When asked to specify their religion, a growing number of Americans check the “none” box. According to the Pew Research Center, today nearly a quarter of adults say they are not members of any institutional faith.
These “nones,” as they have come to be called, present a problem for traditional religions, but they create an opportunity for publishers. Many nones say they are, if not religious, still spiritual, and having severed ties to traditional faiths they seek to replace what those faiths provided—guidance, encouragement, comforting rituals and sacraments, even community. For that, they often look to books.
Publishers across different categories offer these seekers the ingredients from which to pick and choose beliefs and practices as they assemble a personal faith. “There are many portals by which people can now access their own essential nature, outside of religion, and people are having experiences of their own divine nature,” says Catharine Meyers, associate publisher at New Harbinger, one of many presses publishing books that can appeal to this growing market.
If Not Religion, What?
Presses that offer alternatives—particularly those in the mind-body-spirit category—have found a market in the spiritual hunger of the nones, who are drawn to books on topics ranging from mindfulness to yoga to tarot and more. (PW will focus on mind-body-spirit publishing in our annual feature on the subject in August.) The self-help and popular psychology categories also have benefited from people looking for alternatives to traditional religion.
Readers seeking help with life’s problems can find it in a broad range of titles like Natural Rest for Addiction: A Radical Approach to Recovery Through Mindfulness and Awareness by Scott Kiloby (New Harbinger, May) and Embracing the End of Life: A Journey into Dying & Awakening by Patt Lind-Kyle (Llewellyn, Sept.). Nones who miss the grounding and inspiration that sacraments and rituals provide may look for substitutes in books like Cannabis and Spirituality: An Explorer’s Guide to an Ancient Plant Ally, edited by Stephen Gray (Inner Traditions, out now), which explores how cannabis can be used sacramentally to enhance practices like meditation and group ceremonies and to foster creativity. Alternative rituals can be found in titles such as Fasting the Mind: Spiritual Exercises for Psychic Detox (Inner Traditions, June), in which author Jason Gregory proposes emptying the mind to regain an essential spiritual nature, free of the distractions of modern life.
Beyond such specific topics are broader manifestos for ambitious new paradigms.
Authors also reconsider much of what religions have taught. In The Religion of Tomorrow: A Vision for the Future of the Great Traditions—More Inclusive, More Comprehensive, More Complete (Shambhala, May), philosopher Ken Wilber argues that religions can only stay relevant if they embrace the discoveries of science and the insights of psychology to offer what he calls an “integral” approach, bringing together the wisdom of many kinds of religion and spirituality and respecting the individuality of seekers. “Integral spirituality understands that individuals grow and develop through various stages,” Wilber writes. “Spiritual teachings themselves should therefore be adapted and presented in the appropriate language and the appropriate level of difficulty for each individual stage.”
In The Wisdom of Not Knowing (Shambhala, out now), Estelle Frankel—a therapist who also teaches Jewish mysticism—proposes that psychological, emotional, and spiritual health depend on accepting how much in life cannot be known, and that it is important to have the courage to face uncertainty and ambiguity. Frankel writes: “This book is an exploration of the role of the unknown in our lives and a guide to reclaiming what I call ‘the wisdom of not knowing’.... Being receptive to the unknown, in all its many facets, allows us to become more open, curious, flexible, and expansive in our personal and professional lives.”
Thinkers throughout history have developed their own concepts of God, and in God: 48 Famous and Fascinating Minds Talk About God (Running Press, Aug.), Jennifer Berne collects quotes from such luminaries as Homer, Pope Francis, and Maya Angelou, pairing them with illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist R.O. Blechman. Examples include: “Sometimes I arrive just when God’s ready to have someone click the shutter” (Ansel Adams); and, “All gods are homemade, and it is we who pull their strings, and so, give them the power to pull ours” (Aldous Huxley).
If you don’t like the religions on offer, you can always invent your own. In November, Watkins will publish Become the Force: 9 Lessons on Living as a Master Jedi by Daniel M. Jones, who founded the Church of Jediism in 2007. It has chapters in Dubai, Canada, and the U.S. and online communities for followers, who now number more than 500,000 worldwide, according to Jones, who writes: “The Force is the living energy that created the universe.... It is available and ready to speak with anyone or anything that approaches it; everything in existence is in constant communication with it.”
