Shortly before Easter, anti-religious organizations called for a collective renunciation of church membership in Germany. The structures of the Catholic Church are rusty, they argued, and its world views archaic. Statistical surveys show that more people are resigning from their church membership, and that fewer people self-identify as “Catholic” or “Protestant.” The question is whether the decline of organized religion has any implications for our views of religiosity itself.
We can begin to answer that question by turning to a representative national survey from 2008. Its results suggest that a lack of denominational identification does not necessarily imply a lack of religiosity. More than a quarter of respondents said that they consider themselves religious, even though they don’t feel an attachment to any organized church or religious community. 52% of Germans self-identify as religious. And there’s more: Around one fifth of respondents consider themselves “very religious,” and only a third of Germans can be counted as “not religious.” We should thus be careful to conflate church membership with individual faith. While the customs and appeal of organized religion might change over time, the individual aptitude for and tendency towards religiosity seem to be anthropological constants.
Prayer is important in that regard. More than any other religious action, prayer and meditation illustrate self-determined human religiosity. Free from the influence of clerical or state institutions, individual prayer and meditation are a central and intimate aspect of religious life. Prayer is a conversation of man (ever evolving in the process of “becoming”) and the creator. It is a matter of true faith, protected from manipulation by third parties. “A man’s faith is only dependent on himself,” Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892) once wrote. The founder of the Bahá’í religion was on his journey to exile in Edirne, and addressing his old disciples in Iran.
In modern times, when technological progress and new communication technologies increasingly impact and speed up our lives, prayer and meditation are anchors for reflection and introspective contemplation. We are part of the material world, but we also remain spiritual beings – and prayer is a key component of that dual nature of man. It satisfies a deep human desire for a community that transcends our own worldly experience.
For the six million Bahá’í, regular prayer and meditation (as well as readings of the holy texts) form part of our daily routines. They are a source of wealth and energy as we engage in the struggle to contribute to the peaceful co-existence of mankind. By turning to God – and through his will, expressed in the holy texts – we gather strength and inspiration for worldly challenges.
Peaceful communication, collaborative problem-solving, collective decision-making and the co-existence of different social, religious, and national groups are grounded in our understanding of man as a spiritual being. “Before God, we are all equals,” as the holy texts remind us. But also: “Every soul has its own desires.” The tension between unity and plurality is inextricably linked to the development of modern societies and their institutional frameworks. If we understand religion not only as an individualistic anthropological constant but also as a collective and communal experience, religion must change with the times.
The community of the Bahá’í is founded on the grace of God, not unlike the Christian churches. But it remains conscious of its constraints in space and time – a religious community is only a part of creation, not a synonym for the thing itself. Within that community, we can strive to live a social life, freed from the burden of mindless consumerism and societal lethargy. Prayer becomes a source of strength for altruistic action that transcends individualistic boundaries and serves the common good. And you don’t even have to be religious to partake in that.