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America the Mystical: Spacious Minds

When contemplating the history of religion in America from a certain perspective (say, the perspective of Bill Maher, Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens) it would be easy to crack up over its absurdities, sneer at its defiance of logic and science, or fume over its hypocrisies and authoritarian dangers. All true enough, sadly. But there is another strain of American spirituality, one that is more attuned to the enlightened thinking of the Founders and the freedom we celebrate on Independence Day.

Fundamentalists, Christian supremacists and biblical literalists have made so much noise in the past few decades that they would appear to be in the ascendancy. In truth, quieter, subtler and more pervasive forces have given the nation a religious makeover. If you look at surveys from reputable pollsters like Gallup and Pew, you can see it gathering strength over time, especially since the baby boomer generation came of age and started searching for meaning outside the borders of both conventional religion and conventional secularism. Those studies point to these trends:

  • Independence: To a greater extent than ever, people make their own choices and think of spirituality in individual terms rather than as a matter of membership in a particular organization or tradition.
  • Direct experience: Inner spiritual awareness and personal transformation have become more important; adherence to a doctrinal belief system has become less appealing.
  • Pluralism: Respect for traditions other than one's own has never been higher. Belief that one's own religion is the best one for everybody has never been lower.
  • Fluidity: Eclectic seeking and spiritual experimentation has risen; exclusivity has declined.
  • Intellectual freedom: Fewer and fewer people read scripture as literal truth or believe that religious dogma trumps the findings of science and history.
  • Oneness: The separation of human and divine, or of the individual and the cosmic, is increasingly rejected in favor of an incontrovertible connectedness.
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From The Urantia Book:

100:1.7 Religion cannot be bestowed, received, loaned, learned, or lost. It is a personal experience which grows proportionally to the growing quest for final values. Cosmic growth thus attends on the accumulation of meanings and the ever-expanding elevation of values. But nobility itself is always an unconscious growth.

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