Writing Your Religion
Writing can be a spiritual practice, argues Mark Matousek in Writing to Awaken: A Journey of Truth, Transformation, and Self-Discovery (New Harbinger, July). Matousek provides weekly writing exercises to help readers understand the story they tell themselves about who they are, and he also shows them how to rewrite it to achieve transformation. By telling the truth about themselves, “you come to understand why you have felt fraudulent and inauthentic in your own life,” Matousek writes. “Writing helps to clear away this fraudulence and show you your true face in the mirror, often for the first time.” He adds, “Literary talent is irrelevant here.... Courage, transparency, commitment to the truth—along with a sincere desire to know yourself and set yourself free—these are the only assets you need. Along with a willingness to change.”
If prayer seems a little too much like religion but you need a place to express your hopes and desires, how about writing a letter? In The Forever Letter: Writing What We Believe for Those We Love (Llewellyn, Sept.), Elana Zaiman—the first woman rabbi in a family of rabbis spanning six generations—refashions a little-known Jewish tradition of writing an ethical will into a tool for personal growth. She writes: “To make writing forever letters part of your life plan, you have to know why doing so is crucial.... Sometimes we can write what we cannot speak; we can better understand ourselves and our relationships; we can make ourselves known; we can ask for forgiveness and we can forgive; we can clarify our values and live with greater intention.”
Though usually a solitary pursuit, reading can become about community. The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading (Little, Brown, Aug.) is Anne Gisleson’s memoir of finding solace with others who are on difficult journeys. After the deaths of her twin sisters and father and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Gisleson formed the Existential Crisis Reading Group—dubbed the Futilitarians—with other New Orleanians struggling with loss and trauma. Their readings and weekly meetings helped the Futilitarians overcome individual and collective pain.
Happiness as Religion
Traditional faiths have taught sacrifice and self-abnegation—probably not a message that resonates with most modern seekers. Books about happiness have proliferated, and maybe happiness has become a kind of religion. In The Unbelievable Happiness of What Is: Beyond Belief to Love, Fulfillment, and Spiritual Awakening (New Harbinger, May), Jon Bernie argues that challenging negative beliefs and accepting difficult feelings will help readers attain happiness, freedom, and peace.
Big Love: The Power of Living with a Wide-Open Heart by Scott Stabile (New World Library, Sept.) tells how Stabile—a writer, teacher, and blogger with more than 350,000 Facebook followers—faced the murder of his parents when he was 14 and, in his 20s, the death of his brother from a heroin overdose. Through his suffering, Stabile found a life’s work: to create as much love as possible. He writes, “I didn’t know exactly what the role of love-spreader entailed, but it felt like a life goal to which I could commit myself, one that came with an important benefit our world desperately needed—love, love, and more love.” New World Library also has Live Your Happy: Get Out of Your Own Way and Find the Love Within by Maria Felipe (Apr.), a speaker and teacher of such principles as self-awareness, forgiveness, emotional self-reliance, fearlessness, and inner discipline as a way to happiness and fulfillment.
No Apologies, but Open Doors
How are the traditional churches responding as people head for the exits? Pastor Mark Clark—a former skeptic who embraced Christianity—defends that faith in The Problem of God: Answering a Skeptic’s Challenges to Christianity (Zondervan, Aug.). He tackles the “problems” of Christianity, including its often violent history and whether Jesus was who the Bible says he is.
The Light Is Winning: Why Religion Just Might Bring Us Back to Life by Zach Hoag (Zondervan, June) also defends Christianity from its critics. Hoag writes: “We are in a cultural moment of apocalypse. Not an end-of-the-world apocalypse, but in the very literal sense of the word which translates simply as ‘a revealing.’ Perhaps the downtrend of Christian faith in America is just the kind of Great Revealing we need to show us who we really are as American Christians, who Jesus really is in our midst, and how we can step into the flourishing faith he has always intended for us.”
Some books speak to pastors and congregants who want to welcome nones into the church without merely seeing them as targets for evangelization. In September, Westminster John Knox Press publishes A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community. The author, Presbyterian pastor John Pavlovitz, envisions an “agenda-free relationship,” urging readers to trust “the spiritual experience of others, especially when they don’t match our own.” He adds, “That’s a huge challenge in organized Christianity.”
