Has God, like Elvis, left the Building?

Via D. Patrick Miller
on Jul 17, 2011
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Drawing: William Blake

At some point in modern times (and yes, I suspect the ever suspect Sixties), Americans started losing their grip on the masculine, white-bearded, sometimes nice, sometimes nasty God of old-time religion, and started entertaining other cosmic possibilities.

An early signal of this sea change was philosopher Jacob Needleman’s classic 1970 book, The New Religions, that first suggested that the Judeo-Christian establishment was beginning to face some upstart competitors.

Then in 1988, a little-noticed, but hugely significant poll was conducted by Better Homes and Gardens magazine on “Religion, Spirituality, and the American Family.” Hugely significant because BH&G was decidedly not a voice of the counterculture, but even more so because its survey drew a whopping 80,000 responses (far outstripping most public opinion polls) and came up with these findings:

“Some results suggest that respondents’ spirituality is strongest on a personal level. The largest group (62%) say that in recent years they have begun or intensified personal spiritual study and activities (compared to 23% who say they have become closer to a religious organization). 68% say that when faced with a spiritual dilemma, prayer/meditation guides them most (compared to 14% who say the clergy guides them most during such times)….”

Photo: Bruce

Flash forward to 2006, when a Gallup Poll commissioned by the Spiritual Enterprise Institute found that the proportion of Americans claiming to be “spiritual, but not religious” had risen from 30% to 40% just since 1999. These days, of course, “spiritual, but not religious” has become a buzzphrase, having entered the popular parlance on matchmaking sites, gained its own Wikipedia entry, and spawned a website.

But our singular, superannuated Heavenly Patriarch may finally be shown the cosmic door by today’s young folks. In the spring of 2010, a truly startling survey was released by Lifeway Christian Resources, a research and marketing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (again, not exactly a bunch of zenned-out progressives). Lifeway’s research suggested that 72% of the Millennial generation — people now in their 20’s — identify themselves as “more spiritual than religious.” About a third of this population still attends church — but for how long? As Lifeway President Thom Rainer has said, the continuance of this trend may mean that, “the Millennial generation will see churches closing as quickly as GM dealerships.”

There’s some good news and some vague news in this shift of public sentiment. That is, we all know what “religious” means:

  1. believing in God (our particular religion’s God, that is);
  2. regularly going to our church, temple, or mosque (or saying we do);
  3. tithing (or sending a tear-spattered check to our favorite hortatory televangelist);
  4. following (or pretending to follow) the commandments and dictates of our religion;
  5. presuming that our religion is better than all those other religions, and so on.

But “spiritual” can mean pretty much anything: from spending years following a focused contemplative discipline, to a few minutes spent trying to sit in full lotus and then deciding that our soul really needs a banana split (just like it did last time). Between the soul-crushing dictates of that old-time religion and the self-indulgent temptations of what is loosely called “spirituality” there lies a huge, ambiguous territory.

For better or worse, it looks like a rapidly increasing crowd of Americans is trekking forth into that territory without that old familiar, monotheistic God at their side (albeit with a whole host of cooler, feminine deities, angel guides, tree spirits, channeled entities, and Big Mind).

Photo: amloyd77

Here’s the zinger, though: this spiritual peregrination may not be so much a new-fangled fad as a resumption of the real American religious tradition. Check out Robert C. Fuller’s study Spiritual But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America and Mitch Horowitz’s Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation and you’ll get the distinct impression that “going rogue” with your own spirituality is as innately and distinctly American as flipping off the British monarchy. In fact, many of the original settlers in the New World were the religious radicals of their time, and their spiritual legacy is more fairly claimed by the various expressions of “SBNR” than by contemporary mainstream religion.

Like a lot of folks, I’ve ridden all the way around on the religion and spirituality carousel — but I’ll reveal all that in the next edition of Sense & Spirituality: “Sick of Religion, Cured by Spirituality.”


About D. Patrick Miller

D. Patrick Miller has been a seeker and researcher of spiritual wisdom for over two decades. He is the founder of Fearless Books and the author of a dozen books and over 100 magazine and online articles for such periodicals as Yoga Journal, The Sun, Columbia Journalism Review and San Francisco Chronicle. His research spans a wide variety of subjects, including A Course in Miracles, the Enneagram typology of personality, the I Ching, Jungian psychology, yoga, shamanism, cultism, spirituality in the workplace, psychic phenomena, altered states of consciousness, and advanced human capacities. He is the author of THE FORGIVENESS BOOK: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve (Hampton Roads, 2017), UNDERSTANDING A COURSE IN MIRACLES, and LIVING WITH MIRACLES: A Common Sense Guide to A Course in Miracles. He also provides other writers with editing, independent publishing assistance, and professional representation through Fearless Literary Services. Connect through Facebook.


11 Responses to “Has God, like Elvis, left the Building?”

  1. Tom Pedersen says:

    If the statistics are accurate, and if what we see of the changing world is accurate, we cannot deny the results of the impact or the lack of it that authoritative, organized religions have had. Statistics speak for themselves and so does the rampant rise in crime, corruption as well as the EXCESSIVE use of the myriad of ways to escape daily life. The excessive importance and concentration on spectator oriented activities such as sports, gaming, drugs, music and sedentary activities such as computer setting is an indication that many individuals have fallen into a state of apathy regarding what they see happening around them. Willing participation in living should be a statistic as it accurately depicts the emotional mind state of the living. Withdrawing to individualistic activities is not a healthy indicator. It is a substitute for something and if it not in one's self respect, then what?

