The latest on the “spiritual but not religious”

Mark Oppenheimer in today’s New York times:

At the very least, we might conclude that “spiritual but not religious” isn’t necessarily vague or wishy-washy. It’s not nothing, although it may risk being everything.

Little new here, although Oppenheimer uses Courtney Bender’s and Linda Mercadante’s work to stress that the “nones” (as they’re often called) can be both communal in orientation and theologically sophisticated.

Not all atheists are created equal

Salon reports on a new study that reveals the complexity within the general grouping of “atheists and non-believers.” Most interesting for church folk is this:

6. Ritual Atheist/Agnostic. While you might think the anti-theist is the non-believer type that scares Christians the most, it turns out that it may very well be the Ritual Atheist/Agnostic. This group, making up 12.5 percent of atheists, doesn’t really believe in the supernatural, but they do believe in the community aspects of their religious tradition enough to continue participating. We’re not just talking about atheists who happen to have a Christmas tree, but who tend to align themselves with a religious tradition even while professing no belief. “Such participation may be related to an ethnic identity (e.g. Jewish),” explain researchers, “or the perceived utility of such practices in making the individual a better person.”

Huffington Post also reports on the study. The study itself can be found here.

Its description of the “Ritual Atheist/Agnostic” includes this observation:

The Ritual Atheist/Agnostic individual perceives ceremonies and rituals as producing personal meaning within life. This meaning can be an artistic or cultural appreciation of human systems of meaning while knowing there is no higher reality other than the observable reality of the mundane world. In some cases, these individuals may identify strongly with religious traditions as a matter of cultural identity and even take an active participation in religious rituals.

This is hardly a new phenomenon but it’s still worth pondering the significance of it for matters like church growth and congregational development, not to mention evangelism.

The backlash of institutions (and their spokespeople) against “Spiritual but not Religious”

Another week, another study. There are some remarkable numbers here. Among those aged 18-24, 32% prefer no religion; of those between the ages of 25 and 34, 29% claim “no religion;” Among those 35-44, only 19%. But underneath those headlines lies  a more complex reality. They may have no religious affiliation but the vast majority of Americans continue to express belief in God or belief in a higher power. The percentage of those identifying as atheist (3.1%) or agnost (5.6%) remains very small.

This study, as others before it, makes clear that while institutional affiliation may be falling dramatically, religious belief and practice are not declining significantly.

Gary Laderman, chair of the Religion Department at Emory University and scholar of American Religion, points out that the rise of the “nones” means the study of Religion in America is more interesting than ever. He gives several reasons for the rise, one of them is:

Finally, the rise of the “nones” surely suggests it is the end of religion as we know it. Forget churches; forget priests and pastors; forget the Bible; forget organized religion generally. What is sacred are no longer conventional objects like a cross, a singular religious identity like being a Methodist, nor activities like going to church or prayer. Instead, the religious worlds in the contemporary and future United States are robust and capacious, providing an abundance of spiritual possibilities found in unexpected places like drum circles and meditation exercises, sports events and other expressions from popular culture. It is a brave new world for religious Americans who are increasingly unhinged from traditional authorities and institutions.

Elizabeth Drescher is studying the prayer practices of the “nones” and has some pointed questions about prayer divorced from religious traditions and communities.

I’ve blogged about Lillian Daniel’s views before. Her recent book continues to garner interest. I’m not exactly sure who she’s writing for, to reassure those of us who are caretakers of traditional religious institutions are doing valuable work? Is she trying to convince the SBNR folks that their efforts to make meaning in their life are of little value? At least she doesn’t harangue them quite like Rabbi David Wolpe.

One one level, all this consternation from religious institutions and their representatives about the nones reminds me of the complaints throughout history of pastors, theologians, bishops, and other insiders about the behavior of their flocks. In the fourth century, Ambrose worried that the faithful were going out of the city to martyrs’ shrines and not attending his sermons. In the Middle Ages, preachers and priests complained that people didn’t pay attention to sermons or came only when they heard the sanctus bell that indicated the moment of the consecration of the host. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Protestant preachers also complained that attendance at services was poor and devotion languished. Had you asked those who were criticized for their lukewarm faith and behavior, I’ve no doubt they would have responded by saying they were good Christians. They just weren’t the sort of Christians their leaders wanted them to be.

The fact of the matter is that throughout the history of Christianity, indeed, throughout the history of religion, there has been a disconnect between what institutions and sacred experts wanted in terms of behavior (and doctrinal purity) of their communities, and what ordinary men and women actually did religiously, and how they understood and appropriated what they did. What we are seeing is not so much a decline in religious practice or belief, but rather a decline in the understanding that religious practice and belief must be tied to religious institutions. They are free of the religious expectations imposed on them from above.

