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.A bit like the guy who wants to sleep with any woman he can but hates the idea of a committed relationship and marriage seems just crazy to him. You are tempted to ridicule him and even tempted to admire him in a perverse way. Still you think that deep down he wants to love and be loved in a committed relationship. He is just likely to get offended if you tell him that.
SBNR are the same way. You feel their hunger for the life changing truth about God yet you are thinking they will get offended if you tell them that. So how do you handle them? Do you ridicule them and point out the problems with their beliefs? That can work. Especially for those who have one foot in Christianity and are really not firmly SBNR yet.
But before we explore what the SBNRs believe, we first need to learn what they protest.This is an important point of agreement. They really think atheism or scientism has problems. That it is missing some important truths about life.
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.
A lot of times they don't draw the right distinctions. The "health practices" is a good example. That is not really a spiritual belief but often an opinion that science is somehow corrupt. They often name a physical reality that they believe science has missed. This herb does that or the moon landing was faked.
That is very different from the Catholic objection to scientism. Catholics would say science is limited by its inability to study non-material things. Whether a particular herb cures a particular cancer is not such a thing. Science could, in principle, study it. Whether it has neglected to study it is a question about the decision-making of the scientific establishment. It is not a question about the limits of science itself.
Yet even without making good distinctions they have a correct intuition that science is limited and the human person demands more than science can provide.
Second, SBNRs protest “secularism.”This is a very common issue in religion. I find it annoying because it has absolutely nothing to do with the truth of a religion. I think the Mormons do a wonderful job of warmly welcoming and enfolding people.Yet I have no notion of becoming Mormon because it is not true.
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.
With Catholicism the opposite is true. People leave because the church is too cold and bureaucratic. Yet implicit in that is the assumption that what the church claims about herself is not true. That is that she gives us true teaching and true sacraments that we can get nowhere else. If you actually believe that is true, and you should, then you don't just leave because you don't feel affirmed.
Having said that we should do everything in our power to make the church the warmest, most loving community on earth. That is what we are supposed to be. Often the church feels cold because people just don't show up enough. They come for mass and leave right away or maybe they don't even do that. Still there is a lot the church can do to be friendlier.
Third, yes, they protest religion – at least, two types of it.Here we can run into code words. For some, a rigid religion is any religion that teaches any truth at all. Certainly any truth about sex would count. Any truth about liturgy is often included as well. Catholics don't believe there is only one way to transcendence. Yet there are a few basic truths about God you should not ignore.
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.
Some people say they must engage in gay sex and the church is being rigid if it does not embrace that. But who is being rigid? The church has many different paths to God. Not all paths lead to God. Some paths lead away form God. Telling you that does not make the church rigid. It makes reality rigid. Such a person, on the other hand, sees one path. The path of gay sex has to lead to God because I want it to. That seems to be the more rigid stance.
But they also protest what I call “comatose religion.”This is the heart of it. Religions can have a lot of rules or not rules at all. The biggest question is does it have life? Does it give you joy? SBNR people tend to hunger for experience of inner peace and fulfillment. They tend to look for it everywhere except traditional Christianity even if they were raised Christian. We seem to have created a religion that young people write off write quickly.Even when the desire for God is strong in their life they don't see much potential that Catholicism will fill it. There are just too many joyless Catholics. Too many who get a lot of guilt but very little peace from their religion. Too many who have not been transformed by God's grace been stuck in a rut.
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.This is the classic protestant solution to any religious problem. You change the religion. This goes a bit further. Protestants take Jesus and the bible as a given. This does not even do that.
The problem is that you want a religion to be true. If you change it when society changes then how do you know it is true? You don't. You need to have some core of the faith that you don't change. Catholicism provides that.
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.People dismiss all religion until they find one they like. The big thing is to not give up on them. Fearful or dismissive? We could be fearful because SBNRs are very skeptical. We need to be confident that Catholicism can stand up under skepticism. It can. We could be dismissive because logically they have insulated themselves
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.The media really don't matter that much. If people are already cynical then the media will keep them that way. If someone breaks through the cynicism then the media will no longer matter.
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.This assumes a model of consensus rather than a model of revelation. The trouble with the consensus model is it makes no sense. You can't get infallible truth by putting together a bunch of fallible opinions. They are not independent. They are likely to all make the same errors for the same reasons. So the consensus buys you confidence but not truth. In other words, it makes you more sure you are right but does not make you more likely to be right.
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.Actually religion is about truth. Finding true doctrine, true worship, and true morality. Forming a community is a way of achieving those things. It is the means and not the end. It is hard work though. It involves another hard thing to. It is called obedience. We need to change in our journey towards God. SBNRs often reject community precisely because they all require some level of obedience. Catholicism more than most. This is why it is so easy to dismiss them. Still God's grace is amazing. We should never give up on anyone.
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.