So You Want a #Spiritual Experience? #SBNR

So You Want a #Spiritual Experience? #SBNR April 21, 2016


Which religion offers the best chance at a spiritual experience? Thirty-nine percent of Evangelical Christians and 47% of Roman Catholics report having had such experiences sometime in their lives, the highest percentages among the religious. (“Spirituality” is a US phenomenon.)

But the answer is none of the above. Fifty-four percent of atheists report feeling a “deep sense of wonder” concerning the universe every week, with 70% reporting having experienced a deep sense of awe and wonder sometime in lives, triggered for the most part by nature or science.

The numbers don’t lie: if you’re looking for what has traditionally been called a “religious experience,” being atheist is your best bet.

How could this be, when atheists assume a universe of cause and effect. A universe with no purpose or design?

“Why?” indeed.


For my money, the most spiritually revolutionary moment of the past hundred years occurred back in the 1950s. No, it wasn’t when Billy Graham went on “crusade” or when President Eisenhower signed the bill that added the decidedly theocratic “in god we trust” to US currency.

No, my vote for the greatest moment in the spiritual transformation of the United States occurred when Michael Murphy (not the pop singer) and Frederic Spiegelberg

founded Esalen Institute. Not that the institution itself has been particularly influential, but because “spiritual but not religious” became the rallying cry for the revolution Spiegelberg and Murphy set in motion. The Esalen motto is: “No one captures the flag,” meaning that no religion (or science) has all the truth. Spiegelberg published a book titled The Religion of No Religion.

“Spiritual but not religious” has proven to be utterly devastating to mainline Protestant denominations, many of which have dropped all pretense of theological coherence in the scramble to survive. The nebulousness of just what it might mean to be SBNR lends the idea charm. Whatever SBNR is, it’s about experience, not creed or dogma.

Far from being an aberration, this trend reflects the traditional American do-it-yourself attitude toward religions. The US—even before the rebellion against colonial masters—was a marketplace of competing religions. The only difference now is that people are choosing more and more to consume religions not marked “traditional” or even Christian.


Why is it happening? Where will it end? My suspicion is that the rebellion’s cause is simple. Consider these words, from a pamphlet published in the 1530’s by a Protestant of the Reformation period:

We now have a God who does us no good. He takes away our property and endangers our lives. Frequently he forbids us to eat eggs, butter, and meat, sends us off to die in his wars, and excommunicates and damns us eternally over one unpaid groschen (coin). Either our God is no God at all, or he is not the true God. For a true God does good things for his servants and protects and saves them. (Protestants: the Birth of a Revolution by Steven Ozment)

Which is the true god? Might there be no god at all? It’s a choice people risked their lives for during the Reformation. It’s a choice people are making with their feet today.

Traditional European religion no longer makes sense to many people looking for meaning and purpose in this world.

Just remember where you’re most likely to have that spiritual experience . . .


Awe and Wonder Among Religious:


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