Here in the 21st century, individual spirituality is trending, while organized religion is fading. What’s the difference?
Organized religion is a traditional system where primary responsibility is vested in God and salvation is linked to God’s representative(s). Spirituality, on the other hand, is individual, absent the middleman, and belief based dogma is replaced by individualized spiritual practice.
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The growing appeal of taking charge of your spiritual life has not escaped the notice of marketing gurus. They used to say, “sex sells.” Increasingly, the sales experts are also demonstrating that “spirituality sells.”
“What do sex and spirituality have in common? They are currently the top two marketing models for promoting products as varied as chocolate, athletic clothes and cars. Perhaps it’s due to the extensive use of sex in advertising, but recently, spirituality has gained momentum and become advertiser’s number one tool to attract and sell. This emerging phenomenon in advertising culture even comes with new branding name: they call it metrospirituality.” 2
You have to laugh. People find a way to make money from anything… even God! Actually, this is not a new trend. Organized religion has always been a big business. Churches encourage, some would say demand, tithing. That 10% adds up. But what’s happening in the 21st century is different. Now, the appeal of spirituality is being leveraged to sell products and services. God is trending.
It’s impossible to miss that there’s a new spirituality permeating western life. Yoga and meditation have gone mainstream. Silent retreats are gaining in popularity. The idea of “mindfulness”—whether it refers to a state of mind or a specific practice—has entered common language. Whether you measure market penetration in dollars or stories, spirituality—as opposed to organized religion—has become a fundamental aspect of everyday life for millions of us.
“It has become common for people to say, “I am spiritual, but not religious” as a way of identifying their approach to the divine. More and more we hear people referring to their “spiritual practice.” 3
Think back a few years. How many people talked about their spiritual practice at the turn of the century? Back then, it was an oddity. Today, millions of people would no more miss a morning meditation than they would neglect brushing their teeth. A personal spiritual practice of some kind has become an essential component in everyday living for many and the number of adherents are increasing every day.
What’s the result? First, a deepening experience of the divine, by whatever name and however conceived. Secondly, this phenomenon is enhancing lives in practical ways: improving relationships, reducing stress, expanding consciousness in ways that surface innovative solutions to the big problems.
But what about God? Where does He or She fit into this equation?
It’s not cynical to question the value of spiritual practices that only serve the individual. If it’s merely about being healthier and happier, then what some herald as signs of spiritual awakening may be little more than narcissism on steroids.
What makes the difference is found in the last few words of our opening quote. “… we lose the option of saying ‘It’s not my fault.’” Ah, so it’s about personal responsibility. If organized religion was about obedience, individualized spirituality is about responsibility. Absent the concept of a God to worship who will ultimately determine my “fate,” it becomes paramount that I account for my own life attitudes, choices, and behaviors, moment by moment. It’s not just about me, it’s about my contribution of value beyond myself.
Rather than saying, “It’s my fault,” which places blame, we might say, “It’s up to me.” None of us can be responsible for what others do but we can inspire them. Our behavior can provide an example of something uplifting (or discouraging or thoroughly unimpressive). What’ll it be?
As we consider the differences between organized religion and individual spirituality, we might do well to remember the simplest truth: how we live 24/7 makes a difference in the world. And that turns out to be the real spiritual practice.
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