Spiritual But Not Religious, Again

I’m coming in late on the most recent flare-up about the “Spiritual But Not Religious,” but some of you may not have seen it, and in any case I have a few things I want to discuss.

This episode began when this essay by Rev. Lillian Daniel of the United Church of Christ was published in The Christian Century, a long-running magazine for mainline Protestants.  It’s titled “The Limits of Self-Made Religion” and it was inspired by someone who cornered Rev. Daniel and proceeded to explain why he is “spiritual but not religious” and why he no longer attends church – reasons Rev. Daniel finds weak and self-centered.  If you haven’t read it yet I encourage you to do so – especially if you consider yourself spiritual but not religious.

The article began circulating widely last week and it generated a lot of responses.  UU World linked to this one by Rev. Tony Lorenzen who says we should be spiritual AND religious, and to this one by Rev. Kit Ketcham who says “I’m on both sides of this question” and then justifies (I think) her fence-sitting.  Rev. Victoria Weinstein (aka “PeaceBang”) had this blog post blasting the spiritual but not religious and then this much calmer followup where she encouraged ministers to be as passionate and committed about teaching spiritual depth as they are about leading social justice.

I’ve had a couple of things to say about this in the past:  this one where I complain that “calling yourself spiritual but not religious is all too frequently an excuse for spiritual laziness” and this one following Amy Martin’s recent service at Denton UU where she explained the Spiritual But Not Religious phenomenon more sypathetically and in more detail.

That’s the background.  Here’s what I want to add to this conversation.

“Spiritual But Not Religious” is a spectrum, not a monolith.  There are people who call themselves spiritual but not religious or “none of the above” (to use Amy Martin’s term) who are genuinely unsuited for the religion they know and who are actively searching for the right fit somewhere else.  There are people who recognize they need to work on themselves for a while and who are diligently reading, studying, praying and meditating before joining or rejoining a community.  I was there once, for about a year. 

Then there are people who use the term “spiritual but not religious” to justify their avoidance of the hard work of regular spiritual practice and the accountability of religious community.  This is spiritual shallowness and laziness.  If I’m being perfectly honest, I’ve been there too.  And there are people at every point in between.  When we talk about the spiritual but not religious we need to recognize we’re speaking in high-level generalities.

This is no different from every religion in the world.  Every religious organization I’ve ever been around has had people who took it seriously and people who showed up when they felt like it.  There are Christians who study the Bible and there are Christians who pull verses out of context to support their prejudices.  There are Pagans who honor their gods and goddesses and there are Pagans who look up a goddess in a book and greet her with a list of stuff they want.  There are UUs who work for social justice and there are UUs who talk about the work that others do.  As a group, the spiritual but not religious are no better and no worse than any other group.

Ministerial defensiveness is understandable but not helpful.  If you buttonhole a minister and dump on her with a bunch of shallow, self-centered ideas about spirituality, then you deserve all the snark you get.  That’s just rude.  But when Rev. PeaceBang lists her qualifications and the sacrifices she’s made to become a minister and then compares herself with a cardiologist, that invites the wounded and the cynical to assume she’s saying “I’m the authority – obey me!”  I’m not saying she should be warm and fuzzy when she’s justifiably angry, but a professional needs to understand when an insult is personal and when it’s not.  Refute childish claims to spiritual superiority with mature questions and challenging facts – an approach Rev. PeaceBang herself recommends in her second blog entry.

This controversy is helping us to correct the popular definition of “religion.”  Our society has shifted the wonderful concept of religious liberty from the idea that you’re free to join whatever religious community seems right to the idea that religion is strictly a personal matter.  But religion isn’t something you do on your own.  The earliest religions were all about the tribe – how to obtain the blessings of the gods and ancestors so the tribe would prosper.  The Abrahamic religions have a mixture of individual and communal emphasis:  the Ten Commandments are about personal behavior, while most of the prophets are about building a just society.  That’s a gross oversimplification, but it illustrates how religion has a strong group element.

When the SBNR say they’re “not religious” they’re literally correct.  They’re not religious because their spirituality (such as it is) is focused entirely inward.  If this controversy helps people to understand that religion is about a lot more than what you believe, that it’s about building and supporting a community, then that’s a good thing.

So, how should we respond?  Unlike some religious and/or spiritual movements (say, Christian dominionists or Islamic militants), the spiritual but not religious don’t present a danger to the rest of us.  We don’t have to convert them or correct their errors.  We just need to be the best religious people building the best religious communities we can.  Sooner or later the seekers will turn into finders and some of them will find us.  If we’re healthy and thriving some of them will stick around.  Some will realize their shallow childish spirituality isn’t satisfying and sustaining and will start looking for something deeper.  They should find us living that depth. 

Good religion is hard work.  At the individual level it requires dedicated practice.  At the group level it requires cooperation, compromise, and a commitment to a long term vision of something bigger and better than yourself.  Religion is a human institution, and as such it is subject to all the failures of human endeavors. 

But when it’s done right, that work will build a religious, and yes, a spiritual base that will support us in tough times, celebrate with us in good times, and most importantly, provide a means for the transformation of our souls and of our world.

And that’s something no mere “spirituality” can provide.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.


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