You too can be a spiritual dilettante

National_Cathedral_Sanctuary.jpgGetReligion has offered few sympathetic words for Sally Quinn or for On Faith, the religion blog that she founded with Newsweek editor Jon Meacham. As many readers will remember, Quinn identified herself as an atheist until Meacham challenged her assertion.

Since then, her specialty has been a spiritual dilettantism that declared evangelical women to be hyprocrites if they supported Sarah Palin’s vice presidential candidacy and that invited President-elect Obama to attend Washington National Cathedral because it’s such a pluralistic house of worship.

Now On Faith, in the name of social progress, is encouraging its readers to engage in a similar drive-by pluralism. Quinn writes:

Here’s what we’re inviting you to do.

Try a new faith (or non-faith) for one day. That exploration can include attending a different place of worship or an event hosted by another faith tradition, discussing faith with someone whose views differ from your own, or inviting someone of a different faith to experience yours.

Then come back to the site and tell us about your experience. What did you learn? What surprised you? What bothered you? What would you like to know more about? How did you experience with another faith impact your understanding of or appreciation for that faith or for your own? Take a picture and share that too.

Asking questions about another person’s spiritual experience for one whole day? Such boldness!

On Faith’s venture is, in some ways, a creative effort at reader participation, and some valuable insights may somehow emerge from the experiment. What’s so off-putting about the venture, however, is the editors’ assumption that readers are not already engaged in civil and frequent conversations with people of other faiths (or non-faiths, to use On Faith’s pedantic formula).

That may be true of editors who inveigh against people to their political and theological right, but for many others of us in daily American life, such interaction is not only inevitable but something in which we rejoice.

Photo of Washington National Cathedral used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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  • Sabrina

    The interaction with friends and acquaintances of other faiths may be commonplace, but the process of sitting down to write a piece about it (which requires a type of articulation not necessarily of the day-to-day variety) will be new to many people. I don’t actually get anything pedantic about the invitation (at least as you’ve cited it). Sorry!

  • Mike Hickerson

    The phrase “try a new faith” is a off-putting. Visiting a new place of worship or discussing religious differences with a friend is hardly the same as “trying” a new faith. For example, a Christian and a Muslim talking about religion is all fine and good, but I would strongly caution each of them not to participate in the other’s worship service without some deep consideration beforehand, o both the implications for themselves and how it will be perceived by others.

    I relate this to Quinn’s post about her experience at Tim Russert’s funeral, in which she thought it was perfectly OK for her to participate in Catholic communion simply because she felt like it. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, Quinn seems to treat “faith” as the equivalent of rooting for a sports team. “You like the Steelers, I like the Bengals, but hey, it’s all the same game in the end.”

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  • Stoo

    There’s a rather unecessarily scornful tone to this post. Maybe being a “spiritual dilettante” is what works for some people. Maybe it is all the same game. However much the “our way is the only way” types sneer.

    Of course not everyone can just give up their faith and try out being a member of another for a day, and I appreciate that she should have been more careful about the difference between participating in something and learning about it.

    But if people are already “already engaged in civil and frequent conversations” then they can write in, just like she says!

  • Chris Bolinger

    And yet most of us know little about our own faith traditions and much less or nothing at all about others.

    Most of us, Sally? Who is “us”? Feel free to leave me, and many other deeply religious people, out of your little clique of ignorance.

    Stoo, Quinn doesn’t make the assumption that people are “already engaged in civil and frequent conversations”. She assumes the opposite. She also indicates quite clearly her belief that your one-day “experience” with a faith will be illuminating, challenging, and instructive, not just to you but to others, and much better than hearing from people with a “religious agenda”.

    Ah, ignorance is bliss, experience is everything, and discussion leads to enlightenment.

  • Stoo

    She also indicates quite clearly her belief that your one-day “experience” with a faith will be illuminating, challenging, and instructive, not just to you but to others, and much better than hearing from people with a “religious agenda”.

    Sounds good to me! :D

  • Jerry

    And yet most of us know little about our own faith traditions

    That is an accurate statement. Of course it does not apply to ALL but to MOST. Most Americans don’t know what is in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the scriptures of their religion. For example, most Americans don’t know the 10 commandments nor even further know that the list is a bit different depending on one’s religion – Jewish, Catholic, Protestant:

    Also, to me the question is one of motive. If someone attends respectfully in an honest desire to learn it’s one thing. Someone who drops in to kill a few hours to listen to the music and watch the rituals is something else.

    What’s so off-putting about the venture, however, is the editors’ assumption that readers are not already engaged in civil and frequent conversations with people of other faiths

    Really? How many people have really talked with someone else of a different faith about the details of their faith in the past year or even the past 10? Granted that people who write and read this blog do, but I warrant it’s not many in the general population. I know many who would be happy to tell me why their belief is great, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times someone has asked me what I believe and why.