  2. Tom Pedersen says:

    No matter what knowledge is being offered, whether it be a religion or how to live a better life, it must COMMUNICATE before it can be utilized by intended recipient. Have the religions of the world held so steadfastly to their own INTERPRETATIONS of their writings that they fail to see whether they communicate? Has the importance of the religion become more important than the individuals it tries to educate? Is it the content or is it the failure to successfully communicate it that has caused such a dissension? How many organized religions are there and which ones do not say that theirs is "the word"? Is righteousness now a substitute for "being right" no matter the consequence? We have religions of the West who are barely 300 years old having a very different view to other religions of the world being thousands of years old. From the perspective of the individual, which one is right? How much time must an individual invest in his accurate understanding, properly communicated concepts of all religions before he can determine this for himself. As I see it, the aware individual who can see the world's changing for the worse as an indication of the beliefs that individuals creating these changes must be guided by, are deciding not to follow that path. Such individuals are finding more truth for them within their own spiritual communion than in the words of the authoritarian, self-important organized religions. Such arrogance exists within the organized religious believers, that to say something like this is to say I am a a disbeliever, a heretic or even a devil worshiper who has forsaken God.

  3. Tom Pedersen says:

    It is this very mechanism of self-righteous protection which substitutes for live present time observation, duplication, distinction and differentiation that is assumed to define sanity, that most individuals say NOTHING. They simply walk away without any attempt to voice why.
    Within the last 20 years, we have begun to see the merging of the scientific studies focused on the very makeup physical matter begin to shine new light within a philosophical and religious view.
    When I ask a friend what he thinks is meant by "God made man in his own image", more accurately "Genesis 1:27" it is truly amazing the widely and vastly different answers I have gotten. If this one passage alone has so many different understandings within individuals, what is really meant, what is communicated and what is understood of the original passage? This one passage alone, understood on a certain way WILL completely color how almost any other part of scripture is taken. How does an individual then know when he has the understanding intended by his Creator?

  4. Tom Pedersen says:

    Yes, I am one of those who is now in the camp called "Spiritual But Not Religious" due to the factors expressed above.
    My personal communion and currently held belief of "….in his image", is as follows: I am God and He is me in the purest form of Spirit, I am IN his image. From that view, I see Christ as the example of the image of God, given to us as an example of what each one of us that was created in his image, can BE. Having free will, we have made choices that have interjected us into TIME and SPACE which the original "image" of God is NOT. Through a history of my own choices, I have come to DESIRE, which means I an not already that which I desire. H have made the choice "To Know" such as in the scriptures about "The Tree of Knowledge". I have come to needing "to know" where as the original "image" of God KNOWS.
    I am giving these examples to show how completely different I understand the Christian religious scriptures to mean from the one single concept I hold regarding what is meant by "in his image" as in "Genesis 1:27". If you just Google the quoted phrase "god made man in his own image", you will see here ~ http://bible.cc/genesis/1-27.htm ~ 16 different wordings from various Bible publications, without any interpretations or defining of the words at all! How in the world can such an incredible communication failure not be recognized!

  5. Tom Pedersen says:

    We have a world outside our doors as proof that our very source of existence is not being communicated much less being understood in almost any form.
    I can certainly understand why few are even willing to talk about this subject or offer any opinions or expression of their currently held beliefs! You'll surely hear screams from the balcony back row, no matter what you say! The importance of many individuals beliefs, "being right" is so charged, so wrought with mental energy, that to even view it is asking for WRATH! So how do we compare notes, how do we access insights of one another and that of Stigmata if it is so controlled and considered blasphemy by many organized religious followers?
    No, God has not left the building, for he is it and everywhere else. He can't leave as there is nothing ELSE to go to. The same goes for us no matter what our minds may be reflecting differently.

  6. Tom — Thanks for your remarks. While I'd agree that God, as a universal creative intelligence, is everywhere and thus inescapable, the "God" that has been so problematic throughout human history is one made in OUR image… that is, we project all our flaws, foibles, and magic thinking onto God. That's why I think we have to let go of "beliefs" about God, because they mostly reflect our opinions of ourselves. At the same time, the point of any true spiritual discipline is to enable us to demonstrate the qualities of a truly greater God, or creative intelligence…. Jacob Needleman puts it well in his latest book, "What is God?": "It is only in and through people, inwardly developed men and women, that God can exist and act in the world of man on earth. Bluntly speaking, the proof for the existence of God is the existence of people who are inhabited by and who manifest God…. God needs not just man, but awakened man, in order to act as God in the human world. Without this conscious energy on the earth it may not be possible for divine justice, mercy, or compassion to enter the lives of human beings."

  7. Jeremiah Collins says:

    I don't think that bad mouthing religions or the patrons is a productive way to COMMUNICATE what the intention of this article seems to be. I've never read anything else by Miller, so I cannot judge by this single, but it seems facetious. Talent is given by God and the power in its potential is the same. Free will allows for the miss use of this power, not serving the source but the self. How forgiving, that this miss understanding has been tolerated for so long and how much longer before our free will "debt" is paid? play time is over- all the kids go to sleep- and the "elders" clean up the mess once and FOR ALL(God).

  8. Louise Brooks says:

    With all the talking of God using pronouns such as HE and HIS in the above posts, I dare say none of the posters or author of the blog himself have "let go" of the old image of god just yet.

  9. James Baldwin wrote, “if a concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him.” I suspect that many of those choosing "spirituality" over "religion" have decided that the Gods of organized religion are more likely to make them smaller, less free, and more judgmental.

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