Spiritual but not Religious – a new trend with ancient wisdom

The category “Spiritual But Not Religious” has become a growing and popular trend in western culture.  It is a catchy and cool way of saying “hey man, I’m totally in to Spirit and God Stuff – but I could do without all the dogma, rules and stuffy church things.”

In some circles this growing trend and identifier (SBNR) has been viewed as a threat to traditional religions.  There have been several blogs authored by religious voices chastising those who identify as SBNR – calling them out as being inferior to religiously devote people and as being caught up in a “self-centered American culture that finds ancient religions boring” but consider themselves unendingly fascinating.  Some of these blogs drew a lot of attention, including my own rebuttal to one particular criticism of SBNR at New Thought Theology.

It occurred to me then, as it does now that few learned scholars, ministers or theologians really understand or appreciate the deeper currents that lie beneath the catchy phrase / moniker SBNR.   The truth is this label is more than a mer post modernist response to the rigidity  that our fast paced culture finds in traditional religious institutions.  It is in fact a deep and enriching part of American culture for over 150 years and has positively impacted nearly every major religious institution for the better.  It is a by-product of the evolution of human consciousness and is simultaneously an ancient driving force within human thinking and religious development.

The challenge is human consciousness has developed a nasty habit of polarizing just about everything it contemplates.  This has left the religious world unable to see the deeper value, history and benefit of SBNR thinking.  But does tension between formalized religion and SBNR need to exist?  I think not and I believe that the New Thought movement and Centers for Spiritual Living stand as testament to this.

Those who identify as SBNR often do so as a result of the religious abuse and oppression that they have suffered in the name of God and religious authority.  More often than not, the SBNR among us do not “reject” religion as much as we reject dogma.  Dogma that has too often been defended and promoted by organized religion.  Dogma that has oppressed the weakest among us, dogma that has suppressed the Holy and Divine Feminine making it shameful and wrong. Dogma that has made a mockery of scripture by using it to defend racism, homophobia, sexism and classism. Dogma that has the audacity to put conditions on Grace, Love, Mercy and Salvation which Jesus so freely gave to all.  Dogma that helped produce a religious institution so unlike the name and nature of Jesus the Christ, that the Son of Man himself would be hard pressed to recognize it, much less defend it.

Under such circumstances the drive to be more spiritual but not religious seems understandable if not predictable.  I can understand why people have felt the desire to look outside of the institution that has far too often failed exemplify the simplest element of it’s own creed, to Love thy neighbor.  It is understandable that in the earliest days of the “New World” America, the naturalist and transcendentalist looked to nature to understand the nature of God.  And while they were on that seemingly self-indulgent path of personal discovery, they in fact encountered Jesus, Buddha, Krishna and the Christ Principle.  In many cases they found this encounter to be far more real, authentic, and transformative than anything they  previously experienced in “church.”

In the New Thought Movement we consider Jesus the great example, not the great exception.  The call to be more spiritual and less religious is one in which Jesus leads the charge.  SBNR might be considered new and trendy – but it is in fact an ancient pattern demonstrated in the life of Jesus.

Remember, he disappears from the biblical narrative from age 12-30 and when he reappears he is not touting the virtues of religious community nor dogmatic laws.  In fact, quite the opposite. He railed against the institutions of his day, their dogma, rules and authoritative judgements over society.  He sought his own personal relationship with God, so personal he called him Abba, Father.  So personal that this connection was not made through a creed, book or Temple, but in fact was closer than his breath and dwelled right within him.  Forgive me for thinking he was not “self-indulgent” for doing so.

It seems that Jesus was “Spiritual but not Religious”

Let us take note that often the loudest voices against Religious Institutions have been voices from the inside. Voices that have been the source of positive and evolutionary change.  Religious voices that have called upon us to be more spiritual and less religious.