    Yes, what she’s advocating is not an in-depth exploration, but it was at least a request that people take a tiny step out of their daily comfort zone and try to learn something new. And I think that’s a positive step, albeit only one step on a long journey.

  • Rev. Michael Church

    I suspect that, given the current state of public discourse, most Americans would be better served by trying to adopt — and articulate — unfamiliar political opinions.

    “Buddhist for a day” (or Nazarene, or whatever) would be much easier for many people than “Red State for a day.” (Or Blue State, obviously).

  • Mike Hickerson

    Most of us, Sally? Who is “us”? Feel free to leave me, and many other deeply religious people, out of your little clique of ignorance.

    Actually, I think I agree with her on this one. I’ve taught a world religions course in my church several times, and most of the people – who tend to take their faith very seriously – don’t know much about our tradition. To clarify: This is a nondenominational, evangelical church; they know quite a bit about what they believe, what our church believes, and about the Bible, but not much history or tradition, even fairly recent history. I always start with Christianity in my world religions class, to make sure we’re all on the same page.

    Many rather than “Crossing Faith,” Quinn should challenge her readers to “Deepening Faith” – exploring their own tradition through reading, conversation, etc. – before branching off into other religions. However, I don’t think Quinn means “tradition” in the same way I do; I think she intends “tradition” to include everything about a religion, while I’m speaking specifically of history, historical practices, traditional practices, etc.

  • Dave

    I think Quinn’s point is that you have to crawl before you can walk, and those of us who are already sprinters shouldn’t belittle her effort.

  • MichaelV

    There is no question that the only reasonable response to the phrase “try a new faith for one day” is – as they say on the internetz – an epic facepalm. But hey, learnig something about other faiths… not a bad idea.

  • Martha

    “Quinn identified herself as an atheist until Meacham challenged her assertion.”

    That is so perfect in itself that further comment would be superfluous. It explains so much about Meacham’s view of religion and Quinn’s susceptibility to influence (for pete’s sake, either you’re sure you don’t believe in a deity or deities, or you call yourself an agnostic) that really, what more do we need to say?

    “Try a new faith (or non-faith) for one day.”

    On the face of it, this is a reasonable idea. On the other hand, if you’re going to be a spiritual tourist, you don’t get to behave the same way as you do at home – for example, attending Mass and expecting to receive Communion when you’re not a Catholic and have no intention of becoming one, for one instance.

    Why does this strike me as the equivalent of buying statues of Buddha as house decorations?

  • Dan

    Ms. Quinn already has practiced what she preaches by taking communion at Tim Russert’s funeral Mass. It is unclear however how this could simulate the Catholic experience given that she is not Catholic and Catholic teaching forbids non-Catholics from receiving communion. She has been quoted as saying that after receiving communion she “had a slightly nauseated sensation.” Perhaps the lesson learned is that profaning a sacrament leads to sickness. Ms. Quinn says the goal of the exercise is “tolerance, understanding, appreciation and mutual respect.” However since Tim Russert’s funeral Mass I haven’t noticed on her part any increased “tolerance, understanding, appreciation” or “respect” for the Catholic Church.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    Dave, she’s not asking people to crawl before they walk because she is not interested in anyone going on a serious journey. She’s asking people to crawl (if that) and then thrill the rest of us with expositions about their little one-day ventures. Spare me. This does not encourage anything but noise, and we have enough noise.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Jerry (#7), “most” is a favorite weasel word in today’s press, matched by “many”. Its use indicates a lack of research and a general laziness. Of course, in this case it is perfect, because it comes from someone who knows little about any religions and yet edits a religion blog. Borderline Orwellian.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It is impossible for a person to be a “spritual tourist” of either the Catholic or the Orthodox Churches, no matter how much ignorance ms. Quinn sprays around. This is because fervent commitment to the orthodox understanding and practice of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is at the heart and soul of these Mother Churches of Christianity. Also, there is no way for a religious dabbler to experience the positive spiritual impact of the sacraments. For in reality a dabbler is trashing the sacraments by receiving them as unbelievers–and they know in their hearts that what they are doing is a fraud and deceit of the highest order.
    No wonder ms. Quinn felt nauseus–she knew what an utterly despicable act she had perpetrated. She knew she wasn’t merely dabbling in the Sacrament of the Eucharist–she clearly knew she was mocking the Body and Blood of Christ.

  • Dave

    I’m impressed at the mind-reading prowess of Chris and the Deacon, knowing what was going on in Ms Quinn’s mind better than she does. :-)

  • Mollie

    There is a world of difference between learning more about another religion and “trying a new faith.”

