It has a chance of becoming one of the defining characteristics of the present age. It even has an acronym: SBNR. And, of course, it has a web page and a Facebook page. Being “spiritual but not religious” is often an explanation, sometimes an excuse, but mostly it seems to be an attempt at self-definition meant to set a good many people apart from what I’m guessing are perceived societal norms.
Unlike a lot of what I’ve read about this trend, I suggest that 1) we can learn a lot from the SBNR trend, 2) the discussion of this topic has largely been limited by a false dichotomy, 3) there is a better way to talk about what is at stake, and 4) the church can and should respond.
SBNR is a reflection of our cultural worldview
Somehow the SBNR trend seems to have caught many of us off-guard. People ask, Where did this come from? What does this mean? What does it say about my faith?
First, we have no reason to be surprised that people align themselves with the spiritual-but-not-religious camp. In one sense it is a crystal-clear reflection of our cultural obsession with individualism. The American Dream has, in fact, become a matter of “doing whatever I want,” and “spiritual” people, following suit, simply want to define life, truth, and purpose for themselves. In addition, studies reveal that people who describe themselves as SBNR perceive that “religion” is all about rules, rituals and dogma that have to be accepted as-is. Living in a participatory culture (you don’t just watch TV anymore, you comment about the show online in realtime; you don’t just read the news, you are invited to share your opinion) people don’t want to swallow any party line hook, line and sinker. Considering all this, why are we surprised when people say, in essence, “Nobody is going to tell me what I believe; I’ll figure that out for myself, thank you”?1
Second, people don’t want to be perceived as being religious because, in our day, all religion is bad. I wish I knew how Christianity in the U.S. got painted with the mile-wide brush that says all Christians are conservative, fundamentalistic, closed-minded, anti-science, and exclusivist. It’s no wonder that people don’t want to be defined in that way. Neither do I. And it’s not just American Christianity that is seen as being bad; add in religious wars over the centuries, the perception that Islam=terrorism (talk about being painted with a broad brush!), and the inflexibility of the Church over the years (“The earth is round.” “No it’s not, it’s flat!”) and you’ve stoked a pretty good fire on which people want to burn all things religious.
Third, the SBNR trend is most pronounced among children of baby boomers. Boomers largely understand religious involvement as a personal choice rather than a cultural expectation. Since Boomers withdrew from religious participation en masse, and since Boomers left their children to find their own way in matters of meaning, purpose and faith, again it is no surprise that the SBNR culture has arisen. “As youth in America are increasingly raised in families where religious identity is absent or not actively enforced, the spiritual self—that within us which wonders about meaning beyond the mundane, physical, observable world—finds expression outside of the structures of belief and practice of traditional religious institutions.”2
Spiritual v. Religious may describe reality, but it’s not helpful
Much of what I’ve read about SBNR is framed as a contest between being “spiritual” or “religious” in terms that are, unfortunately, mutually exclusive. Even the phrase, “I’m spiritual but not religious” sets up polar opposites. Some wonder, If I can’t describe myself as SBNR, then I must be RBNS (religious but not spiritual). In addition, this polarization is often defended as being necessary in order to study and report on cultural trends. Perhaps that’s true (I’m certainly not a social scientist). Maybe we can’t picture or define anything without comparing and contrasting opposites. (After all, if you listen to the media, Americans are either liberal or conservative, and we either live in a blue state or a red state. Nuance is not one of our culture’s strong suits.)
And while people who use the SBNR label are telling us that they don’t want to have anything to do with things religious, the reaction they’ve received from many church leaders has been anything but helpful. A common first reaction is to dismiss “spirituality” as being too ambiguous or “new age.” Others chafe at the SBNR mentality, call adherents simplistic or synchronistic, or say, “Please stop boring me,” or “If you’re SBNR then I’m RBNS.” Others dismiss spirituality as navel gazing, as nothing more than easing one’s conscience or finding a way to cope with a suburban lifestyle. Still others, quick to indulge in self-criticism, heap piles of guilt on themselves and on the church for failing to meet the needs of the latest generation.