Dr. Paul Tillich

“The importance of being a Christian is that we can stand in the insight that it is of no importance. It is the spiritual power of religion that he who is religious can fearlessly look at the vanity of religion. It is the maturest fruit of Christian understanding to understand that Christianity, as such, is of no avail.” – The New Being, p 19

Bishop John Shelby Spong

“So it needs to be said clear that the God presence of this Jesus will lead us ultimately beyond every religious definition.  Indeed, it will lead us beyond Jesus himself.  That becomes essential to human development whenever our idolatrous convictions identify the messenger of God with God.  So the Ground of Being will finally be worshiped apart from any system of religious thought.  It is a startling but real insight into the future of worship.”  - Why Christianity Must Change or Die, p. 224


Dr. Ernest Holmes
“Religion becomes dogmatic and often superstitious when based on the lengthened shadow of any one personality. Philosophy intrigues us only to the extent that it sounds a universal note….
The ethics of Buddha, the morals of Confucius, the beatitudes of Jesus, together with the deductions of other great minds, constitute viewpoints of life which should not be overlooked. The mystical concepts of the ancient sages of China keep faith with the sayings of Eckhart or Underhill; the deep thoughts of ages past are reworded in Emerson’s Essays, and wherever deep cries unto deep, deep answers deep.”   - Can We Talk to God?
The Centers for Spiritual Living movement seeks to be a movement that is dedicated to a “spiritual but not religious” way of life, focused on providing spiritual tools for personal and global transformation.   Imagine a community of people who are dedicated and focused on who they are becoming rather than what or if they are believing, behaving or belonging according to prescribed rules or dogma.  When I imagine such a community I see the vision that our founder Dr. Ernest Holmes described as “a group of people who could come to earth to stand for something and against nothing.” 

  • Charles Landis

    And so it is!

  • Bill Hammon

    IF Jesus rose from the grave, this whole “spiritual” thing changes, it seems to me. This Jesus may be considered one of the world’s finest philosophers but that’s not all there is… IF. So, it’s more than living well, or thinking correctly or being right which isn’t to say that those are not important; they are important and highly valued. It’s just that the historical, physical resurrection of Jesus changes the frame of reference for everything.

    • http://www.revdavidalexander.com Rev. David Alexander

      Bill – thanks for reading and for posting.

      The New Thought tradition does not focus on a literal translation of scripture, but a metaphysical and spiritual one. This was also the case by most early followers of Christianity in the first century. 3 of the 5 early theological schools taught non-literal and metaphorical interpretations of scripture. We also hold to the principle that says “consciousness is all that there is” That being the case one can assume that whatever happened that lead to the writings of about the resurrection – it was indeed an event in consciousness – very real to those who had this awakening. A real and powerful awakening of consciousness occurred and caused those who experienced it to share the story – the story continued to be told to generations until they were finally written down (40-80 years after “it” happened). Religious and theological arguments over its literal occurrence seem to me to take away from the value of the spiritual learning and awakening that is still very much alive and available to anyone who wishes to “enter the story” within their own consciousness. If a child believes in the children’s book “Thomas the Train” and is inspired to try hard and think positively – but then one day realizes that “Thomas” is not a “real” train and trains in general do not talk – does the child lose the valuable lessons learned? No.

      Denominations, groups and cultures can continue to argue over who is right and who is wrong, and how many angels on the head of a pin – but such self-important banter does not bring peace or harmony to the world. Scripture says that the letter of the law kills, but the Spirit of the law gives life. We can instead, choose to enter the Spirit of the ancient scriptures and traditions handed to us and engage in conscious growth and transformation. I assert that Christ will appear when we step into Christ Consciousness and begin treating all of humanity as our brother and sisters. The New Thought tradition has a phrase that says “Demonstration is the only authority” – scripture says “They shall know you by your loving” and by the “fruits of your labor”

  • http://joannevalentinesimson.wordpress.com/ J. A. V. Simson

    Excellent description and defense of the SBNR condition! I’ll confess I was not raised in a religious family, often had what might be called “spiritual experiences,” especially in and around nature. I became a biomedical scientist, but retained an interest in the spiritual. A lifetime of exploration of various religions eventually led to a book, “The God that Says I AM: A Scientist’s Meditations on the Nature of Spiritual Experience.” Perhaps a major strength of the book is a substantial glossary where terms, commonly used in religious dialogue, are defined so that readers will understand what I mean when I use the term.
    Is it acceptable to post the website for a book? Is it possible to have it included and/or reviewed in the Patheos website? If not, just delete this comment. If so, here it is: http://www.amazon.com/God-that-Says-Scientists-Meditations/dp/1450549047/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1286802360&sr=1-2

  • http://thinkunity.com John Kuykendall

    I firmly believe that religion or rigorous practice can’t be applied with pressure and intimidation because that only brings force and violence, not wisdom so it must be fulfilled with reason, debate and intuition. When religion is left to the conviction and conscience of every person, then one can achieve a balance in this world between positive and negative, good and evil, and also between pleasure and pain. If religion brings fear, hatred, separation or anything that will frighten a child, it is probably not a true practice. Religion should bring reverence and respect for everyone and everything, and it should also not be bent for the rich and powerful because one will see wealth and worldly pleasure as worthless in the higher layers of the mind. The cloak of hypocrisy and self-interest has to be removed so praise and blame can be taken with a calm assurance unaffected by both honor and disgrace. There is no need to limit our possibilities as we open our consciousness to greater receptivity, to an enlarged concept of life as it takes on a fresh and extraordinary interpretation.

