(c) 2000, Chicago Tribune

(CHICAGO) For Steven Hartman, spiritual development is a way of life. He was baptized Catholic and raised in the Methodist and Episcopalian faiths, but hasn't attended any of those churches since he embarked on a spiritual quest at 18. That's when he left his Chicago home with $600 in his pocket and backpacked to the West Coast, "just to find God."

Hartman, 41, delved into all the experiential workshops of the 1970s, from est to its offshoots, Lifespring and Lifestream. After graduating from Illinois State University with a major in psychology and sociology, he spent eight years living on an ashram in Massachusetts, "completely fervent and dedicated to vegetarianism, yoga, and meditation."

He was introduced to "A Course in Miracles," a three-volume metaphysical and psychological self-study system in 1976 when it was still an underground phenomenon. He has been studying it ever since. Now a massage therapist, spiritual counselor, and yoga teacher, Hartman also presides over a weekly "Course" discussion group.

It's not something one can easily describe as 'America is becoming less religious or more religious.' We may have a restructuring of what standard religious practice is in America.

Hartman's weekly gathering is among thousands of small groups that meet regularly to discuss "A Course in Miracles." Some participants also attend churches, and some do not, but either way they are emblematic of a vast cultural shift from "religion" to "spirituality."

Religious and spiritual beliefs have traditionally been the province of institutions but these days such matters are regarded as highly personal. The result is that spiritual experience is replacing religious doctrine as many people mix elements from diverse traditions to form fluid spiritual practices geared to their individual needs.

And the Internet propels this trend: Religious and spiritual sites abound on the World Wide Web, the perfect medium for the smorgasbord approach, given that Vatican City, the local Baptist church, and a Tibetan Buddhist monastery are all just a few clicks away.

The driving force behind this mix-and-match spirituality is the middle class, educated vanguard of the Baby Boom generation.

"The post World War II generation has been extremely important in shaping the religious and cultural mood of the country," said Wade Clark Roof, professor of religion and society at the University of California-Santa Barbara. "For them, a lot of the institutional commitments eroded [in the wake of] the Vietnam War, Watergate, and all the changes in families, high levels of divorce, experimentation with different kinds of lifestyles. Many of them have taken things into their own hands, and they view spirituality as something that no institution has a monopoly over."

Although America is still one of the most religious countries in the world, attendance at churches and synagogues has eroded since its high point during the religious revival after World War II. Almost half the population (49 percent) reported attending a church or synagogue each week in both 1955 and 1958, according to the Gallup Organization. Since 1969, Gallup reports, church attendance has hovered between "the high 30 percent to low 40 percent range."

Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey, a project of the National Opinion Research Center, said that NORC's 1998 data indicated that 26.6 percent of those surveyed reported attending church weekly or more than once a week, a drop from 33.6 percent in 1985.

The frequency of prayer, however, showed no decline.

"It's a very complex pattern," Smith said. "It's not something one can easily describe as 'America is becoming less religious or more religious.' We may have a restructuring of what standard religious practice is in America."

Dave Kinnaman, research director of the California-based Barna Research Group, predicted that religious-spiritual syncretism will predominate in the future. "Having elements of different religions means that, logically and theologically, beliefs can be completely at odds with one another," he said. "But people are comfortable with that and don't seem to have any problems with internal inconsistencies in their religious viewpoints.

"If they're confronted about it, which they rarely are, it is often dismissed as 'Well, that's my own belief. I have a right to believe how I believe.' That's the guiding principle in the growth of syncretism."

(c) 2000, Chicago Tribune.

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