Americans think of themselves as a highly religious nation. Some have taken to calling the US "the most religious nation on earth."
Yet not once in the past 40 years (or even in the past two months) has the Gallup poll found 50 percent of the population attending worship services in a given week.
Most attribute this discrepancy to the country's changing cultural landscape, in which growing mobility, decline in respect for authority, the challenges of science and secularization, and weakened social ties have spurred millions into a more personal search for meaning and spirituality outside the structures of organized religion. "Spiritual seekers" became the catchword for this burgeoning population.
Robert Fuller, professor of religious studies at Bradley University, in Peoria, Ill., gives shape and substance to this "unchurched America" in his highly informative new book, "Spiritual But Not Religious." Some 20 percent of Americans now fit into this category, he says.
Yet in exploring the various streams of thought and alternative practices that they pursue, Fuller also shows that this is not just a recent phenomenon, but one with roots in Colonial America and readily traceable developments throughout US history. (It might surprise many, for example, that at the time of the Revolutionary War, only 15 percent of early Americans belonged to any church.)
Fuller aims to demonstrate that today's alternative spirituality is the outgrowth of long-standing traditions, and that many of those who practice it exhibit as great a spiritual maturity as those of "conventional" faith. He also argues that "unchurched spirituality is gradually reshaping the personal faith of many who belong to mainstream religious organizations."
To define a spiritual orientation to life, he opts for psychologist William James's definition: "attitudes, ideas, lifestyles, and specific practices based upon a conviction (1) that the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance, and (2) that union or harmonious relation with this 'spiritual more' is our true end."
An idea or practice is spiritual, Fuller adds, "when it reveals our personal desire to establish a felt-relationship with the deepest meanings or powers governing life."
Fuller's analysis surveys a mélange of beliefs and practices, from various forms of metaphysics to occult practices, the influence of Eastern religions, the paranormal, holistic medicine, and spiritual psychology.
Taking a chronological approach to the various threads, Fuller begins with the influences of Enlightenment rationality on the Founding Fathers, some of whom were deists rather than theists, and the development and widespread influence of Freemasonry.
He moves on to the "great metaphysical awakening" of the 19th century, including the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists, mesmerism, spiritualism, and New Thought, or mind cure, which he sees as having become "a major force in modern spiritual life."
Fuller makes the mistake of stating that Mary Baker Eddy [founder of this newspaper] "converted [Phineas] Quimby's teachings into the cardinal doctrines of her Church of Christ, Scientist," which her writings and recent biographies disprove. Stating that Eddy more properly belongs in a study of institutional religion, he makes no further mention of her influence on metaphysical movements of the day.
The book describes the introduction of theosophy and other esoteric beliefs into American life; the development of trance channeling and paranormal practices; and a range of New Age philosophies.
While seekers rarely describe themselves as New Age, he says, they tend to agree with three basic traits: (1) that religion, to be viable, must draw from science, modern psychology, and the best insights of world religions; (2) it must have practical applications to everyday life; (3) it must offer experiential spirituality, not lifeless rituals.
Many have left traditional churches, he adds, because they sought a means of melding science and religion, rejected the church's sexism or authoritarianism, or found more inspiration and metaphysical excitement in spiritual exploration and discovery.
They reject the Calvinist doctrine of human sinfulness and focus on fulfilling the needs of this life, rather than emphasizing concern for the afterlife. "Healing, growth, and development are proclaimed as the goals of spiritual living, not humility and self-abnegation," he says.
Many of these philosophies, in pointing to the presence of God within all living things, he adds, are "for the most part pantheistic."
Given the immense range and diversity of the beliefs and practices surveyed, some of these generalizations seem too broad. Fuller's book, however, is a valuable guide for those eager to understand the origins and characteristics of "unchurched spirituality."
Jane Lampman writes about religion and ethics for the Monitor.