What’s Next After “Spiritual But Not Religious”?

What’s Next After “Spiritual But Not Religious”? August 26, 2015

Editor’s Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on

the Future of Faith in America: New Religions. Read other perspectives here.

Even seminarians sometimes sleep late and skip church. On such occasions, my classmates and I, if asked, would sometimes joke that we had attended “The Church of the Holy Comforter.” Along these lines, Wendell Berry published a book titled A Timbered Choir of poems inspired by long walks through the woods that he had taken in lieu of attending a Sunday morning religious service. And there have been times in my life when what my spirit needed was not institutionalized religion, but to go running, read The New York Times, or enjoy a leisurely brunch with friends. Nevertheless, I invite you to consider that in our individualized world of computer screens and smart phones, increasing numbers of people may find — as I have — that becoming part of an open-minded, open-hearted, justice-seeking religious community can provide a life-giving community in our often-fractured, postmodern world.

Surveys increasingly show that, “The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing.” In response, the trajectory I seek to facilitate for the “Spiritual But Not Religious” set is the move from dependence on the communities of one’s childhood through the struggle of individuation and independence (which is where many SBNRs find themselves hung up) to a more mature, freely-chosen interdependence. 

The word religion comes from adding the Latin prefix re- (meaning “again”) to the root ligare (meaning “bind PatheosPublicSquareor connect”). So the etymological root of the word religion means to “bind together again” or “to re-connect.” But if you are transitioning from the dependence stage of your life toward increasing independence, then religion (especially close-minded, fundamentalist strains) can feel like they are constricting your growth, binding you in an infantilizing dependence from which you rightly feel compelled to escape. Indeed, being “religious but not spiritual” as an adult — unquestioningly supporting a religion based on a mythological past and external authority — is far more narrowing than whatever developmental limitations might arise in an extended stage of “spiritual, but not religious,” based on internal authority alone. But staying too long in that middle stage of “spiritual, but not religious” risks devolution into an unhealthy narcissism of entitlement and self-involvement. And it is communities of people working together across diverse differences, not isolated individuals, which have the greatest chance of transforming this world for the better.

I believe that Unitarian Universalism — an intentionally pluralistic religious movement that embraces wisdom from all the world’s religions, balanced with the insights of science—is one (among many) paths for choosing a mature interdependence on the other side of independence, of being spiritual and religious. Our focus is on “deeds not creeds”: seeking to join together in a “big tent” to build a better world, despite differences in our views. As the saying goes, “You don’t have to believe alike to love alike.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, wrote that the three greatest threats to a hopeful future for our world are poverty, racism, and militarism. If we are going to continue to turn Dr. King’s dream into deeds, we need one another. Isolated individuals cannot overcome the interrelated oppressions of poverty, racism, and militarism. A self-made, individualized religion of sleeping in, taking long walks, and going to brunch with friends won’t suffice. But together, we can do more than any of us are capable of alone.

To reach our full potential, each of us must move through the fires of independence. As Dr. King said, “Let freedom ring!” But freedom alone cannot be the end of the story. The call and challenge of our time is to freely choose a compassionate, pluralistic interdependence. As Dr. King said, “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community.”

The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).

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