I have finished Linda Mercadante’s Belief Without Borders. In the book she listens and responds to an assortment of interviewees who think of themselves as spiritual but not religious (SBNR).
In the end Mercadante draws two main conclusions about people who resonate with the phrase “spiritual but not religious.”
The first is that they are not really irreligious or non-theological. They have beliefs, practices, rituals, and activities that are, in fact, religious. Better than saying they are not religious is saying that they have an implicit religion rather than an explicit religion. They have religious beliefs that they perform and live out. They are seeking meaning and trying to find ultimate reality.. But their religion is in process rather than settled. And it is not necessarily communal in any ordered or coordinated way.
The second conclusion is that they have a theological agenda and a theological critique to offer in the contemporary marketplace of ideas.
They start by “detraditioning” or throwing off the Western religious beliefs and values. In the process they sometimes oversimplify or misunderstand what religions actually believe. However, we can list the things they find hard to accept. These include the idea that only one religion can be right, the idea of a God who is personally involved in handing out punishments and rewards, the heaven/hell binary concerning the afterlife, repressive religious authority, community that is disconnected from experience, and the notion of sin.
This “detraditioning” creates something of a vacuum. But the vacuum gets filled with other things. A lot of the new beliefs come from psychology, therapy, 12 step programs, and self-help literature. The focus is on self-actualization for the individual. On top of this, they borrow some ideas, like monism and reincarnation,from Eastern religions. They also use some ideas about evolution and quantum physics from pop-science. But, at bottom, Mercadante sees a uniquely American ethos about personal choice.
Mercadante can sound scathing when she describes the SBNR ethos. Trusting God, she says, becomes trusting an inner voice. Prayer becomes “self-generated positive thinking” (p. 232). I could go on. But to do so might give a false impression. Mercadante does not treat the SBNR as apostates or heretics to be rejected utterly. She warns, I think, about letting their ethos infect Christianity. In other words for us, God needs to be more than an inner voice and prayer needs to be more than hyping up positive vibes. She treats the SBNR critique of the church and our theology as something to that calls us to self-reflection.
The pervasive nature of the post-Christian, New Age, SBNR form of implicate religion may cause society to question whether a purely secular stance works for most people.
Indeed, in a short chapter that works like an appendix to the book she reports on a visit to Cuba where she met Rita Rodriguez who kept a little Protestant church in Cuba alive as its only participating member during some bad years for the Cuban churches. The church today is full and active as are many churches in Cuba. (I cannot completely suppress my political disagreement with Mercadante, who writes of Cuba’s “experiment with socialism” as though Cuba were Sweden and not a one-party police state. But that does not really affect her main point.) Her point is the resiliency of religion. Even in Cuba secularism did not work for many people.
I think China might be an even better example. Christianity, in spite of repression, is growing and arguably more vibrant in China than in the West. This is more true of Christianity than of the Eastern religions from which the SBNR borrow. Christianity has a long history in the West, but its appeal can extend to non-Western cultures.
Although the SBNR interviewees saw Christianity as hopelessly caught up in the Western mind-set, Christianity originated in Judea where Asian and European cultures mixed. The Hebrew Bible gives Christianity deep non-Western roots.
Mercadante has much to say about the implications of the SBNR phenomenon. So I will need one more post to finish up.