According to recent surveys, Americans increasingly are describing themselves as unaffiliated with any particular religious tradition.

More than 16 percent of those questioned in the biggest of these surveys, the 2007 "U.S. Religious Landscape" report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, say they are unaffiliated:

--1.6 percent are atheists.

--2.4 percent are agnostic.

--6.3 percent are secular.

But nearly 6 percent consider themselves to be "religious."

What's more, the country has seen in recent decades an uptick in the number of practitioners of non-Western or nonmonotheistic religions.

The mystical form of Islam, Sufism, has thousands of American followers. The Baha'i Faith is attracting its share of adherents.

And immigrants from Southeast Asia and the Far East have brought Buddhism and Hinduism to the U.S., centuries-old traditions that have appealed to a number of Americans, many of whom grew up in traditional churches and synagogues.

What most of these people seem to have in common is a desire to acknowledge an invisible force, a need to search for meaning in an often mysterious world. While many Americans appear to reject institutional religions, they nevertheless remain interested in what might be called the "spiritual."

The Post and Courier asked five local thinkers to consider the nature of religion vs. spirituality and share their ideas with readers.

Real religion true connection to higher power

During my 30 years as a chaplain in the Navy and in civilian hospitals, I often heard people say (especially young adults), "Chaplain, I'm not religious, but I am spiritual." The prevalence of that statement increased over time. And the decline in church membership in the U.S. in recent years reinforces the idea that religion is becoming less popular and spirituality more so. What does this mean?

Religion has been, and continues to be, a very strong factor in the lives of many people. They derive great comfort and strength from their belief system and the relationships they develop with their fellow adherents with whom they congregate. The sense of community is often as important as the doctrinal system itself.

The several major versions of institutional religion in the world have been sources of much benefit to the common good for many centuries. And yet institutional religion has major weaknesses as well as strengths. Wars have been fought, people have been persecuted and put to death, practical forms of birth control have been denied to impoverished people, marginalized people have been discriminated against -- all in the name of religion.

Small wonder that religion has lost its appeal to many people. The pronouncements and preachings of religious institutions are frequently in stark contrast to their practices. The word "hypocritical" comes quickly to the tongues of people expressing disenchantment with religion.

Does that mean then that we should abandon religion in favor of spirituality? Hardly! In my view, the people who eschew religion in favor of "spirituality" are often just not ready to make any serious connection with a Being or Presence beyond themselves.

There are many people who have found certain forms of spirituality to be a life-changing experience. Notably are the millions of people who, since the 1930s, have discovered a very concentrated and effective way of connecting with a power beyond themselves through a 12-step program. Originally created by Alcoholics Anonymous, there are now programs for people committing themselves to a lifelong spiritual program for recovering from various addictions: Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, etc. Spirituality is the key to each of those programs, but many recovering addicts have a strong connection with a religious body as well.

In essence, we need to distinguish between the man-made trappings of religion, which can obscure our contact with the Divine, and real religion. Likewise, we need to be careful that our spirituality is not a mere exercise in individualism, but is a true connection with a power beyond ourselves. When both of these cautions are observed, religion and spirituality can be essentially one.

The Rev. Bruce Jayne is a former Navy and hospital chaplain, and a member of Circular Congregational Church.

Worldview often defines individual's spirituality

One of the great challenges in the study of world religions is the problem of terminology and basic concepts. It is far easier to define fundamental concepts within a single tradition, such as "religion" as defined within Christianity, as compared with defining that concept across multiple traditions.

The term "religion" in its original Roman context (Latin religio) meant "sacred observance" and in this sense, the early concept of religion is tied to ritual and practices, not simply beliefs. An additional meaning of the term also implies "piety" or "devotion" and in the debate between Protestant and Catholic traditions, religion can, for example, emphasize inner faith as distinct from engagement in sacramental rites.

In a more experiential sense, scholars have designated "religion" as an "encounter with the sacred or the numinous" (Rudolph Otto) or as a "belief in an unseen order in which our supreme good lies in adjusting our lives to that good" (William James), and finally, Paul Tillich's well-known definition that religion is "our ultimate concern."

Usually a person's definition of religion is inseparable from a specific, often shared, worldview -- an entire set of values, actions, practices and beliefs that make up a religious tradition, be it Buddhist, Christian, Muslim or Native American. From the perspective of comparative religions, each tradition defines "religion" in terms of a socially shared worldview and a long and complex history of debate, development and historical encounters with other traditions.

