Good news about the ‘spiritual but not religious’
The rapid rise of the "spiritual but not religious" crowd may not be such a bad thing.
February 22nd, 2014
09:06 PM ET

Good news about the ‘spiritual but not religious’

Opinion by Linda Mercadante, special to CNN

(CNN) -
Despite the ongoing decline in American religious institutions, the meteoric rise in people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” should be seen positively - especially by religious people.

To accept this as good news, however, we need to listen to what they are saying, rather than ridicule them as “salad bar spiritualists” or eclectic dabblers.

After spending more than five years speaking with hundreds of “spiritual but not religious” folk across North America, I’ve come to see a certain set of core ideas among them. Because of their common themes, I think it’s fair to refer to them by the acronym: SBNR.

But before we explore what the SBNRs believe, we first need to learn what they protest.

First, they protest “scientism.” 

They’ve become wary about reducing everything that has value to what can only be discovered in the tangible world, restricting our intellectual confidence to that which can be observed and studied.

Their turn towards alternative health practices is just one sign of this. Of course, most do avail themselves of science’s benefits, and they often use scientific-sounding arguments (talking about “energy” or “quantum physics”) to justify their spiritual views.

But, in general, they don’t think all truth and value can be confined to our material reality.

Second, SBNRs protest “secularism.” 

They are tired of being confined by systems and structures. They are tired of having their unique identities reduced to bureaucratic codes. They are tired of having their spiritual natures squelched or denied.

They play by society’s rules: hold down jobs, take care of friends and family and try to do some good in the world. But they implicitly protest being rendered invisible and unheard.

Third, yes, they protest religion – at least, two types of it.

But the SBNR rejection of religion is sometimes more about style than substance.

On one hand, they protest “rigid religion,” objecting to a certain brand of conservatism that insists there is only one way to express spirituality, faith, and the search for transcendence.

But they also protest what I call “comatose religion.”

After the shocks of the previous decades, and the declines in religious structures and funding, many religious people are dazed and confused.

They are puzzled and hurt that so many – including their own children - are deserting what was once a vibrant, engaging, and thriving part of American society.

So why, then, is it “good news” that there is a huge rise in the “spiritual but not religious”? Because their protests are the very same things that deeply concern – or should concern – all of us.

The rise in SBNRs is the archetypal “wake up call,” and I sense that, at last, religious leaders are beginning to hear it.

The history of religion in Western society shows that, sooner or later, people grasp the situation and find new ways of expressing their faith that speak to their contemporaries.

In the meantime, there are plenty of vital congregations in our society. In the vast mall of American religious options, it is misguided to dismiss all of our spiritual choices as moribund, corrupt, or old-fashioned – even though so many do.

What has prompted SBNRs, and others, to make this dismissal?

For one thing, many religious groups are not reaching out to the SBNRs. They need to understand them and speak their language, rather than being fearful or dismissive.

Second, the media often highlights the extremes and bad behavior of a few religious people and groups.  But we don’t automatically give up on other collections of fallible human beings, like our jobs, our families, or our own selves.  Some attitude adjustment is needed by both religious people and SBNRs.

Finally, SBNRs need to give up the easy ideology that says religion is unnecessary, all the same, or outmoded. And all of us should discard the unworkable idea that you must find a spiritual or religious group with which you totally agree.  Even if such a group could be found, chances are it would soon become quite boring.

There’s no getting around this fact: It is hard work to nurture the life of faith. The road is narrow and sometimes bumpy. It is essential to have others along with us on the journey.

All of us, not just religious people, are in danger of becoming rigid or comatose, inflexible or numb.  All of us need to find ways to develop and live our faith in the company of others, which is, in fact, what religion is all about.

Linda Mercadante, is professor of theology at The Methodist Theological School and the founder of Healthy Beliefs – Healthy Spirit.  She is the author of “Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious.

The views expressed in this column belong to Mercadante.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Lost faith • Nones • Opinion • Spirituality • Trends

soundoff (1,265 Responses)
  1. batia1981

    Spirituality (for me): those connections of whatever type and scope that affect and or define our deepest values and meanings for life.

    Church is your connection...go for it. Nature connects you? Go for it. Family connects you....go for it. But some connections can also harm our lives like addictions ...it is up to us what to be connected to.

    May 26, 2014 at 9:27 am |
    • igaftr

      spirituality ( for everyone) is something that has never been shown to exist. No spirits, no supernatural anything. As far as any can show, spiritual is the same as imaginary.