The question, then, is not how to get people back into the pews, but rather, how can we connect with people who no longer automatically see us as valuable experts on religion or even as valuable spiritual guides? How can we encounter them where they are, invite them to ask their questions, encourage them to enter more deeply into the rich spiritual traditions of Christianity, but at the same time recognize that they may never join the Altar Guild. It’s likely, however, that if we have concrete outreach opportunities for them to engage, they will work side by side with us. To succeed with the nones may not mean getting them to join our churches. Instead, it may mean recognizing the legitimacy of their spiritual journeys and engaging them there, rather than trying to force them to engage us on our terms.

The Changing Sea Project is exploring the spirituality of emerging adults and their relationship with religious institutions. More on the spirituality and religious practices of “emerging adults:”

This group of emergent adults says they feel close to God. They adapt religious traditions according to their own individual needs and desires. But religion has high salience for them. They really care
about the meaning of life and other deep questions. Religious attendance is medium, with some regular attending and others not. They engage in service to others. It’s a religiosity that would not exclude attendance or personal prayer.

And another cautionary note: Young philanthropists want to support causes not institutions:

They have judged previous generations to be largely motivated by recognition for their giving and want little part of it. They want to see societal change through the causes they support; they could care less about the named scholarship fund or the plaque on the wall. Christian institutions making appeals to younger donors need to show how their work is part of the unfolding shalom of God for all of creation.


young donors want to be engaged in the work of a cause or institution itself. As the study notes, this is a generation that grew up volunteering and believes that investing time as much as money is essential. But note — this on-the-ground service is also another way that they will assess impact over rhetoric.

The “Nones” in 2013: A collection of links

Elizabeth Drescher has a thoughtful piece on resisting the impulse to pigeonhole the “nones.” Some may be spiritual but not religious, some may be unbelievers, but it’s important to keep in mind the results of the Pew survey:

  • 68% of the Unaffiliated in general believe in God or a Universal Spirit
  • Among those who self-identify as Atheist/Agnostic, 38% say they believe in God or a Universal Spirit
  • Among those who self-identified as “Nothing in Particular”—the majority of Nones (71%) in general—some 81% say they believe in God or a Universal Spirit

Survey says: Nones are by and large not unbelievers. Not atheists. Not secular humanists. Not anti-religious.

Apparently the growth in the religiously-unaffiliated slowed in 2012, increasing by only .3 percentage points.

Faith beyond Belief: Stories of good people who have left their church behind by Margaret Placentra Johnson shares the stories of people of faith who have abandoned institutional religion. Her book puts faces on some of those included among the “nones.” Some may be “spiritual but not religious” but there are also atheists, mystics, and people who continue religious practice (prayer, for example) outside the confines of institutional religion.

But the SBNR’s may have more mental problems than the religiously affiliated, according to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Mark Vernon has a thoughtful take on the study’s significance:

In Britain, though, it appears that many individuals view religion as an impingement upon their spiritual searching. Christianity, say, is felt to constrain life – perhaps because of the negative attitudes it projects about gay people and women; or because it presents belief as more important than growth; or because it looks more interested in sin than enlightenment. If that is so, the new research is a striking indictment of the failure of British churches to meet spiritual needs

And this:

Finally, the research challenges the stance of those who are spiritual but not religious. It might be called the individualism delusion, the conviction that I can “do God” on my own. And yet, as the psychotherapist Donald Winnicott argued, human beings need to work through traditions to resource their personal creativity. Only in the lives of others can we make something rich of our own life

Tripp Hudgins says he’s a Christian because he is “spiritual-but-not-religious:”

Religions are simply scaffolding for revelation…which is the principal goal of any spiritual practice. Religions are collections of spiritual practices. That’s all they are. Mine is Christianity. I’m Christian because I am spiritual-but-not-religious. I am Christian because Jesus said, “The sabbath is for humanity and not humanity for the sabbath.”

Jesus honored the so-called spiritual-but-not-religious. He lauded the seeker.

The others had him killed.

Then he came back and said, “Come. Follow me.”

How could I not?

How to spend your Sunday mornings

Tripp Hudgins muses on his own experience growing up not going to church. He points out that there are other ways to spend Sunday mornings.

If I pine for anything it is fishing and sleeping in. I pine for breakfast with my family and wonder if life-long Christians recognize that going to church on Sunday mornings is to sacrifice all the other possible nurturing and beautiful human interactions that avail themselves on Sunday morning. As radical as this might seem to many ecclesial pundits, going to church is to give up community. It is to sacrifice family and relationships. It is to lose time with your spouse.

More on the “Spiritual but not religious” dust-up

Jim Burklo:

Here’s another way to view the SBNR phenomenon: religiously unaffiliated but spiritually engaged people are in fact encountering God in real human communities that don’t look like traditional congregations, so why not celebrate that?

