Thirty-four million Americans have given up on organized religion, according to the most recent American Religious Identification Survey. Yet for many of these dropouts -- from churches, synagogues, temples and so on -- spirituality is still a vital part of their lives.
How else would you explain the phenomenal success of Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now, Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love (soon a major motion picture), or the writings of the Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra, and others like them? Just because people are fed up with organized religion doesn't mean their appetite for spiritual things has been swallowed up, too.
I know because I was one of these millions who dropped out of active involvement in organized religion. But unlike the majority of the other 33,999,999 dropouts, I was a religious leader when I did.
I grew up in the church, the son of a Southern Baptist minister. When I graduated from college, I went to seminary, and after several years of study, I began my career as a professional minister. It wasn't long, however, before I discovered that the church was more lost than the world it was trying to save.
Go into many churches today, and instead of finding an institution interested in saving the world, what you may find is an institution vastly more interested in saving itself. For example, people go to church to find God. Instead of finding God, however, followers are often saddled with a catalogue of "do's" and "don'ts" as onerous as the US tax code. They are told what to think, how to believe, as well as how they're supposed to live.
In many places, the church is still the most segregated place in America. Where I grew up, some 40 or so years ago, many of my neighbors attended the Baptist church my father served. That is, if they were white Baptists; the black Baptists had a church of their own. Or they attended one of the other three mostly-segregated churches that occupied one of the four corners of Main Street. Today, however, your neighbor is just as likely to be black as white, or Muslim as Christian. Maybe people are leaving the church because they'd prefer to live in the real world -- the desegregated one.
Then, there are those church leaders who seem obsessed with having the biggest church, the largest crowds and the most expensive campuses. While 40 million people died of starvation in the last decade, churches spent $10 billion on campuses.
Perhaps some churchgoers departed because they'd rather their charity actually make a difference in the world.
If you went to church looking for relief from the stress and burdens of living, you might have found more of the same, only dressed as beliefs and dogmas, rules and expectations Then, there's the debating, disagreement, and division that goes on between churches, as well as between people in the same church. I call it the "We're right! You're Wrong!" syndrome: each group insisting that their beliefs are right, which by implication means that everyone else's beliefs are wrong. "We're in; you're out!" "We're the chosen ones; you're not!" Maybe those who came looking for some sanity in life are leaving the church to preserve what little remains.
What about the seemingly endless clergy scandals? It may be several years yet before we know the full impact of this demonic debacle. I suspect that scores of people are just plain fed up with an institution that would "condemn gays and lesbians for coming out of their closets," as someone characterized it, "while hiding clergy pedophiles in its own."
Some 15 or so years ago I, like millions of others, dropped out of active involvement in the church. Soon thereafter, I began wondering where to go to find God. For a few years, I went nowhere. I just wandered around in a kind of spiritual wilderness. Then, one Sunday afternoon, completely unexpectedly as well as outside the church, I had a deeply profound spiritual awakening. I describe it in my book, The Enoch Factor.
Among the many realizations to which I awakened was this: "You don't have to go to church to know God." For reasons too obvious to mention, this isn't the kind of message the church, or any religion, wants spread around. But it's true nonetheless. There is no religion, not even the Christian religion, holding the title deed to God. God's grace is not limited to a select few. The moment any religion believes it is, you can be sure that religion knows nothing of God.
If there is anything Jesus, and the Buddha, made abundantly clear it is that the wind blows where it will. You can hear it, see its effects, and feel its power, but you can never contain it. In other words, the moment I stopped trying to find God, God found me. I love the way Deepak Chopra once framed it: "God is not difficult to find; God is impossible to ignore."
Even the title to this article, "Finding God After Religion," seems to imply that there's something you must "do" to know God. But the real truth is this: there is nothing you need to do to know God. You know God already. The mistake that virtually all religions make, including Christianity, is to confuse beliefs for faith and, as a consequence, condition people to think that there are things that they must do, duties that they must perform, etc., for God to be pleased and her presence to be known.
Finding God after religion? Remember the following: In Eastern thought, there's something called "the law of least effort," or "do less and accomplish more." If you will give up the "doing" and, instead, just enjoy "being," I think you'll make a great discovery. The psalmist said, "Be still and know ... " In my own experience, I have found that when I'm present (and that's my spiritual practice), I'm immediately in Presence, the real and sacred sanctuary of God.
What more would you want? What more would religion ever give you?