The results of a Pew Research Center report released last October came as no surprise to Beyond Words staffers. The number of Americans who do not identify with a specific religion has grown rapidly in the last five years, encompassing just under 20% of the adult population. While some are atheists or agnostics, the majority of the "nones" or the "unaffiliated" are religious or spiritual in some way.
"This is a population we've been attending to for a long time at Beyond Words," said acquisitions editor Anna Noak. "It has been an underground trend for a while, and it's exciting to see it come forward into more of a mainstream space."
In recent years, Beyond Words has reached out to spiritual seekers and the unaffiliated with titles like Pierre Pradervand's The Gentle Art of Blessing, which illustrates how the act of blessing can be incorporated into one's life whatever their belief system. Another is Roll Around Heaven: An All-True Accidental Spiritual Adventure by Jessica Maxwell, who trekked around the world exploring different religions.
Anticipating the surge in the trend, Beyond Words began making plans a year ago to expand its publishing program in this area. It's focusing on consumers 45 and under who prefer to incorporate spirituality into their daily lives in an informal, individualized way, be it prayer or a nature walk, instead of adhering to the mandates of established religious institutions.
Author Lama Marut, an American Buddhist monk, has seen an increase in the number of people who "feel freer to cross boundaries" and incorporate elements from several religions into their own personal practice. He views the trend as a positive development, one that is "instilling more tolerance and open-mindedness into the spiritual life."
While touring the U.S. last summer to promote A Spiritual Renegade's Guide to the Good Life, a blueprint for creating and sustaining happiness that draws on various spiritual traditions, Lama Marut detected a "palpable relief" when people realized they weren't being told they had to associate with a specific religion.
"The 'good life'--in the sense of a truly satisfying, joyful life--comes from practicing the 'good life' in another sense--a life guided by ethics and virtues such as forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and wisdom," Lama Marut said. "These guidelines are taught in every authentic religious tradition and are not the monopoly of any one. They can be learned and practiced by anyone, with or without identifying with one or another of the institutionalized religions."
Along with a desire to draw from different religions, Lama Marut attributes the rise in the unaffiliated to other key factors: a willingness to reconcile religious and scientific views, disappointment in scandal-plagued religious figures and an aversion to intolerance and fanaticism. "For many, being a 'none' is a lot more palatable than overly identifying with one or another of the world's religious 'isms,' each one replete with its own historical and collective embarrassments," explained Lama Marut.
Rather than accept the status quo, they "see it from all different angles," said acquisitions editor Emily Han. "They're rebellious in the sense that they look at it in a different way."
Whereas previously the unaffiliated may have felt isolated, they're now realizing their numbers are growing. Han recently signed up an as-yet-untitled book (coming in spring 2014) by musician and writer Chris Grosso. Feeling as if he didn't fit within an established religious framework, Grosso set out to find an alternative. After discovering there were others doing something similar, Grosso founded TheIndieSpiritualist.com, a website that melds "dogma-free spirituality" with independent culture. Although a spiritual practice is unique to each individual, said Han, "they're still looking for a community to express it with."
Also coming next year is Lama Marut's Be Nobody (June), in which he distills traditional spiritual traditions into a set of guidelines for creating a truly happy, fulfilling life by letting go of ego and discovering one's true nature. "We live in a time of unprecedented awareness of options when it comes to religion," noted Lama Marut. "In some people this may have resulted in a sort of paralysis and inability to make a choice, whereas in others it may be experienced as an exhilarating sense of freedom."