Mercadante: Spiritual but not Religious

The stereotype of bloggers is that we do it in our pajamas. That usually isn’t true of me. But as I am recovering from surgery and any kind of tighter waist band bothers my incision, I have succumbed to the stereotype. I am no longer taking anything mood altering for pain. I am no more befuddled than usual, so I am ready to start my next reading project.  I am reading Linda A. Mercadante’s Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious.


“When I have spoken with SBNRs, they take a decidedly non-dogmatic stance against religious belief in general. They claim not only that religious belief is non-essential, but that it is potentially harmful or at least a hindrance to spirituality. In fact, many contend that any insistence on truth claims, religious belief, or conceptual clarity is really the hegemonic thought control of organized religion. They often insist they do not need to believe anything particular to grow spiritually, and that it really does not matter what you believe. Instead, they claim that spiritual and/or religious beliefs are personal, individualistic, open ended and beyond proof” (p. 8).

In spite of this, she went ahead and interviewed many of these people precisely about their beliefs. She did not find them resistant. In fact, they seemed eager to talk about this. Many seemed grateful to have someone to listen and take their thoughts seriously. They wanted to keep talking after the interview time had run out.

I found it amusing that when she asked church people to help her find SBNRs to interview, many would lower their voices or take her aside and confide that they considered themselves spiritual but not religious. This included some clergy. This doesn’t really surprise me, though.

Mercadante argues that we must consider what people believe. Theology connects with life and behavior. You may think that spirituality can only be lived, but to some extent it inevitably also must be thought. So she finds it quite legitimate to ask these people what they believe.

She says that in doing the interviews she had to put aside some prior assumptions. She has assumed that she might run into distrust and hostility toward her as clergy and a representative of organized religion. But she didn’t find that. She also assumed that many of these people would have left religion because they had been hurt by the church. Some clergy ask what the church must have done to offend these people. But she did not find many examples of this. Some people felt that they had been intellectually or spiritually constrained by the church. But few felt they had been abused.

She also found that there is a lot of variety among the SBNR. Some lump them together as “seekers”, but that doesn’t actually apply to all of them. They represented many social classes, educational levels, occupations, ages, and so on.

One of the problems is defining what “religion” and “spirituality” mean. She decided that they are pretty similar, although religion carries negative connotations for many contemporary people. But they both include belief, desires, rituals, and behavioral expectations.

She touched on four themes in her interviews. First, she wanted to know if people believed in any thing beyond themselves, any higher or sacred power. Second, she asked about what it means to be human. Third, she asked whether spiritual growth was just individual, or did it have a communal dimension. And finally, she asked people what they expected after death.

So this should be an interesting report about a phenomena that is pervasive in Western cultures today.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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