Sam Radford

January 21, 2022

The end of religious obligation

I read ‘Christianity After Religion’ by Diana Butler Bass this week. Written in 2012, it’s a fascinating look at the state of Christianity, and an exploration of what it might take if it is to have any ongoing relevance to the future.

This paragraph captures perfectly the scale of the challenge facing Christianity, and indeed religion in general:

In a world of choice, obligatory religions are not faring well. How can a religion actually obligate anyone to come? What is a church to do? Threaten people with the eternal torments of hell? Only 59 percent of Americans actually believe in hell, a number down significantly in the last decade, and even fewer think either they or their neighbors will go there. Damnation is a much less powerful motivator than in ages past. Refuse people the Mass? In that case, they will just become Episcopalian, Methodist, or Lutheran. Or maybe they will not go to church as all—as roughly 60 percent of Catholics no longer do. Refuse to baptize their children? No worries. Someone else will. Or maybe they just won’t bother.

For many younger people, I get the sense that religion is seen as little more than a quaint relic from the past (that they maybe had to learn about in school). There’s no relevance to it for their daily lives. 

And yet, when it comes to spirituality, many of these same people recognise that this does have an important role to play. 

The book does a wonderful job of scrutinising this difference. We’ve all heard the cliche, ‘I’m spiritual but not religious,’ but it’s helpful to consider that on a deeper level. 

What follows is how I’d summarise what I’ve taken away from reading the book...

Religion lost touch with the spiritual dimension to faith. It got caught up in obligation, beliefs, authority, control, doctrine, and such like. And though obligation kept people around for a while, it’s not a viable long-term solution. Hence people have been leaving the church in droves for several decades now. 

Alongside that abandoning of religion though, people have not stopped embracing spiritual practices. The spiritual need never went away; people simply stopped looking to religion for that need to be met—because it was failing to deliver.

Christianity made belief the be all and end all. ‘You believe what we tell you to believe, or you’re an outsider.’ But when you put belief first, you are no longer a safe place to belong. And when that’s coupled with no longer feeling a sense of obligation, people move on.

If Christianity, and religion in general, is to have a place in the future, it’ll be because it starts providing a place to belong again. A safe place to learn and discover spiritual practices that can empower and sustain people. 

The church has a rich history to draw on when it comes to spiritual practices. It tragically ignored much of that while trying to be ‘relevant’ and/or making people subscribe to its authority and doctrines. 

This doesn’t have to be the end though. It might look, serve, and function in ways that haven’t been seen before, but a religion that’s willing to adapt and learn and reorder around belonging and genuine spiritual practices and experiences might find people believing again.

—Sam

Got some thoughts on this? I’d love to hear from you—do hit reply or drop me a note.

@samradford | samradford.com