      May 26, 2014 at 9:28 am |
      • sharpenu

        How dark energy; anti-matter; the atom–they exist but are not seen. To say that the spirit does not exist because it cannot be seen (to some) is not only ignorant of what is the spirit but also a very megalomania state of mind. Get it?

        May 27, 2014 at 10:44 am |
        • sharpenu

          Should read "How about dark energy..." See, we all make mistakes.

          May 27, 2014 at 10:45 am |
        • dandintac

          These things you list have been demonstrated. "Seeing" is not the only way to observe. They can be detected, measured, observed through their interaction with other things, and atoms can be seen with powerful electron microscopes. In other words, there is hard, verifiable evidence for these things that can be tested. This is not true of what you call "spirit". Spirits cannot be shown to exist at all. If you can prove otherwise, write up your findings and publish them in a scientific journal. If other laboratories can verify your findings, a Nobel Prize awaits you.

          As far as being "ignorant" about what spirit is, whatever "spirit" is seems to shift from person to person, just like the many imaginings of God.

          And megalomania would be claiming to know all about these things–spirits and gods–when you really have no hard evidence whatsoever to back up your claims.

          May 29, 2014 at 12:20 am |
        • sharpenu

          You are right " 'Seeing' is not the only way to observe." Why, then, go on to contradict one's self? Unfortunately, many "scientists" can be very hard, thus missing the other half, so to speak, of being soft. In other words, there are "hard" facts but also "soft," intuitive feelings and experiences. We could liken these terms "hard" and "soft" to the left and right brain hemispheres. To not utilize both sides of the brain is not "to know" (e.g. "science"). Religious/spiritual matters will rightly not be found in scientific journals. That is ok.

          But, again, it is testament to the hard ego (and very unscientific) when one refuses to admit that there may other realms of experience far beyond hard facts (which have their place) but nonetheless experiential. Think about the experience of Love which you cannot put under a microscope but one can feel it and display it through one's actions. That being said, consider that Love, Light and Energy is within us all–there is a definition of Spirit/Soul? It is worth considering that humans have been interested in these realms for who knows how long–even subconsciously. For example, why would a "hard scientist" even be concerned about something one considers just an imaging? Does not the mature scientist begin their investigations with dreams and imaginations? Very interesting...

          May 29, 2014 at 10:12 am |
        • dandintac

          Sharp, What you are describing is objective vs subjective. I would never deny that there is a rich, interesting subjective human experience. I would go so far as to say it's what makes life worth living. But these subjective experiences do not count as evidence for a claim about objective reality. If you want to validate the God claim this way–as a subjective experience, basically a human emotion or idea–then I actually agree. In fact, I do believe this is what God is–a human idea.

          I would note however, that this is not what most theists claim. Most theists, in my experience, claim that God is objectively real, not just for themselves but for me too, Heaven is a REAL place, God is watching us, he will punish us if we don't believe, and the claims come rolling in, one after another, and on and on, all with no hard evidence for their hard claims, but with real-world consequences to our society, and these believers in this objective reality demand privileges from the government, such as government-sanctioned prayers in government meetings, and efforts to suppress scientific facts in the classroom, such as evolution.

          Thanks for your reply.

          May 29, 2014 at 11:25 pm |
        • sharpenu

          Very nice dandi,
          One can exercise objectivity and subjectivity. Note I did not use the word "God" which is an unprovable notion. Spirit Being(s) (n.) is one thing; Spirit Being (v.) can be something else. Of course the notion of a One God/One Religion has horrific results as well as personal enrichment. Negative fundamentalism has led many away from anything religious/spiritual. Some, however, go to the other extreme of universalism saying "All is One." We are all the same." New-age so-called "yoga" epitomizes this extreme.

          There are middle grounds to be sought. For example, one does not have to belong to any specific religion to be religious/spiritual. Simply seeking "to link" ("religio") or "to know;" e.g. "science" "things spiritual" is to, in essence, be religious. "Never lose a holy curiosity" - Einstein. Of course, one can belong to any number of religions, if they so choose. Much like the scientific method, one could look at religion as the codes, rules, rituals that may lead one to the subjective spiritual experiences. A tested medicine, for example, provides and inner experience of relief and perhaps joy and contentment.

          Open dialogue is a key. We are all in this life together; making mistakes; learning and growing.

          May 30, 2014 at 9:05 am |
        • igaftr

          Why do guys like you think that love cannot be studied, "out under a microscope".
          It IS being studied, but it is a difficult task to be sure, but not an impossibility as current studies are showing?
          Is it that this is the only way to present an argument, even though your premise is flat out wrong?

          May 29, 2014 at 10:19 am |
        • sharpenu

          Not only does your comment lack clarity but also the comment "you guys" surrenders any credibility.

