12/13/2012 04:50 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2013

Evolve or Die: Why We Need to Change the Way We Think About Religion

American religiosity is dying. Perhaps it isn't on life-support just yet, but it is definitely in a coma -- immobile and lost within itself -- and if we don't resuscitate it, hospice care may soon be necessary.

Recent data shows that the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans has more than doubled in the past generation, with one-fifth of Americans -- and a third of adults under the age of 30 -- identifying themselves as religiously unaffiliated today. Catholicism has experienced the greatest exodus, with fewer than 25 percent of Americans identifying themselves as Catholic despite the fact that 31 percent of respondents said they were raised in the Catholic faith.

Despite the notable decline in religiosity across several faith traditions, recent research shows that the vast majority of the religiously unaffiliated -- nearly two-thirds, in fact -- believe in God and more than half said that they feel a deep connection with nature and the earth. One-third of the religiously unaffiliated identify as belonging to the amorphous "spiritual but not religious" category. Surprisingly, a significant number (21 percent) of the unaffiliated even participate in the spiritual practice of prayer on a daily basis.

So, if a lack of spirituality is not the cause of religion's decline, what is?

I would suggest that one of the major reasons that religion is failing as an organized community is that there is a disconnect between the definitions, associations and ideals attached to religion, and those linked to the spiritual pulse of society. To seize on an analogy made by many political pundits after the election, we are living in a "Modern Family" world, but stuck in a "Mad Men" regime.

We seem to have an insatiable need to be right, to know the answers, to discover the truth. We are uncomfortable with uncertainty, the unknown, the possibility of coexisting, complementary dichotomies. So we stick to an either/or approach. Our beliefs are correct; other beliefs are misguided. Our answers are the right ones; the others are wrong. Our non-belief is the truth; spiritual belief is naïve. And in doing so, we miss out on a plethora of fascinating, enlightening and transformative perspectives. Like Margaret Placentra Johnston points out: "Binary logic is not an adequate way to determine life's most basic questions. You cannot use binary logic in choosing a spouse; you cannot use it to choose a career, or even which car to buy. Such matters always contain far more than two variables." And so it is with faith, religion and spirituality as well.

As it stands now, the definitions and stereotypes that we attach to religion, spirituality and faith are divisive and exclusionary. As long as we continue to approach faith, spirituality and religion with an unimaginative, either/or, all-or-nothing approach and maintain outdated definitions, associations and stereotypes, authentic spiritual development will remain idle with religion, as a relevant and positive means of spiritual enhancement, languishing.

Take, for example, cultural associations with faith: what faith is, what faith means to a person, and what role faith plays in our spiritual lives and society. Many non-believers slam all faith as irrational, gullible and misguided. In short, all faith is blind faith, that which is devoid of truth and reason. On the other end of the spectrum, many use their faith as a crutch, as a means to justify a purported moral high ground, or to support a particular political position.

But what if we force ourselves to think outside the box for a minute and let go of the either/or approach? Perhaps not all faith is blind faith, nor is it a meal ticket to some eternal afterlife. For me, faith is as simple as respect for the unknown, reverence for the magical, and acknowledgement of the great mysteries of life. And faith is as complex as an authentic belief that is grounded in reason, mindful of science and founded on the search for personal truth.

Faith is not adherence to a prescribed set of rules for obedience sake alone. Faith is not the absence of reason, nor is it gullibility, naiveté or simplicity. Faith is not a catchphrase, but a frame of mind. Faith is hopefulness, optimism in humanity and confidence in oneself. Faith is what fills the gap between what is known, what is supported by science and what the mind can logically grasp, and that which is unknown and is perhaps eternally unknowable.

Other words like religion, God and spirituality also take on highly charged definitions and stereotypes, many of which are inaccurate depictions of what those words actually mean to individual people. Religion is often defined by its rules, creeds, stewardship requests and allegiance to a particular theology.

But religion does not need to be so limiting. Religion can be as open-ended as participation in a spiritual community or the reverence for a particular spiritual ritual. Religion can be shared faith beliefs, engaging in spiritual practices in a communal setting, or simply the intentional reverence for something greater than oneself. Religion is a living, breathing, evolving community of individuals, and, as such, it is as limiting -- or as expansive -- as we allow it to be.

Similarly, the belief in God need not involve reverence for a bearded man in the sky or a divine puppeteer. Because the existence or nonexistence of a higher power is, by its very nature, an unknowable concept, it requires flexible, evolutionary definitions that are fostered by creativity, ingenuity and open-minded conversation.

As it stands now, religion in America is an ailing institution. But there are glimmers of hope that religion can be resuscitated and revitalized as a relevant, positive and productive element of society. For instance, the National Catholic Reporter recently endorsed the ordination of women priests. Inclusive religious communities all over the country preach open-minded messages of religious progress. And spiritually mature writers and religious scholars, like Diana Butler Bass and Margaret Placentra Johnston, encourage and inspire us to reexamine the role of religion in America.

But first, we must get past our outdated, limiting and formulaic associations with religion, spirituality and faith so that we can move forward with a renewed hope of spiritual and religious progress.