To Be or Not to Be: My Take on the "Spiritual But Not Religious" Choice

For sometime, I wanted to write an article about the "spiritual, but not religious." Most of my attempts to reflect on this spiritual identity never made it to paper or read as rambles about my beliefs. I eventually came across Alan Miller's post on the CNN Belief Blog a few months ago. Miller's article, "My Take: 'I'm spiritual, but not religious' is a cop-out," moved me from reflection to action. 

Miller calls for the "spiritual, but not religious" to make a choice. He sees the "movement," a term he finds problematic, as reflecting a generation of individualism. Miller writes,

Moreover, the spiritual but not religious reflect the "me" generation of self-obsessed, truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking, where big, historic, demanding institutions that have expectations about behavior, attitudes and observance and rules are jettisoned yet nothing positive is put in replacement.

I found this statement to be true, but upsetting. I agree that "my" generation is self-obsessed. We create our identities via Facebook, Twitter, and even blogs such as mine, deleting and blocking at will what we find to be offensive or wrong. We advertise ourselves constantly, marketing our physical, intellectual, and fun qualities to have friends, mates, employers, and strangers "follow" and "like" us. Our lives center around how we "feel" and the world must contort to accommodate our feelings, exploiting the larger good for our personal sensibilities. 

I am an active participant in this self-centered phenomena, there is no denying that fact, because who doesn't enjoy a little ego stroking? I agree with Miller that there is a growing tendency to boldly and loudly state what is wrong with an institution without offering solutions. It is as if we believe that the historical formation of the world should shift in a second because we have a problem, but would rather abandon it for something new than work for change. Yet, Miller's comment unsettled me, because 1) he's talking about me and 2) I read it as the culmination of a call for a simple "this-or-that" world.

In an individualistic plea, common to my Western generation, I wanted to shout, "Not me, Miller! That's not me!" After calming my reactive sensibilities, I realized that I might be the exact person Miller discusses. I have struggled to identify my beliefs since I was in middle school. For many years, I proudly announced I was "spiritual, but not religious." Then something about that expression did not sit well with me, so I resorted to keeping silent. If questioned, my response was "I don't know." 

I was at such a loss that even the term agnostic bothered me, because I did not want to be viewed as an unintelligent, toss-my-hands-up, take-the-easy-way-out "spiritual" person. This perception of agnosticism was routinely implied when people would take my lack of response as an opportunity to label my beliefs. This labeling and categorizing, what I believe is a human need to understand the world, is where I take issue with Miller's call for a decision to be made between "a belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action." (Please note, I am glancing over the obvious Christian slant of his article, because Miller is clearly focused on disaffected Christians.) 

As Crystal St. Marie Lewis explains in her article, "God in the Gray Areas: A Defense of the Spiritual But Not Religious," religious belief is not black-and-white. Perhaps Miller intended to discuss religious identity rather than belief, but he should have been clearer about such a distinction. Amidst his cries against the lack of discipline and doctrinal structure among the "spiritual, but not religious," he appears to be demanding that people place themselves into a nicely labeled belief box: Christian, Humanist, Muslim, Hindu, Atheist, etc. Yet, it is exactly these boxes that have led to an exodus from institutionalized religion in the West.

Miller recognizes the issues adherents are taking with their religious institutions. He writes, "It seems that just being a part of a religious institution is nowadays associated negatively, with everything from the Religious Right to child abuse, back to the Crusades and of course with terrorism today." St. Marie Lewis even acknowledges that she is a "Christian with caveats." Yet, Miller still wants people to be "in" or "out," which I find to be a difficult approach in today's world. 

In a society where people seemingly want their church to match their every belief—social, religious, and political—is it possible that the "Christian/Jewish/Muslim, but" expression is just one step away from "spiritual, but not religious"? Yes, religious institutions and religious groups provide community and offer a place to "belong," but the Internet allows people to establish virtual communities and churches that potentially provide the same benefits as the tangible.