Spirituality, in the traditional sense, has tended to refer to the inner life of the practitioner of a religious tradition with emphasis on a deeper sense of participation in core values that often lead to a deepening personal development. To use an analogy, that of an almond, the shell is like the outer, shared social beliefs and practices held in common by the community, the nut (or seed) is like the inner life of devotion where religion comes fully to life and guides the individual, and the oil of the nut is the essence that represents the deep spirituality of the tradition.

In a contemporary sense, "spirituality" has acquired new meanings based on the intersection and encounter between and among world religious traditions. Such dialogue has been in process now for more than a hundred years and, in recent times, has produced a sense of "spirituality" which has tended to distance itself from any one tradition and to refer to a less institutional, less structured approach with emphasis on personal growth. In this sense, spirituality has become disassociated from any particular tradition and has been strongly influenced by social reform movements such as feminism, ecology, transpersonal psychology and even theory in quantum physics and biological sciences.

In brief, religion and spirituality are terms whose meanings are contextual, culturally located and based in the worldview and concerns of the defining individual.

Lee Irwin is chairman of the department of religious studies at the College of Charleston.

Seek the truth, and put all trust in God's love

Rapidly and voluminously, Americans are casting off or rejecting Christianity for spirituality. I'd categorize them in at least four groups.

Some (a sickeningly large number) have been burned or abused -- spiritually, emotionally, sexually, by clergy. Where this is the case, I would say, "May the Lord have mercy!" And not on those who are leaving Christianity for nebulous spirituality, but rather on us who have scandalized (or worse) these tender souls. While the Christian gospel clearly compels us to love our enemy and to forgive all, it is often emotionally impossible to do so for numbers of abused faithful, whose wounds are so profound and deep, and were inflicted by the very ones who were set apart to care for this flock. Those ordained to be physicians of souls turned out to be the butchers or murderers of them -- rabid wolves in shepherd's clothing.

Others have become "spiritual but not religious" by the intentional teaching of their own post-liberal mainline churches. The trend there is to teach that there are many ways to God; that "my way" is not necessarily "your way," and that each of us is "wired" differently to see God from a different perspective. In these cases, without letting the faithful too off the hook for their own lack of discernment, I'd say, "May the Lord have mercy on their teachers," who have abandoned Christianity for a feel-good religion that takes very little account of what Christians have always believed to be God's very own self-revelation in the person and teachings of Jesus Christ, and the resultant and requisite life filled beginning to end with changing and being changed to conform to the likeness of God.

A third group must take responsibility for its own ego-centrism, since, to be honest, these folks -- while seeking God -- actually worship themselves. The challenges inherent in dealing with an incarnate God, most especially the change of mind and heart necessary to deny oneself and follow anyone, are too misunderstood for them to embrace or are simply unpalatable. In this case, it is the truly American melting-pot religion: iPod spirituality whereby we choose what we like to believe from an open library and apply it in ways that are most convenient to our personal schedules, whims and the tides of our emotions. Who is god here?

Finally, there is a group of spiritual but not religious people who have fallen prey to this fad in the midst of a profound and legitimate pursuit of truth and life, and have simply found the market-driven tactics of well-funded religious groups to be off-putting. These are legitimately skeptical of religion for reasons of the first group -- they don't want to be abused (or fleeced). They have seen enough resultant social and spiritual shipwrecks from the second group, and they are humble or childlike enough not to be identified with the third, but they don't know which way to turn, except to cobble something together for themselves.

Though these comments may seem harsh, they aren't meant to be. We are all created to pursue God. And I believe the only solution to it all is to seek neither religion nor spirituality, but to seek the truth, speak it in love, to put no trust in ourselves, and to be willing to follow that truth and love when we find him. It can all start with a generic "To Whom it May Concern" prayer, followed by a study of history, since, we believe, God has made himself known in and through the movement of time. Timelessly, St. Augustine of Hippo, writing circa 397, described this whole pursuit in the first paragraph of his "Confessions": "The thought of (God) stirs (man) so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises (God), because (God) made us for (himself) and our hearts find no peace until they rest in (him)."

Fr. John Parker is rector of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I'On. To read more, visit www.holyascension.blogspot.org. Reach him at frjohn@ocacharleston.org or 881-5010.

Spirituality takes faithful out of comfort zone

'Religion kills," says anti-theist Christopher Hitchens. I couldn't agree more. In fact, I'm surprised Hitchens is so behind the times. The Apostle Paul beat him to the punch when he wrote to a new church in 55 A.D. that, "The (religious) laws kill, but the Spirit gives life." But Paul wasn't just waxing poetic. The decisive case against religion came from Jesus himself.

