Clearing Up Some Misconceptions.
That ever-expanding group of Americans who check “none” when asked about their religious affiliations continue to mystify scholars, cleric and media commentators. One segment of “nones,” the folks who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR)—and I’m guessing almost everyone reading this—now constitute at least 20 percent of the population, and 30 percent of those under 30 years of age.
I have interviewed hundreds of this important cohort for my books, and I find that they are egregiously misunderstood, even by those who are not condescending or dismissive of them (or should I say “us”?).
One common misconception concerns the reason people disconnect from their birth religion in the first place.
The most prevalent explanation is the one favored by scholars Robert Putnam and David Campbell, authors of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. They attribute disaffiliation mainly to the perceived link between religion and conservative politics—a turnoff to liberal-minded youth in particular.
I don’t buy it. There is no doubt that the judgmental moralizing of right-wing preachers has alienated a great many Christians, but that doesn’t explain the SBNR phenomenon. Believers who disdain fundamentalism have plenty of left-leaning denominations and apolitical congregations to turn to if they want to remain affiliated with their religious tradition. No, it’s mainly a spiritual issue, not a political one. The “S” in SBNR means something. It’s what drives the designation; the other four words are merely modifiers.
In varying degrees, SBNRs are serious about their spiritual development, and they wish to pursue it wherever it leads them, on their own terms, free of external pressure and unbeholden to dogma. For them, the search itself is the chief identifier. It’s the questing, not the nesting. If traditional religion gave them the numinous experience they yearn for, if it answered the big existential questions in a satisfying way, if it truly nourished their desire for spiritual growth, they’d stay instead of stray.
Which brings me to another misconception: that SBNRs are dilettantes, like serial daters who can’t commit to a relationship.
To be sure, there are plenty of superficial dabblers who call themselves spiritual, but not as many as commentators assume. In fact, I would wager that, on average, they spend far more time in meditation, prayer, study of sacred texts, devotional activities, group discussions and other actual practices than people who are conventionally religious. Let’s face it, a large percentage of those who call themselves religious engage their faith for a couple of hours a week at most, and many of them show up only on holidays.
As someone once said, sitting in church and thinking you’re spiritual is like sitting in a garage and thinking you’re a car.
SBNRs who devote time to their spirituality are basically mystics—pragmatic, in-the-world mystics who probe the great mysteries from the inside out, seek transformation diligently, and try to live up to their spiritual standards.
Here’s some evidence: a 2009 Pew survey found that people report having spiritual experiences, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening,” much more frequently now than they did in 1962, 1976 or 1994, when similar studies were done. That tracks with the rise of the SBNR phenomenon, which basically started when Baby Boomers matured, and the report said that “these kinds of experiences are particularly common among the ‘religious unaffiliated.’”
Which leads to another misconception: that SBNRs are spiritual anarchists who reject all spiritual authority.
Not so. They recognize the need for guidance, but they get it from multiple sources, and they take full advantage of today’s rich diversity and easy accessibility. They want wisdom, not dogma. They want a free flow of ideas they can question, doubt, and ponder, not a rigid ideology. A modern seeker can be, as anthropologist Richard Schweder put it, “the student and beneficiary of all traditions, and the slave to none.”
Finally, there is the assumption that SBNRs suffer from a lack of community.
There is truth in this: clearly, one price of spiritual independence is the loss of fellowship, which the venerable religions do a good job of providing. Two things must be said about this. First, a great many SBNRs acknowledge that missing ingredient and try to fill the gap with informal, often leaderless and heterogeneous groupings, in person and online. Interesting new forms of spiritual community will no doubt develop over time. Second, many SBNRs are connected to communities, only they revolve around a yoga studio, or a Hindu guru, or a Buddhist lineage.
This alludes to an important, but seldom recognized fact: SBNRs are heavily oriented to Eastern ideas and practices, only they’re more likely to check the None or SBNR box than the Hindu or Buddhist box. There are many reasons for this, among them the fact that the gurus, roshis, swamis, and lamas who brought their traditional teachings to the West never asked anyone to convert, or to give up their own religions, or even to view their involvement as a religious rather than a secular pursuit.
SBNRs are as diverse and complex as any other spiritual cohort. They are here to stay, and their numbers will surely grow as pluralism evolves and access to the world’s wisdom becomes even easier. It could be the most important religious development of our time, so let’s make sure we understand it.
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Ed: Brianna Bemel