A better way to look at this
The more I’ve pursued this topic, the more I’ve grown uncomfortable with the either/or choices we’ve been given. I wasn’t able to frame any other way of thinking about this, until I read the senior thesis of a 2011 college graduate from Connecticut who wrote:
Because an attempt to define religion and spirituality as separate concepts will only result as an exercise in semantics whose results will not be applicable to all, I propose that both be understood as a process of meaning-making characterized by a concern for that which transcends the immediately sensible world of daily experience.3
In order to facilitate this both/and approach to the topic at hand, the student continues:
I examine the religion and spirituality of Wesleyan students through the lens of a psychology of self and identity. The self, conceptualized as the spirit or the soul by some, is our inner, subjective sense of being, which is continuous in time and remains relatively constant throughout our lives. Identity is how that self is presented to the outside world—the social roles we take on, with their concomitant names, relations, and rules of behavior, as well as the behavior and conversation we enact in our day-to-day lives (Scheibe, 1995).
This framework could be incredibly helpful for understanding and conversing with those who see themselves as SBNR. What if we approach this topic by looking at spirituality (like the self) as an inner and personal journey, searching for meaning and purpose? “Who am I?“ “Why am I here?“ “What is my purpose in life?” These are worthy questions! In a like manner, what if we approach religion (like identity) as an outward expression of our spirituality (self)? While much talk about SBNR lifts up spirituality as an internal, individual pursuit, we haven’t done much work in lifting up religiousness as an outward, communal expression. Both of these pursuits are good and helpful, each informs and shapes the other.
As a wise corrective, the student warns against using self and identity (and by association, spirituality and religiosity) as polar opposites:
Religion and spirituality are never experienced purely as self or identity in isolation, as a living person is always at the intersection of the vertical and horizontal dimensions. …[M]y definition does not eliminate personal experience from religion, or social context from spirituality. Both involve the experience and understanding of what is meaningful and valuable in life, and both involve selves navigating within various social contexts to construct this meaning.
I know what I am about to say goes against the caution just issued, but with the reminder that “The person lies at the intersection of these poles: she is not pure being, nor is she purely a presentation to others,” this framework can expand an either/or choice into a quadrant as follows:
The upper-left quadrant describes those who are earnestly searching for meaning and purpose, but may not have found an integrated way to practice and live out their self-understanding. The upper-right quadrant represents those who have found both. The lower-right quadrant may describe the plight of the mainline/oldline church: people who are well-practiced in the communal aspects of faith, but who have not addressed their inner selves or unique purpose. And finally, the lower-left quadrant leaves me a little puzzled (and, frankly, makes me wonder about the helpfulness of this quadrant approach): does this quadrant describe people who simply live each day with little or no concern for purpose, meaning, or community?
Once again, and carried further, the student’s thesis proposes:
The person lies at the intersection of these poles: she is not pure being, nor is she purely a presentation to others. To be human is to be a self embedded in this world, and to be spiritual or religious is one way of understanding the self and living in the world.
The church’s response
So how can the church respond to this? What can we learn from what SBNR people are telling us? What shortcomings need to be addressed? What opportunities are opening up?
Those questions will be the focus of Part Two of this post. I’m not sure when I’ll post that, as I’m still chewing on possible answers. What do you think? Am I on track? Is this helpful? Does this point to possibilities for your ministry?
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1 For a helpful theological take on the SBNR trend, see the first chapter of Harvey Cox’s The Future of Faith. He describes three eras, the Age of Faith (as a way of life), the Age of Belief (enforced doctrines and dogma), and the coming Age of the Spirit. He maintains that the SBNR trend is an indicator of the end of the second age, and the beginning of the third.
2 Something Worth Believing In, Senior thesis by Meredith Steinman, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, April 2011. You might want to know before you click that the thesis is 200 pages long. But if you’ve got the time, it is an amazing read.
3 ditto (Nobody is going to tell me that I have to conform to some arbitrary academic notation system!), italics added.