We read in the Gospels dozens of stories where Jesus, an itinerant rabbi, confronts the gatekeepers of his own Jewish faith, the Pharisees and Sadducees. The religious leaders of Jesus' day viewed themselves as the protectors of the ancient agreement made between the Hebrew people and God -- you might say religious UPS deliverymen (sorry ladies) -- delivering the perfectly received truth from generation to generation. There was only one problem though: Imperfect people were involved in this process. Over time, the religious deliverymen started stuffing the package with things that God had nothing to do with, literally adding 6,000 extra rules meant to keep people from breaking the original few rules. And since they thought they already had God in a box anyway, anyone who thought outside of it was a dangerous heretic.

In response to this, Jesus declared that religion -- as defined by a bounded set of doctrines, rules and structures -- was useless to the God and a "burden" to people. God's truth could not be bound up in a neatly packaged religion. Rather, it was found in the nebulous but centered pursuit of living out the "greatest commandment": "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind," and the equally important: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus said you could sum up true faith "and all the demands of the prophets on these two commandments."

Seems so simple, right? But life is complicated, and our concoction of motives causes us to miss the mark more often than not. So the voices of religion tempt us with an easy solution, offering to put God back in the box if we would just adhere to the bounded set of doctrines, rules and structures. It's not hard to imagine why so many people choose to live life that way. It's safer, more defined and, in theory, unchanging. But Jesus calls for a spirituality that is more dangerous, fluid and dynamic than most people will ever be comfortable with. Besides, if the past 3,000 years of history -- not to mention the hemorrhaging worldwide membership of the most calcified denominations -- is any sign, it seems self-evident that in the long run, religion leads far more people away from God than ever to God.

So how does the institutional Church, which by its nature is an organized body with doctrines, rules and structures, not offer the kind of religion that Jesus condemns? Churches must move from places of bounded-sets to centered-sets, that is to say, evolving from an organization with doctrines, rules and structures that define who is in and who is out (as the Pharisees did) to a community where the doctrines, rules and structures are adjustable around the spiritual center of following Jesus and living out the greatest commandment (as the early Church did).

My generation is manifesting this reform in new ways. We regularly change churches based not on a particular doctrine or denomination but on the spiritual transformation we observe occurring within the church. The Internet allows me, a Presbyterian, to read an Anglican blog before discussing it on Facebook with friends from a nondenominational church. Our individual theologies, made in overlapping groups of equals, look more like something worked out on Wikipedia than beliefs cut-and-pasted from the encyclopedia.

Proponents of religion may call this unorthodox, heretical or even watered down. We call it the way of Jesus.

Colin Kerr is director of Christian education at Second Presbyterian Church in downtown Charleston and the facilitator of the Talks on Tap series.

Compassion, enlightenment at center of life

The idea that religion and spirituality are somehow opposed, that they are so different that one must somehow choose one or the other, is not how I choose to think about them.

Religion takes many forms, and each of the world's religious traditions has its own gifts. The most important gifts are shared by virtually every religion -- concepts such as love, compassion, personal responsibility, connection, and the belief in something larger than oneself.

In truth, spirituality is the common ground among religions.

Spirituality is the recognition that we are all spiritual beings in a material world, that there is the Divine at the center of all being, where love and wisdom are held, where the physical body, the mind and the soul and spirit are honored, where there is an awakening of the heart. Attending to our own spiritual natures and connecting with what we as individuals are most called to do is a way of living in the world that honors our innate spirituality. It guides us to hold the sacred at the center of all aspects of our lives -- personally, in our relationships and communities, and globally. It is neither masculine nor feminine, but encompasses both, and recognizes the gifts that come from this universal duality, from the Divine that informs our world, our lives, and the cosmos.

While the world's major religions tend to be deeply rooted in masculine traditions, the divine feminine is there, though often in the background. At The Sophia Institute, we believe we are living in a time when women are awakening to their full potential and being empowered to become passionate, creative agents for change. As Sue Monk Kidd, our writer-in-residence, says, "The particular genius of the sacred feminine is in its valuing of the wisdom of the heart, of interdependence, empathy, relational thinking, compassionate community, intuitive intelligence, peace, creativity, and the sacredness of the earth."

We are cultivating a new mind-set, one that doesn't see religion and spirituality as "either/or" scenarios, but instead is wisdom-based and found in the hearts of women and men alike and expresses the vastness of the human spirit.

The Sophia Institute envisions a world that could be called a wisdom society: a conscious, enlightened world, a compassionate, global community, where wholeness, oneness, sustainability, justice, peace and the sacred are at the center of life.

Carolyn Rivers is the founder and director of The Sophia Institute.