    Think of it as the difference between learning about a woman who is not your wife and sleeping with her.

    For some people, the comparison isn’t apt. For others, it is.

    Somewhat related, I have Orthodox Jewish friends for whom it would — arguably, at least — be a violation of their religious tenets to come to my children’s baptism services. There are certain restrictions on what I as a Lutheran can do when it comes to learning about another religion. I know that Quinn has discussed her religious ignorance at length but it’s good to be sensitive to such views.

  • Martha

    “Trying on” another faith makes the whole experience sound about as profound as shoe-shopping.

    If your little one-day taste piques your interest and gets you exploring that other faith in depth, great!

    But a one-day taste of being Buddhist/Jewish/atheist/Mormon/Taoist and then writing it up about how it affected you? I’m willing to bet that (1) any who do try it will all start off with (a) their expectations (b) how similar/different it was to their expectations (2) it will go no deeper than that.

    Seriously, I’m trying to work out a plan here for someone doing the “One-day Roman Catholic” bit, and I’m splitting my sides laughing, because:

    “Okay, we’ll start off with the Office of the Hours as prayed by monastic communities. First, we wake you up at 3 a.m. for Lauds! Then Prime at 6 a.m. and we can say the Angelus as well – yeah, I’ll have to teach you that. Then private prayer, early Mass, then we should be in time to say Tierce.

    After that, we’ll do some of the 7 corporal works of mercy, maybe visit a hospital – you don’t happen to know anyone in jail, do you, ‘cos that’d be just right!.

    That should fill in the time till noon, when we’ll say the Angelus again, and more of the Office – Sext this time. Then time for lunch – since it’ll be treated as a day of fast and abstinence, tell me if there’s any particular vegetarian recipes you like.

    Then we can either do more of the 7 corporal works of mercy, or maybe fit in a Holy Hour. Might start a Novena as well, while we’re at it. Oh, and the most important of all – Eucharistic adoration in the chapel of Perpetual Exposition.

    When it hits 3 p.m. we’ll recite Nones, then it’s pretty much free time until 6 p.m. and Vespers. And the Angelus again. And at least a decade of the Rosary. Still, during that period between 3 and 6 p.m. you can do any private devotions you like, visit a shrine, join the Legion of Mary, the Children of Mary, the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, and a load of other confraternities and sodalities that I don’t have time to mention here.

    And there are always the corporal and spiritual works of mercy to keep you going! We probably won’t be able to fit in a full pilgrimage, but you can at least start one.

    Then it’s Compline at 9 p.m. and after that, your time is your own! That’s when you can start on all the encyclicals and volumes of theology. Lots of reading there! Oh, that reminds me – here’s the Catechism. Yes, it is big, isn’t it?”

    I mean, come on: how do you give even a representative slice of what a faith is like in one day?

  • Sabrina

    I attended one friend’s Passover Seder and the Bat Mitzvah of another friend’s daughter and I came away from both enriched. On the most obvious level, now when I run across a mention of a Seder or a Bat Mitzvah I have a memory to inform it.

    To use Quinn’s admittedly facile words: did I “learn” anything at the Seder? Boy, howdy. From the bitter herbs to setting a place for Elijah to the difference between my friend’s matzo ball soup (the kneidlach float) and her mother’s (they sink). Did anything “surprise” me at the Bat Mitzvah? That the chanting of the Torah moved me so profoundly — in spite of my not understanding a word of it.

    Granted, these are not epiphanies (I’m too earthy to have anything but kitchen epiphanies, I’m afraid) but then, is that what Quinn is really asking for? Nope. She’s not asking for the full monte monastic experience nor the Ignatian Exercises either. Just a few hours of (figuratively) sitting in community.

    I’m not sure why we’re excoriating Quinn (I confess, I’ve never read her before today). But, if it is because she was an atheist who no longer is and we can’t believe a conversion so unlikely … what does that say about how small we’re imagining God?

  • Harris

    In a small defense of tourism, it is sometimes useful to get out of the house. Where Quinn does get in trouble is in this aspect of seeking out, as in “hmm, never had one of those before…” this seems to boil down to a search for novelty. Yes, and the social media aspect of “come bacjk ad tell…” well, that’s more than a bit creepy.


    How do we understand our neighbors if we don’t have some sense of their religious framework — not just beliefs, but it’s social setting, even of its lived reality? A visit can be an occasion to meet and better understand one’s neighbors, and not simply an exercise in self-gratification.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Quinn edits a blog. Her goal is to get people to participate in the blog. But she sets to bar so low that she encourages nothing but noise.