Diana Butler Bass:

Maybe the SBNR are pointing the way toward a different kind of church or a new kind of Christianity, if only those of us who still care about old denominations and traditions can receive the criticism of their absence and learn from it, even as it comes with a sting.

Kate Blanchard, who teaches religious studies, on the airplane conversation (and her own journey):

If all of this makes me boring to the confidently religious, I guess I can live with that. But I am actually quite fascinated by someone who takes the time to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” when they could simply have said, “Hmmm, interesting,” and put in their ear buds. It makes me feel less alone as I wander in my current religious wilderness. I am actually energized and encouraged by the quests of those who are seeking something true, even if they don’t know anything other than that it’s not religion.

Spiritual, not religious–another view

Amy Thompson Sevimli‘s perspective on the piece by Lillian Daniel:

What I have found, however, is that the phrase is almost always a gateway into a deeper conversation about their spirituality (even if it is about sunsets). It is an opportunity for them to talk about their faith and their experience of the church — which, by the way, has usually been negative.

And this:

Instead of fully engaging those outside our churches, we sit back and wonder why the mass of spiritual but not religious people don’t walk through our doors. But honestly, why would someone who can read our condescending views of their sense of spirituality want to come to church at all?

My earlier take, here.

“Spiritual, but not religious”

Lillian Daniel rants about the passenger in the next seat in the airplane who says, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” upon learning that she is clergy. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve had the same experience, and the same reaction, both in my earlier life as a professor of Religious Studies (when I would usually pass myself off as a scholar of European History) and since I’ve been ordained a priest.

Of course, people who say they are “spiritual not religious” can be vacuous; but worship and life in Christian communities can be vacuous as well, as Trevor Wax reminds us.

Sometimes, such people are little more than individualist navel-gazers; sometimes, they are on quests for meaning and authenticity. Sometimes, they are burned out on organized religion, or worse. They are so damaged by life in communities of hate that they cannot conceive or ever experience the life-giving power of Jesus Christ. Sometimes, their journey has taken them away, as in the case of a woman I spoke with this week, who after years of faithful attendance, and active involvement in outreach, finds the liturgy no longer speaks to her soul. Instead, it is painting that feeds her soul. Sometimes that phrase, “I’m spiritual, not religious” is a formula they’ve learned to help them deal with the absence in their hearts that they cannot comprehend.

Sometimes, we need to listen.


“Can spirituality exist without religion?”

The Guardian asks the question. Mark Vernon gets the first shot. The question is in response to a new book by Nicholas Humphrey: Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness. According to Vernon, Humphrey

discusses life in a “soul niche”. Fish live in a water niche, bedbugs in a blanket niche, humans live in a soul niche; the “territory of the spirit”. This is the magic of human consciousness. To have soul is to enjoy the beauties of the cosmos, the responsibilities of free will, the comforts of prayer, the illusion of life after death. Evolution must have concocted such a grandiose dream-world for us for a purpose – probably, according to the author, to make us feel special. That encourages us to give of our best and so is good for our survival and the survival of others.

Vernon finds Humphrey’s view reductionistic and offers a primer on a deeper notion of the soul in which mind and body are linked. It’s a notion that goes back to Aristotle. He concludes:

To put it another way, perhaps it’s time to consider the possibility that the hard problem of consciousness is not primarily to do with consciousness, but is to do with materialism. Perhaps consciousness is thought hard from this point of view because, in fact, energy, information or something quite like consciousness is the basic stuff of the cosmos? Matter might be the epiphenomenon, not mind. As Keith Ward entertainingly puts it in his new book, More Than Matter: “Minds are not illusory ghosts in real machines. On the contrary, machines are spectral, transitory phenomena appearing to an intelligible world of minds.”

You don’t have to be spiritual or religious to entertain such thoughts. Physicists do so quite routinely these days. It’s hardly avoidable when you deal with subatomic particles – the stuff of “matter” – as waves of probability rippling across fields of energy.

I’ll be interested to read the other responses, and the Ward book that Vernon mentions above.

I find this question or the related one having to do with those people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” interesting on theological grounds. But it is also an interesting question pastorally. I was intrigued by the recent essay from the Alban Institute on how religious organizations might reach out to the “spiritual but not religious” market, although I think many of the questions at the end of the article are focused on trying to fit the spiritual seeker back into an institution that may not be the focus of their spiritual search. The spiritual seeker, I think, tends to be very individualistic, at least in the quest aspect of their lives; and it may be more important to help them find ways to encounter the holy, and at the same time to do active outreach, than to offer bible studies and the like.

I’m looking forward to the other responses to this question.