  • http://livingontilt.wordpress.com Katherine Harms

    You simply forget that there is no other name given to us by which we may be saved from all the things SBNR eschews. The guilt and fear that drive us crazy otherwise — Jesus takes it all away and lives in us and beside us and all around us and through us. You have the behavior and attitudes almost right, but you miss the fact that Jesus truly is the Son of God, God and man simultaneously. He is able to bridge the divide between us and God because he was willing to give himself for us. You are right that religion does a lot of things that Jesus would not like, but that is no reason to throw Jesus himself away. Jesus is everything.

    • http://www.revdavidalexander.com Rev. David Alexander

      Katherine – I would never suggest throwing Jesus away. Not at all. In the New Thought tradition we consider Jesus the great example to all humanity. I would say that the Christ Consciousness which Jesus demonstrated is everything – because in fact, Consciousness is everything and Christ Consciousness is the highest level of spiritual awareness which one can achieve.

  • http://tiny.cc/bostonreaders ounbbl

    “Jesus was .” Yes, religion being the outward projection of human inner nature and power struggle against himself and against nature. Here Yeshua (aka Jesus) is being recruited for spirituality bandwagons.

  • Rev. Frank

    Here Here! As a United Church of Christ minister I applaud your column. When I was between churches I attended a New Thought Church and found it a wonderful experience. Since the UCC is a very liberal denomination with little dogma I was quite at home at the New Thought Church. Yes I agree SBNR could be comfortable alternative to those who see community but not dogma.

  • Will Davidson

    How many people out there really claim this title, SBNR? I ask because I was part of a group of folks that surveyed 300 + people at a US university and had an SBNR category and only 1 person checked it. Is SBNR being rejected by the younger generation who either totally reject the concept of a personal God/spiritual power or embrace a more orthodox (though not necessarily Christian) faith than their predecessors?
    That would be an interesting question to explore. . . .

  • Tracy

    I think the next step is to think it is all so much silliness — religion, and “spirituality.” Why not just try to be a good person and drop the fussy la-la stuff.

  • Deanna Vazquez

    Wonderful, relevant conversation. Thank you!

  • Jassy

    Well said :)

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  • Mia Young

    Rev. David Alexander,

    This is a wonderfully written post, highlighting the growing spiritual but not religious movement and how New Thought Theology compliments this trend by returning to the spiritual teachings of Christ and “metaphysical and spiritual interpretation of the bible.” As a student myself, I know many individuals who identify as spiritual but not religious. From my own research into the subject, I haven’t found much information on Christian religions that are open to, accepting of and supportive of these individuals. I agree that most of the world misunderstands “the deeper value, history and benefit of SBNR thinking” to the point where these individuals are given a bad reputation. I am curious as to what you think can be done to change this misconception? To explain in such a way that the learned ministers, scholars or theologians will understand and accept? Your assertion that Jesus may have been spiritual but not religious and the emphasis on his personal connection with God, is brilliant. This transformation and understanding is an important part of the spiritual process for SBNR identified individuals. I would have liked to see more examples of how Jesus would have been SBNR and how thinking of him in this way is beneficial.

    I think that you are correct in saying that dogma being used as a tool of oppression is a main reason why people are looking outside of their religious institutions and embarking on a path of self-discovery. However, I also credit the rising number of SBNR individuals to the advancements in science and technology that currently rule our country. These advancements such as the studies into the nature of the mind using physics and neuroscience are changing the way people view spirituality, religion and themselves. Do you think that by being SBNR, there is more of an acceptance and connection with science and technology? What is the New Thought view of science and in your opinion is there a possible bridge between science and spirituality or should they be kept separate? I think your post is well needed and appreciated in a time where the term spirituality is ambiguous and the number of individuals who are spiritual but not religious is most definitely going to increase as time goes on.