The practice of being spiritual is not exactly a precise science, is it? Spirituality dwells in the realm of mystery, metaphor and inner growth which are all so hard to measure. I equate it to watching the weather channel. If you use language that is ambiguous enough and statistics that are pliable enough, you can prove anything. The weather channel says there is an 80% chance of rain. Great. They can’t lose. If it rains, it’s the 80% chance. If it doesn’t rain, it’s the 20%.
Did you know that 42.7% of all statistics are made up on the spot?
I read a great example of this during the week. Brad Pitt came out as an atheist. Sort of. He was asked if he believed in God. He said he was 20% atheist and 80% agnostic. That doesn’t leave much room for his Southern Baptist upbringing. And it answers the age old question- Yes, you can be an atheist and be extremely hot. I’m sorry- You can be an atheist and be an extremely moral person.
Statistics about religious affiliation and belief in God have been intriguing over the last couple of years. Only 73% of church going Protestants are absolutely certain that a personal God exists. That means that 27% of Protestants are agnostic. At least I think it does. But I’m agnostic about what the statistics mean.
At the same time, 72% of US adults who never go to church do believe in God. Why don’t they go to church? It has nothing to do with God. It has to do with the people who work for God. 72% of them don’t go to church because the church is full of hypocrites. 44% say that Christians “get on their nerves.” view article
Here is my favorite statistic: 21% of atheists say that they believe in God. 12% of atheists believe in heaven and 10% pray at least once a week. Over 50% of agnostics say they believe in God.
In the same study, 75% of American Buddhists say they believe in God. That is really surprising considering that Buddhism is a non-theistic religion. view article
Drilling down the results one step further, respondents were allowed to choose between a personal God and an impersonal force. Atheists and Buddhists were more likely to opt for an impersonal force. So maybe there is something in that distinction. Today I want to explore what it means to believe in God, and how it relates to spirituality.
Belief in God and Religion?
Clearly organized religion (or “organized superstition” as Bill Maher calls it) does not have a monopoly on God. Maybe more to the point, Christianity does not have a monopoly on God. In the same study, 61% say the Christian God is “no different from the gods or spiritual beings depicted by world religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.” This is exciting, as it indicates a trend towards a more open and accepting theology.
Enough statistics. Lets dig into the language and the trends a little.
Spiritual interest includes but is much larger than religious practice. Or to put that another way, practicing religion is one valid way of being spiritual, if we define spirituality as life’s journey of growth, connections and meaning.
I suspect the problem with the surveys is that they are missing a box for people to check. Asking people whether they believe in God or not doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. I want to explore this point further.
One of the features that I think many modern people share in common is the trend away from a second hand God. No More Second Hand God
No More Second Hand God is the title of a book by Buckminster Fuller, 20th century inventor and visionary. Bucky, as he was known, was SBNR (Spiritual but not Religious) in the 1940s. He had no interest in religious doctrines such as the afterlife. There is too much to be done and experienced in this life. But he did speak about God. God for Bucky was a verb and not a noun. God was the evolutionary process, the unity of the universe. He took seriously his own role as part of this universal process.
He had a radical sense of activism that grew out of his own life experience. When he was 32, his life was hopeless. He was unemployed and bankrupt. His first born had died, he was trying to support his family, and he was drinking heavily. He contemplated suicide. In the moment of contemplating suicide, as he stood at the edge of Lake Michigan, something shifted in him. He was convicted that his life was not his own. It belonged to the universe. He decided to work on behalf of all humanity.
He tirelessly practiced God as a verb. He sought ways of doing more with less. He pioneered ground breaking structures, like pre-fabricated dwellings and streamlined cars. During WW2 his geodesic dome was widely praised as a solution to world housing shortages. Many of his ideas would now be out of date. However for the time, he was a leader in ecological design.
Bucky was a pioneer of the type of experience of God that translates into practical compassion that many people in and out of the church today aspire to; where God is a personal experience and not a being in the sky, and this experience is direct and first hand. One story stands out for me in relation to Bucky and a first hand experience of God as a verb. Bucky was great mates with the American poet, E.E. Cummings. The two of them would awaken early when they were together and greet the rising sun. They would face east, and feel the quiet solitude and rhythms of nature. After the colors of the sky began to emerge, Bucky would raise both arms to the sky and welcome the morning with the words, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
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