Part 1 of a two-part series

A 2023 Gallup poll found that the percentage of Americans who identify as spiritual rather than religious has increased. And among Democrats, more people now describe themselves as spiritual (41%) than as religious (37%). However, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the most rapidly growing groups are atheists and agnostics, while the most rapidly declining groups are Catholics and mainline Protestants.

In a review of the survey, Jonathan Van Maren wrote, “Post-Christian America is not post-spiritual America; most still claim to hold vague spiritual beliefs of one sort or another but reject ‘organized religion.’”

There’s nothing new here, of course. History records many attempts to move from organized religion (churches, creeds, pastors, practices) to more spiritual forms of connecting with God.

The First Christian Heresy

One of the earliest examples of this tendency was the Gnostic heresy which arose during the early years of Christianity. There were numerous Gnostic sects but most agreed that matter is inherently evil and spirit is inherently good. Consequently, most Gnostics believed that Jesus was not really human. In contrast to the Apostle John’s assertion that “the Word became flesh,” most Gnostics claimed that Jesus only appeared to be human.

In reaction, Church fathers emphasized the essential goodness of the material world. They pointed out that after creating the world, “God saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:25). Moreover, God then proceeded to make man in His own image, thus lifting him far above the status of other creatures.

Despite what the Gnostics claimed, Scripture proves that God loves His creation, and undertook to redeem man after he had fallen.

Gnosticism Is Back, and It’s Winning

The Gnostic heresy may seem like ancient history, but it has a way of cropping up in different forms again and again. The quest for a purely spiritual form of Christianity is a constant temptation. And, arguably, we are experiencing a powerful resurgence of Gnosticism right now.

The Gallup and PRRI surveys provide some of the evidence. An increasing number of people are rejecting organized religion and are opting instead to develop a more direct spiritual connection with God without the bother of institutional intermediaries. As it happens, this quest fits in nicely with what one critic describes as Gnosticism’s “intuitive, subjective inward, emotional approach to truth.”

The Gnostic faith also has the advantage of appealing to the woke generation’s conviction that they are more enlightened than the rest of us. The ancient Gnostics (from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “to know”) claimed that salvation comes not through faith but through the acquisition of special and secret knowledge available only to elite souls. In short, they thought themselves superior to run-of-the-mill Christians who were incapable of understanding the “higher truth.”

The Cage of the Soul

Another area in which Gnostic belief corresponds with contemporary belief is in its relegation of the body to second-class status. Although our society is obsessed with the body beautiful, it seems little concerned with what we do with our bodies, beautiful or not. In other words, our bodily actions are thought to be of far less significance than our spiritual state. Thus, if you feel good about your inner, hidden self, it doesn’t matter if you are promiscuous or if you decide to have an abortion.

The ancient Gnostics held similar views. Because they thought that the body was part of the evil material world, some chastised it by abstaining from sex or by self-flagellation. And because they thought the body was relatively unimportant, other Gnostics were sexually promiscuous. Of course, our modern Gnostics tend to align more with the second group’s belief that sex is no big deal.

We’re Not “Breeders”

Another area of commonality between the new Gnostics and the old Gnostics is an anti-reproductive sentiment. The ancient Gnostics believed that by bringing babies into the world, they would only succeed in increasing the amount of evil in the world since babies, being part of the material world, are inherently evil.

Babies are no longer looked upon as evil except by some fringe feminist groups, but many look upon them as an obstacle to self-growth (which is the modern-day equivalent of spiritual growth). Significantly, the PRRI survey found that of those who had left organized religion, 47% specifically cited religious bias against LGBTQ people as one of the main reasons for their departure. That finding is significant because, except for the “B,” LGBTQ sex is inherently nonreproductive sex.

Our New Gods Are … Ourselves

The more “spiritual” people become, the more they reject institutional Christianity, and the more they embrace unorthodox and unscriptural views. At the same time, this trajectory seems to end up — as it did for the Gnostics — in the development of an individualized and personalized faith which often substitutes worship of self for worship of God.

Obviously, these elements in the Gnostic faith are self-defeating; and when combined with the reluctance to reproduce, they end in extinction. Thus, the only thing that keeps Gnosticism alive is evangelization. Fortunately for the new Gnostics, the woke generation never ceases to evangelize. Unfortunately for them, the new Gnosticism is a very exclusive club and only the highly enlightened are eligible to join. Moreover, since the focus of Gnosticism is on the individual self, Gnostics tend to quickly lose interest in other selves.

The seeds of destruction are firmly implanted in Gnosticism, but before the latest iteration of Gnosticism dies out, it can do enormous harm to Christianity. Although it is only a counterfeit of Christianity, it looks enough like the genuine article to fool many into mistaking it for the real thing — or worse, fool them into thinking that it is a more highly evolved form of Christianity.

This article originally appeared in the April 15, 2024 edition of The Stream.

Pictured above: Moment of enlightenment

Picture credit: Pixabay