Is there anything cohesive about the people who claim to be spiritual but not religious (SBNR)? In other words, is it possible that this is just a movement to individualism and intellectual anarchy with each person going their own unique religious way? Linda Mercadante in Belief with Borders says that in interviewing these people she came away with the insight that there is some coherence and that we can talk about common themes.
Some have characterized the thinking of SBNR people as New Age. Mercadante found that a lot of them rejected that term. They thought this was a term for marginalized or “cultish” people. They did not think of themselves as out of the mainstream, but as representing a new mainstream and majority. However, there is some truth behind the SBNR as New Age if you understand the phenomenon as a critique of traditional Western religion and culture.
A better term, she says, might be “Post-Christian Spirituality”.
Still, it does not mean a total break with Western religious thinking. Mercadante holds that the “Protestant principle” is both assumed and celebrated in the SBNR ethos. This principle holds that it is bad (idolatry) to absolutize the relative and that questioning and criticism must be part of religious faith.
One of the specific themes of the SBNR ethos is the rejection of religious exclusivism. They reject the idea that there is one true church. They reject theologies that speculate about who will be lost and who will be saved for eternal life. Some of the interviewees grew up in churches that actually preached exclusivism. But some just have the impression that religions are inherently exclusive.
Another common theme is that the SBNR object to the ethical claims of religion. This is partly a feeling that religious people and communities do not live up to their own ethics. Mercadante does not deal with specific ethics at this point. My own experience is that the objections usually start with sexual ethics as young people struggle with sexual thoughts, masturbation, pre-marital sex, and so forth.
Another common theme was the idea that religion is a matter of personal choice. Many of them had been taught this be their parents. Some had even been taught this by their original churches.
Another word she uses for a common theme is “detraditioning.” Once they have let go of religious authority, they also begin to let go of traditions connected to religion. Many are attracted to the traditions of other religions. But they seldom feel comfortable fully adopting them. They tend to end up following their own intuition and living without lasting spiritual traditions.
The SBNR usually felt that they somehow had access to a truth higher than any specific religion. They felt that they could discern the ways in which all religions resemble one another. Differences between religions resulted, they thought, from “human error, institutional exclusivism, non-essential teachings, or down-right manipulation” (p. 81). This often meant that their actual theology or world-view was monistic. In other words, they tended to believe that all is one and that seeming differences in the world are not real.
This belief that at bottom all religions and spiritualities are about the same leads these folks to have little problem pulling bits and pieces from different traditions. The idea that this involves taking these items out of context or cutting them off from the their sources and communities, makes no sense to many who identify as SBNR.
But some, especially younger people, are questioning this. Some criticized the “blissy, blissy” attitude that tended to deny suffering and blame things like cancer on people’s attitudes and thought life. Another criticized the “totally pop-culture fluff stuff” which lacked any intellectual rigor.
There is a belief that you must know spirituality from experience. Some left religion because the promised experience that would come with “accepting Jesus”, for instance, never came. So they look for spiritual experience elsewhere. Nature is a major source. She says that this is pronounced in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. I believe this. I lived in the Northwest in the late 1960’s and mid 1970’s and nature was already recognizable as the spirituality of many of the people.
But another source for experience, surprisingly, is Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox religious ceremony. Some SBNR folks find in the Mass an impressive spiritual experience, which they apparently can separate from the theology and ethics.
A point Mercadante repeats is that, although the SBNR seem to abhor theology, they actually have theological beliefs. They may not be well thought out. They usually are not interested in where they come from. These beliefs are sort of “in the air” in contemporary culture. They come partly from popular versions science and psychology. They come partly from cultural values that, in reality, have religious roots. Mercadante names some of these values: “progresssivism, egalitarianism, free choice, pragmatism, and individualism” (p. 90).