Spirituality beyond God: Catholics trust in karma and atheists in prayer

Younger generations believe less in a traditional deity but are more spiritual, a contradiction that can be explained by individualism, post-modernity and mental health concerns. They are not looking for religion, they are looking for themselves

A woman practicing meditation.Maria Korneeva (Getty Images)

Dances, recipes, jokes, beauty tricks—— and then a monastic routine sneaks in among the constant stream of adrenaline-fueled content on TikTok. ASMR — Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response — for the soul. “I’ve come to spend a few days with one of my best friends, who is a contemplative nun in a monastery in a small Euscaldun village,” says the voice of Isabel Sorribas Rivera as images show scenes from the Renaissance convent of the Holy Trinity in Bergara, Gipuzkoa in Spain’s Basque Country. “I’ve come to enjoy the calm and to slow down, a concept that is now on-trend, but which the nuns have been doing all their lives.”

Isabel Sorribas Rivera generally posts recipes on her TikTok channel, but a few weeks ago she decided to share her experience at the convent. There was nothing exotic about it. What she did was listen to readings, take walks in the countryside, feed the chickens, tend to the garden and listen to the nuns sing. But the video spoke to people and went viral. “All of a sudden, I had a million views in one day,” she tells EL PAÍS. “I guess it’s because we can all relate to the content, because we all lead such fast-paced lives and need a break.”

Sorribas, 31, is a content creator. She lives in the center of Madrid and is spiritual, but not religious, which is increasingly common. According to the secularism report of the Ferrer i Guàrdia Foundation, presented at the end of last March, there are close to 40% non-denominational people in Spain, a figure that rises to around 60% among under-38 year olds. The trend has accelerated with the pandemic. God is not in fashion. But many of the activities associated with religion are. They have simply been recycled in a successful rebranding exercise that has gone beyond the walls of the Church.

Aside from the dogmas and stories that serve as the theoretical basis of every religion, there is a practical, ritual aspect that has been refined over the centuries. It serves not only to save souls, but to calm them. It is linked to psychology and mental health. The distance between meditation and prayer is a question of a couple of epiphanies — the difference between the repetition of Catholic psalms, Buddhist mantras or mindfulness breathing a mere formality. “It’s about valuing the small things in life,” says Sorribas, who is not only a content creator but also a theologian. “Some people find God in them. I don’t, but I find myself. I find peace.”

Sorribas’s case, though extreme, illustrates a phenomenon that has gained weight among swathes of her contemporaries. She grew up in a family with just enough faith to celebrate weddings, baptisms and communions. When she reached adolescence, she was dogged by certain existential doubts and started to entertain religion. A lot. She entered a religious congregation and studied theology. And then she left, disillusioned with the ecclesiastical hierarchy and experiencing a crisis of faith. But, despite abandoning the Church, she still finds a certain peace in its rituals, which help her to disconnect from the stress of modern life. “I am very much a part of our society, of this capitalist model of work and production,” she explains. “We often eat breakfast for breakfast’s sake, and work automatically. We do things through inertia, because our attention is elsewhere. In the midst of all this, we need to stop, listen and connect with ourselves.”

The supermarket of religion

The 2021 Youth Report by the Ibero-American Youth Observatory pointed out that the number of young Catholics in Mexico, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia and Spain has fallen by almost 10% in just four years, in what they have come to call “the fourth wave of secularization.” But the most interesting thing is that, for the first time, questions about religion were combined with ones about spirituality, including concepts such as karma, reincarnation, prediction and energies. “And we could see that these issues affect Catholics too,” explains sociologist Juan María González-Anleo, the study’s author. “Religion has been used for a long time in Spain as a retaining wall for new spirituality. That wall has now fallen.”

This kind of spiritual promiscuity works two ways. Catholics rely on karma, while atheists find solace in prayer. “We’ve been seeing this phenomenon outside Spain since the 1980s,” explains the sociologist. “It was dubbed the supermarket of religion.” The concept is self-explanatory: it conceives of matters of the soul as something customizable. In an individualistic world of advanced consumerism, the faithful act like customers and put only the items that interest them in their shopping cart. “Therein lies the beginning of social spiritualization,” González-Anleo points out. “Fewer and fewer products from religion are entering the spiritual consumer’s cart and more and more that are not institutionalized are going in.”

The Church has been partly responsible for this trend. Its loss of prestige is closely linked to the anticlericalism that started in the 1970s. With the Church opposing abortion, feminism and LGBTQI+ rights, practicing religion has acquired political connotations that not all spiritual people feel comfortable with. “The phenomenon has been reversed,” notes González-Anleo. “Spiritual people have gone from being seen as freaks to being considered free people, the totem word in our society. They are not slaves of the materialistic culture. In other words: to say that you are spiritual, nowadays, is very cool.” The stigma has now attached itself to religion, with Church-goers considered lacking in the ability to think for themselves. Just as the priest was likened to a shepherd, the parishioners are now thought of as sheep.

“Being spiritual means being attracted to things that change us. Being religious is more about being attracted to what supports you,” explains psychotherapist Mark Vernon, author of the books How To Be an Agnostic and Spiritual Intelligence in Seven Steps. Vernon is a former Anglican minister. He left the ministry after three years and today believes that “churches have become surprisingly mundane.” Because of this, he explains, “people who continue to ask spiritual questions look for sources of knowledge and life in places that are less of this world.” Being spiritual is a crucial part of being human, says Vernon, who takes as his departure point Socrates, humanism and history in his bid to defend a spiritual atheism.

While there are figures like Vernon who preach atheistic spirituality as a form of activism, there are others who have ties to classical religions. Greg Epstein is the humanist chaplain and president of the chaplain body at Harvard. He is in charge of spiritually guiding the students of this prestigious American university and coordinating its 40 Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist chaplains. He is also an atheist and author of Good without God. Epstein is the best example of how this spiritual atheism can act as a link between congregations holding to different beliefs. Or to no beliefs at all.

“There is a growing number of people who no longer identify with any religious tradition, but who need to talk about what it means to be a good human being and live an ethical life,” Epstein said in his keynote address. It is, perhaps, a good summary of spiritual thinking. Maybe the old parables that served to explain the world 2,000 years ago are outdated. It may be that postmodern society has eroded the great, all-encompassing discourses; that the new generations do not see themselves reflected in a rigid and archaic hierarchy. But there is something in human nature that keeps pushing us to look at the stars and dream. To invent a name for them and a story bigger than our own. Telescopes and probes might have discovered long ago that the sky is an inhospitable place full of space junk, that Apollo is nothing more than an incandescent ball of hydrogen and helium. But human beings have not tired of looking for a meaning to all this — a way to connect. The new spiritualities are just another attempt. “At heart, they are very similar to classical religions,” Sorribas says. “They seek to unite man with the transcendental, to answer the eternal questions of who I am, where I come from and where I am going.”

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