  • R.D. Shepherd

    You know you’ve stumbled onto a good website when on the first visit you learn a new word and have to look it up:

    Dilettante—“a person who takes up an art, activity, or subject merely for amusement, esp. in a desultory or superficial way; dabbler.” (

    When I see things like this article, where plurality of religion is placed on a pedestal (and where by implication those who do not practice plurality are obviously spiritual Neanderthals), I think to myself: 1) what is so superior about such a pluralism? and 2) this is a disturbing turn towards yet another monolithic and fascistic movement.

    As a Christian I am already in the habit of going out and purposely interacting with people of other faiths or “non-faiths” (an oxymoron since even Atheism is founded on a kind of faith). In doing so, of course, I am attempting to fulfill Jesus’ command with the aim of leading them towards Him (i.e. evangelism, proselytizing, etc.). I’m sure that Sally Quinn would not approve however. Even though I do learn interesting and admirable things from other people while evangelizing, I do not for a second consider their faith as a whole to be valid. You could even say I am trying to “win them over to my side,” (though at the end of the day it’s not really me who does any winning, but the Holy Spirit Himself). For a Christian it comes down to this: “I am already loyal to one Master, how can I recognize another?”

    Yet this Sally Quinn, and many others like her, would have me recognizing many others gods and gospels for the sake of… what? I wonder. Agreeing to disagree has kept the peace at many times and places. Why must we all be forced to agree? Make no mistake, we are being forced. While the present mantra is merely: “accept other faiths as valid, or you’re narrow-minded/intolerant, etc., etc.,” how long before it becomes “accept other faiths as valid, or else,” …? Weren’t the Jews first ridiculed and marginalized before they were massacred, whether by medieval Christians or 20th century Nazis?

    While I am not saying that there is any open ridicule in Quinn’s article, or that secular types are out to get me, I am trying to highlight a potentially dangerous trend. This movement is not only growing in the secular world, but I find it again and again embedded within many different religions. Even in Christianity there is the “emergent church” movement which no longer makes truth claims, especially those central to the Gospel. It’s as if there is some kind “peer pressure” spreading around the nation. If a monopoly is a bad thing for the market place, what will be the effect when so many religions adopt one central philosophy, and those who choose to cling to only one Lord are marginalized? If you are familiar with early Church history, then you will understand why I am feeling a sense of déjà vu.

    –R.D. Shepherd

  • Stoo

    Make no mistake, we are being forced.

    No, you’re really not.

  • Stephen A.

    Wow, I agree with the liberal columnist on this one, for the most part.

    I think this is an honest attempt to suggest that someone leave their comfort zone and experience a religion for themselves, rather than hearing it second-hand or from a proselytizer.

    While the “trying on a faith” word construction is a bit off, and I share the concern about “showing off” the one-day visitation on a blog afterwards (something that *could* lend itself to a kind of religious voyeurism) in most religious traditions, it’s certainly permissible to visit another religious tradition’s service, and it can, as she notes, be really enlightening.

    I’ve been to fundamentalist, Catholic, Baptist and Unitarian Universalist churches and even pagan and non-traditional ceremonies and have learned a great deal. That doesn’t mean I totally agree with any of those faiths, or that I’m going to adopt that faith after simply attending a service, and that’s obviously not the point of the exercise.

    But still, seeing others for what they are is a GREAT benefit. And if you’re a religion reporter, I highly recommend doing this. 99% of the problems we see in stories featured here on GR are from NOT understanding religious practices, beliefs and attitudes. What better way to solve that than SEE and SPEAK and LEARN from other faiths one-on-one?

  • Dave

    Wow, I agree with Stephen A. on this one.

  • Joe G.

    It seems a rather pointless effort, to be honest. The best way to learn about a different faith is, you know, to learn about it. Which won’t happen in a day.

    I could see what it’s like to be a marathoner for a day. I’d break out the shortshorts, go on a brutal run, get home, and spend the rest of the day in the tub.

    I wouldn’t know much about marathoning, but perhaps I could tell people I know what it’s like to be one.

  • Stephen A.

    Joe G, as noted, you aren’t being asked to CONVERT to a faith, just to participate in a service and speak to a believer in that faith. Otherwise, the marathon analogy would be right on target.

    Running with a marathoner for a day may indeed be instructive, unless he’s a mute, and doesn’t tell you (as well as show you) all of the things necessary to become a marathon runner. Surely the intensity of the workout will give you a clue, too. Just like a visit to a church/synagogue/mosque would be instructive. Though no, not ALL inclusive of a full lifetime of living that faith. I’ll grant you that one.

    This whole story reminds me of that book a few years back “How to be a Perfect Stranger.” It’s all about how one should act, and what to expect, when visiting other places of worship. Fascinating.