On liberation from formal religion


I recently listened to an audiobook – The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God: Why New Atheism Grew Old and Secular Thinkers Are Considering Christianity Again -by Justin Brierley. Brierley thinks the present ebbing of Christianity in western cultures is about to change. That’s okay. He is an apologist, and this is his job. But this isn’t going to happen.

The book explores the decline of the kind of muscular atheism expressed by materialists, and it is true that a handful of intellectuals have discovered some value in traditional Christianity. Some have abandoned atheism for Christianity. There’s nothing remarkable about that. This has been going on for years. Changing camps goes both ways. People find what they need.

The title is somewhat misleading. Not all professions of atheism are hard core. So much is a reaction against Christianity in its intolerant dogmatic expression. For some it’s enough to just abandon the faith. For others there is a progressive rediscovery of some idea of the divine free from dogma and tradition.

There is a trend showing more people are saying they are not aligned to any religion. The category ‘spiritual but not religious’ has been growing steadily in recent decades. The Pew Research Centre has some interesting data from December 2023. This is US data. Overall, 70% of Americans say they are spiritual, including 22% who say they are spiritual but not religious. Around 28% say they have no religious affiliation (atheists, agnostics or ‘nothing in particular’).

Interestingly a Jan 2024 Pew report notes that 41% have become more spiritual, whereas 13% have become less so. But while 24% say they have become more religious, 33% say they have become less religious.

The trend seems clear, more people are becoming more spiritual but less religious. Brierley’s hopeful prognosis for Christianity seems far more optimistic than realistic.

Growing beyond formal religion

Pew notes that, “An overwhelming majority of U.S. adults (83%) say they believe that people have a soul or spirit in addition to their physical body. And 81% say there is something spiritual beyond the natural world, even if we cannot see it.”

The trend isn’t away from spiritual beliefs, only from the organisations and cultures which once held dominant sway over the community. This trend might include solo DIY spirituality, membership of groups and communities – everything from yoga classes to wiccan covens or occult orders. In essence, being spiritual has increasingly little or nothing to do with religious affiliation.

Over the past few months, I have been moved to get into books on alternative perspectives on our spiritual influences. The list isn’t exhaustive of what is available, only what I have read/listened to recently.

  • TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information by Erik Davis
  • The Sacred History: How Angels, Mystics and Higher Intelligence Made Our World by Jonathan Black
  • Encounters: Experiences with Nonhuman Intelligences: Explorations with UFOs, Dreams, Angels, AI and Other Dimensions by D. W. Pasulka
  • Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge: From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic by Simon Winchester
  • Modern Occultism: History, Theory, and Practice by Mitch Horowitz
  • Magisteria: The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion by Nicholas Spencer

The compelling takeaway for me was the reminder of just how strongly esoteric and occult thought has influenced western culture since the birth of the Renaissance, and especially since the 19th century.

The idea that Christianity has dominated the evolution of spiritual and moral values in western culture over the past 1700 years is deeply misleading. This is not to say Christianity has had no significant influence, but it does add a dimension on why Christianity’s influence has significantly declined in the past 150 years.

Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalismis a compelling account of how Christianity contributed the evolution of Western secular liberalism and the rise of individuality. In a way it is a description of how the faith made itself redundant. It had a use by date, which has come due for many of us.

Formal religious organisations have been losing their appeal in our contemporary times steadily. In part it is reliance on anachronistic content that is poorly attuned to our times. You can’t effectively communicate resolutions to contemporary issues by relying on 2,000-year-old stories. They can be a guide but not a solution. In part it is also the manifest moral failings by ordained representatives. Ordination has been proven to be no assurance of integrity – rendering the ceremony no more than an administrative performance to be randomly interpreted at an individual level. In essence an organisation saturated in the past, avoidant of contemporary knowledge, and unwilling to fully engage with current reality cannot survive, let alone thrive.

The issue isn’t the moral dimension. Religions have no ownership of morality, as biological and psychological research shows. They can shape it, but not always in accordance with contemporary expectations.

Religions create a social discourse that frames ethical and moral imperatives in that social dimension. Our biology and psychology trigger moral values independent of religions and their cultural and historic foundations. This is why there is a clash between ‘progressive’ values and religious values. Attempts to assert ownership of, or primacy over, moral values will fail without force to impose that ownership. That force has been countered by the emergence of more democratic, liberal, and inclusive values – especially in the past 60 years.

The role of formal religion was once central to a community’s survival. But that has changed as our communities have become larger, more complex, more diverse, and more concerned about meeting internal needs of harmony and inclusion. The idea that religions might thrive by resisting the forces of social evolution is absurd. This is why formal religions have become more aligned to ‘conservative’ values as our communities continue to evolve toward more tolerant and inclusive pluralism.


I quit Christianity when I was 6. I was obliged, under threat of physical chastisement, to attend Sunday school when I was 5. When I chastised my father for being unforgiving, I was hauled off to church, away from the influence of Jesus. I liked Jesus. He was a very nice man, way nicer than my father who was somewhat disturbed. But I wasn’t sent to Sunday school to learn to be like Jesus apparently. I was removed from the light of love to the darkness of spiritual anger and tribal drams. I loathed the church, and I loathed the unloving self-righteous people who infested it.

I couldn’t fully live out my quitting for another 4 years, after my parent split. And then it was total. I retained an affection for my Sunday school Jesus. I had nothing against him, and there was a lot to like. But I can’t imagine a 2024 Jesus being anything less than totally contemporary, speaking in terms anybody would fully understand. I imagine he would be fully familiar with current psychology, science, and philosophy.

I esteem the wisdom of the ages deeply. That is my bedrock upon which I have built my present search for spiritual insight. But that search is crafted from the best contemporary knowledge I can find. In what we call the humanities is an extraordinary wealth of knowledge and insight whose interpretation is energetically contested by materialists and the religious (dogmatists and open-minded inquirers) as well as the spiritual but not religious. Nothing is settled.

That contestation is the healthy way knowledge grows and individuals mature psychologically, intellectually, and spiritually. We all seek fulfilment of our own inner needs. But we must now understand that in the diversity of human experience conformity to dogma is no longer the way for all.

There is now no dominant authority of tradition or dogma – only the petty efforts of those who crave it for their shelter. They are a natural part of the diversity of inquirers. There is a larger, loose, and complex community of knowledge-seekers and truth-lovers contributing to an ever-evolving discourse. We can all find what we desire and/or need.

Who knows where things are going, and how they will evolve along the way. There is no doubt individuals will find what they seek, and the company of fellow travellers to celebrate and affirm what they value. But will we see future spiritual organisations exerting power over communities through dominating dogma and force? Maybe in some distant time.

In the meantime, we have plenty of dogma free inquiry and exploration to relish and celebrate.

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