory creatures, and so is a delusion. The secular culture only has facts; the religious culture is unable to distinguish between fact and fantasy. The religiously unaffiliated either accept life’s apparent purposelessness or continue in their futile effort to find a philosophy of life through political ideology.
People in their sixties and beyond long ago adapted to the conditions of existence, and many of them have neither the strength nor the interest to rebel against their own way of life. Some of those fortunate enough to retire possess a certain spiritual weariness and an excessive amount of time on their hands. They also start to wonder what lies on the other side of life, and they may acquire mystical books in tattered, dusty bindings. But for them, religion’s brand has been contaminated for so long that to embrace religion after so many years of condemning it feels hypocritical. For much of their lives, a belief in God seemed like an unnecessary luxury—like owning an Arabian racehorse. What does one do with an Arabian racehorse? What does one do with God? For the religiously unaffiliated at this stage of life, the notion that religion might be a consolation comes with a mirror that stares them in the face and asks them whether their religious feeling after all these years is genuine or all sham, vanity, or fear.
Besides, what could religion that has embraced the world’s way say to them? The world says nothing exists except life and death, and anything dependent on life is happiness, and anything dependent on death is the destruction of happiness. For the religiously unaffiliated, death signifies a dead end, a blind alley, something they can’t get around, but it is also very close. A religion that follows the world’s way prods them with familiar, malicious reminders of this fact.
Many religiously unaffiliated people at this stage take a mental leap to their own precious person. Some think their lives went as they should, while others think their lives made no sense, that they never did what they wanted, but only what was expected of them, or what was needed to get by. The latter imagine they could have done things differently, but then wonder what they could have done differently. Amid all the self-recrimination, they stop asking “Why must I die?” and start wondering “Why did I live?” The latter question has no real answer. The unaffiliated see that life was never about moving forward, as the world claimed, for people are as helpless as can be, and even if they live to a hundred, they have no more understanding of life than if they had died before they were born. The world does not have life figured out after all, the religiously unaffiliated conclude. Sadly, religion that has gone the way of the world, with its politics, social centers, bike groups, administrative offices, and superstitions, has little wisdom to add.
In their despair, people in belief limbo have not deserted religion so much as religion has deserted them. Religion has embraced the world’s way, and the world’s way is to fix things. During all the decades of a person’s life, religion tries to fix some problem—only it can’t fix the problem, or its methods are suspect, or it becomes part of a larger problem in the process. Trying to fix the problem does little more than reinforce people’s belief that their problems are fixable, and worthy of being fixed, and that whatever fails to fix them is not worth its salt. The path to belief limbo is clear.
Religion does not exist to fix problems. Many problems can’t be fixed; when they can, secular institutions often do a better job of it. Religion exists to put problems in perspective by giving people a state of mind that endows events with their own quality. We all have the right to examine our own lot, but religion tells people that when doing so, the most important thing is the source of illumination within. Religion is not a solution to anything; it is a person’s life. For those in belief limbo, religion is not yet their life; it often fails as a solution; its definition is murky; its purpose is confusing; its value is questionable; and its methods strain the imagination. Religion’s influence on people has waned as religion has diverged from its fundamental meaning and crystallized in worldly forms. Many people have stuck with religion despite this slow drift because of family tradition, popular custom, or the sheer force of inertia. The rise of the religiously unaffiliated suggests this phase is ending, and that religion can no longer count on these forces to compensate for its internal confusion.
Ronald W. Dworkin, MD, is a physician and social scientist who teaches in the George Washington University Honors Program.