Despite the ongoing decline in American religious institutions, the meteoric rise in people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” should be seen positively – especially by religious people.
To accept this as good news, however, we need to listen to what they are saying, rather than ridicule them as “salad bar spiritualists” or eclectic dabblers.
After spending more than five years speaking with hundreds of “spiritual but not religious” folk across North America, I’ve come to see a certain set of core ideas among them. Because of their common themes, I think it’s fair to refer to them by the acronym: SBNR.
But before we explore what the SBNRs believe, we first need to learn what they protest.
First, they protest “scientism.”
They’ve become wary about reducing everything that has value to what can only be discovered in the tangible world, restricting our intellectual confidence to that which can be observed and studied.
Their turn towards alternative health practices is just one sign of this. Of course, most do avail themselves of science’s benefits, and they often use scientific-sounding arguments (talking about “energy” or “quantum physics”) to justify their spiritual views.
But, in general, they don’t think all truth and value can be confined to our material reality.
Second, SBNRs protest “secularism.”
They are tired of being confined by systems and structures. They are tired of having their unique identities reduced to bureaucratic codes. They are tired of having their spiritual natures squelched or denied.
They play by society’s rules: hold down jobs, take care of friends and family and try to do some good in the world. But they implicitly protest being rendered invisible and unheard.
Third, yes, they protest religion – at least, two types of it.
But the SBNR rejection of religion is sometimes more about style than substance.
On one hand, they protest “rigid religion,” objecting to a certain brand of conservatism that insists there is only one way to express spirituality, faith, and the search for transcendence.
But they also protest what I call “comatose religion.”
After the shocks of the previous decades, and the declines in religious structures and funding, many religious people are dazed and confused.
They are puzzled and hurt that so many – including their own children – are deserting what was once a vibrant, engaging, and thriving part of American society.
So why, then, is it “good news” that there is a huge rise in the “spiritual but not religious”? Because their protests are the very same things that deeply concern – or should concern – all of us.
The rise in SBNRs is the archetypal “wake up call,” and I sense that, at last, religious leaders are beginning to hear it.
The history of religion in Western society shows that, sooner or later, people grasp the situation and find new ways of expressing their faith that speak to their contemporaries.
In the meantime, there are plenty of vital congregations in our society. In the vast mall of American religious options, it is misguided to dismiss all of our spiritual choices as moribund, corrupt, or old-fashioned – even though so many do.
What has prompted SBNRs, and others, to make this dismissal?
For one thing, many religious groups are not reaching out to the SBNRs. They need to understand them and speak their language, rather than being fearful or dismissive.
Second, the media often highlights the extremes and bad behavior of a few religious people and groups. But we don’t automatically give up on other collections of fallible human beings, like our jobs, our families, or our own selves. Some attitude adjustment is needed by both religious people and SBNRs.
Finally, SBNRs need to give up the easy ideology that says religion is unnecessary, all the same, or outmoded. And all of us should discard the unworkable idea that you must find a spiritual or religious group with which you totally agree. Even if such a group could be found, chances are it would soon become quite boring.
There’s no getting around this fact: It is hard work to nurture the life of faith. The road is narrow and sometimes bumpy. It is essential to have others along with us on the journey.
All of us, not just religious people, are in danger of becoming rigid or comatose, inflexible or numb. All of us need to find ways to develop and live our faith in the company of others, which is, in fact, what religion is all about.