          May 30, 2014 at 9:12 am |
  2. batia1981

    I personally do not see being SBNR as lazy, uncommitted or simply "unchurched". I see it as being committed to a relationship with my Higher Power and my neighbor. Too often the labels and dogma of religion separate us from our neighbor and from experiences with our Higher Power that are outside the box of many conventional religions. Meditation, not liked in some religions. Experiencing a connection with the Divine for yourself instead of just reading about someone else's experience of thousands of years ago that has been translated a dozen times...definitely on the outs. Talking about your own defects and how to work on them can make people twitchy to say the least. But many SBNR do these things....and come out better for it.

    May 26, 2014 at 9:12 am |
    • igaftr

      As far as anyone can show, your "higher power" exists entirely in your head.

      Why is it always a "higher" power? That alone shows a bias to what you WANT to believe over what might actually be.

      May 26, 2014 at 9:27 am |
      • sharpenu

        Everything is a "higher power" than the individual unless of course one is suffering from an inflated ego.

        May 27, 2014 at 10:47 am |
        • batia1981

          Good point, I agree!

          May 31, 2014 at 4:56 pm |
      • batia1981

        For many people I know, a Higher Power can be a group of friends gathered to share support, it can be the parole officer who holds your freedom in his hands, it can be the doctor doing surgery on you.....tons of things.

        May 28, 2014 at 12:41 pm |
        • eudaimonia2013

          There is a difference between a biological peer (e.g. human being) holding power and what many humans deem a "higher power" – a supernatural unseen ent.ity or being with unquestioned authoritative power

          May 28, 2014 at 12:52 pm |
  3. sharpenu

    "Spiritual but not religious" is a typical but thoughtless cliché. Since "spirit/spiritual" means "incorporeal," what part of "no-body" does one not understand? Actually, it is the body of religious teachings and practices that form the many paths to that which goes beyond the material. Thus, the "spiritual but not religious" crowd are simply too lazy to make the arduous religious journey. The most deceptive aspect is when one steals from already established religious traditions (like Hinduism/Yoga) and then pretends to teach.

    Swami Param

    April 1, 2014 at 9:58 am |
    • freedomshost

      I beg to disagree with you, sharpenu.

      Far from being lazy, I find that being 'spiritual but not religious' (SBNR) forces me to stand on my own two feet, be self-accountable, and to think for myself, and to boldly question everything, rather than hiding behind a religion and it's dogma.

      To me, "laziness" is letting others tell me what I should think, believe and do because doing it for myself is too much effort. If I'd wanted to be lazy, I'd have joined a church.

      As an aside, I personally feel that organized religion is becoming increasingly inconsequential, insignificant, and is demonstrating that it's nothing more spiritual than 'big business', giving nothing in return for the billions of dollars it takes from the masses.

      April 5, 2014 at 3:11 am |
      • sharpenu

        Of course, you have a right to your dogma (everybody has one), but it makes little sense. If you truly believe what you say, then you would be all alone and not even communicating. Can't "have your cake and eat it too."

        April 5, 2014 at 9:19 am |
    • sharpenu

      The spiritual but not religious crowd is even more delusional than the fundamentalist. The religious fundamentalist at least knows what they are doing. The SBNR most often simply steal from already established religious traditions and then go into business. A prime example is the entire modern phony yoga movement–ripped off from Hinduism and turned into an exercise business or weird "spiritual business." Of course, a truly creative individual may come up with some new religious/spiritual path–who knows?

      April 5, 2014 at 9:30 am |
    • batia1981

      Connections which affect our deepest meanings and values for life have no body...they are connections. They do not have to be religious....nor dogmatic. But they are spiritual.

      May 28, 2014 at 12:44 pm |
      • eudaimonia2013

        They do not have to be termed spiritual or in any way associated with religious jargon. They can simply be connections, attachments, reflections etc..

        May 28, 2014 at 12:56 pm |
  4. basehitter

    Why do religious people assume certain postures and hold their hands up in the air ? Does that enhance connectivity to the hocus pocus vibes ?

    March 23, 2014 at 8:57 am |
    • batia1981

      I often raise my hands and move when praying....why? For me, prayer is not just a "word" thing, it encompasses ALL of me, mind, body and spirit.

      May 26, 2014 at 9:19 am |
  5. idiotusmaximus

    Anyone wanting to know FIRST what spiritualism is...need only to look in the dictionary.

    March 11, 2014 at 10:44 am |
  6. joeyy1


    March 7, 2014 at 7:24 pm |
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