Jesus Made New
Despite disillusionment with Christianity as an establishment, Jesus is still a fascinating and mysterious figure for many. Who was he really, and what can he be to skeptical moderns?
Blue Ocean Faith: The Vibrant Connection to Jesus that Opens Up Insanely Great Possibilities in a Secularizing World—And Might Kick Off a New Jesus Movement by Dave Schmelzer (Front Edge, out now) shows how Blue Ocean Faith—a nondenominational “church” with outposts in California, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, and Ohio—tries to answer those questions. As he talked to nones across the country, Schmelzer writes, “What we discovered local non-churchgoers wanted wasn’t moral teaching, or Bible instruction or even good self-help tools like positive thinking.... They wanted God.”
It is possible to be anti-religion but pro-Jesus? Bruxy Cavey considers this question in Reunion: The Good News of Jesus for Seekers, Saints, and Sinners (Herald, May). Cavey is a pastor at the Meeting House, a multisite Anabaptist congregation in Ontario, Canada, that calls itself a church for people who aren’t into church. “The message and mission of Jesus is a universal rebuke to all religion, of his day and every day, including and especially the Christian religion,” Cavey writes. “Of course, how could the Christian church proclaim the inherently irreligious nature of the message of Jesus when they were stewarding one of the largest and most powerful religions on the planet?”
Catholics, Come Home
It isn’t just evangelicals who are mounting a counteroffensive against secularization. Joe Durepos, executive editor at Catholic publisher Loyola Press, notes: “Evangelical megachurches are largely made up of fallen-away Catholics. The second-largest denominational demographic in the U.S. is fallen-away Catholics.”
Loyola addresses that exodus with Strange Journey: How Two Homesick Pilgrims Stumbled Back into the Catholic Church (Nov.), a memoir by Jessica Mesman Griffith and Jonathan Ryan, coauthors of the Sick Pilgrim blog. Griffith writes: “We had a hunch that storytelling was what brought us back to belief, and that the Christian story was the most compelling of all the tales we loved. But what we found was that by telling our stories honestly, without shame or judgement, we attracted an audience that was as starved for spiritual companions as we had been.” The authors have won the 2017 Wilbur Award for Digital Media and are sponsoring a conference at the University of Notre Dame (June 22–24) called Trying to Say God, with Mary Karr, Heather King, and Tim Powers as keynote speakers.
Brandon Vogt converted to Catholicism in college (to the surprise of his friends and family), and in Why I Am Catholic (and You Should Be Too) (Ave Maria, Oct.) he explains his decision and makes the case for others to convert. Vogt draws on Catholic thinkers such as G.K. Chesterton, Jacques Maritain, and St. Teresa of Calcutta. In 2013, Vogt launched Strange Notions, a site promoting dialogue between Catholics and atheists.
Another Catholic press, Acta Publications, is reaching out to the disaffected with Not Your Grandparents’ Church: On Recapturing Your Spiritual Heritage by Patricia Wittberg (Sept.). The biggest group of church “leavers” are aged 18–49, and, says publisher Greg Pierce, “the book is aimed at young adults who were cradle Catholics but have left the church.” Wittberg writes: “This book is not an attempt to persuade you to swallow a lot of teachings you may currently disagree with, or to engage in rituals you may find boring or unintelligible.... Young adults in the twenty-first century have their own needs, desires, and questions in their own lives for which they may be searching for answers. Catholic spirituality is wide and varied; there is something in it for everyone.”
Can the slide into secularism be slowed? Loyola’s Durepos says, “The data and anecdotal evidence suggest the trend will continue.” Whether religions (and religion publishers) can do anything to arrest that “is a question on the minds of many of us,” he adds. “We need to raise up new, young leaders who can speak with generational specificity, and do it with authority and authenticity. We need a values check, we need to be less tone-deaf to the young and the fallen-away, and to show the joy our faith brings us, rather than pushing a set of propositional beliefs that tell people how to behave in the bedroom.”
In the face of so many choices for the spiritual-but-not-religious, publishers from faith-based presses agree that religions must be the best versions of themselves. But they don’t believe that any faith needs to change its core tenets and doctrine to become more palatable. “If you don’t want to be a Catholic, you don’t have to be a Catholic,” Durepos says. “We are a creedal people, we believe a certain way, and we’ve believed things in certain ways for a long, long time. There is value in this continuity, there is grace and stability.”