Thursday, September 22, 2011

"Spiritual but not religious," continued.

Following up on my "spiritual but not religious" post from nearly three weeks ago, I would like to share a few media items that have caught my eye in recent days, all related in some way to the phenomenon of people identifying themselves as spiritual but not religious (SBNR). I intend to add further thoughts of my own at some point, but in the meantime I hope that the following articles may be of interest.

First off, here are some thoughts from Congregational minister Tony Robinson, written in response to the piece by fellow Congregationalist Lillian Daniel that I linked in my first SBNR post. Robinson agrees with Daniel that some individuals who claim the SBNR label come across as smug and arrogant and that being 'spiritual but not religious' isn't the daring assertion of nonconformity that it is sometimes made out to be but instead "dovetails all too easily with the reigning, often self-centered, ethos of American culture." Even so, Robinson suggests, some SBNRs may be looking for truth and meaning but have been turned off by negative experiences with organized religion. Next, Robinson seems to propose that churches should acknowledge the sincerity of these SBNRs and offer them a stronger case for the value of belonging to religious institutions:
These days lots of people, for good reasons and not so good ones, are turned off by institutions, perhaps religious institutions in particular. I get that. And I regret it.

Institutions do often fail us by becoming self-serving (though religious institutions have no corner on that). But institutions also draw us into community and relationship, put us in touch with traditions and purposes larger than ourselves, and help us to do with others things we can't do alone. They provide continuity in a rapidly changing world. They can be a source of strength, funding acts of real courage.

We’re in danger of overlooking the positives of older traditions and institutions — or if you prefer the softer word, "communities." One day we may wake up to discover we’ve lost something of value.
Of course, effective outreach to SBNRs demands more than simply convincing them that religious traditions and institutions have value; as a first step, we may have to take a look at 'values' in general. This would appear to be the conclusion reached by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and the team behind a new study of American 18-to-23-year-olds entitled Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. Summarizing the contents of Lost in Transition in a recent New York Times op-ed, David Brooks describes a generation of individuals who often come across as alarmingly inarticulate and incoherent when discussing moral matters:
The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. "It’s personal," the respondents typically said. "It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?"

Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: "I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel."

Many were quick to talk about their moral feelings but hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation. As one put it, "I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong."

Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism. Again, this doesn’t mean that America’s young people are immoral. Far from it. But, Smith and company emphasize, they have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families — to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading. In this way, the study says more about adult America than youthful America.
Given that I teach ethics to 18-to-23-year-olds, I should probably comment more on this. My instant reaction: I have known students who express the attitudes presented above, but I've also known others who are much more serious and grounded in their moral thinking than Brooks' words suggest. Smith and his colleagues seem to suggest that churches and universities have a lot to answer for; as an individual embedded in both sorts of institutions, perhaps I should offer some answers. I'm going to hold off on saying more, though, until I've had a chance to read Lost in Transition for myself.

Christian Smith himself offers some thoughts on the religious import of his findings in a recent piece for The Huffington Post on what he calls "liberal whateverism":
. . . This outlook reacts against sectarian conflict by dramatically discounting the claims of religion. The more aggressive side of this view asserts that religion per se is pernicious and should be eliminated or radically privatized. The more accommodating side says religion is fine as a personal lifestyle commodity, but that religious inclinations are ultimately arbitrary and should not be taken too seriously.

. . . In our recently published book, "Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood," my co-authors and I describe the larger world in which liberal whateverism makes sense. Many emerging adults have few considered moral bearings, are devoted to mass consumerism, routinely become intoxicated and engage in casual sexual hook-ups, are civically and politically uninformed and alienated. . . .

Liberal whateverism was obvious among most of the emerging adults we studied. About 10 percent were militantly atheistic. But the vast majority opted for the more accommodating "whatever" default. Anyone could take religion or leave it. It was an individual "opinion" that didn't matter much.
One practical implication of this "take religion or leave it" approach comes in the apparent increase in the number of weddings conducted by what an article in last Friday's Washington Post describes as "nontraditional officiants," typically friends of the bride and groom who takes the presiding role formerly reserved to members of the clergy or representatives of the state. The WaPo article needs to be read with a grain of salt: the only statistics cited are based on the users of two websites and may not be a reliable indicator of larger trends, while the only people quoted belong to a close-knit group of self-described "hippies" who met as students at American University and have remained friends since graduation. Though the opinions offered in the article generally confirm smug SBNR stereotypes, the following paragraphs caught my attention:
Members of the American University crew shared a love of jam bands, including Phish and Moe, as well as a passion for environmentalism and nature. Their wedding ceremonies often reflected those interests.

Some of them talked about vigorously scrubbing the word "God" from their rituals; instead readings came from environmental poet Wendell Berry or novels, such as "Einstein’s Dreams," which explores human beings’ relationship to time passing.

Most of them also came from families with interfaith marriages, and some followed suit.

Andrew Butcher was raised Jewish, while his wife, Julie Butcher Pezzino, grew up in a big Catholic family until college, when she told her parents she felt most spiritual and contemplative in nature, not church. For their wedding, Butcher and Pezinno broke a glass and had a huppah (or canopy), both Jewish traditions, but they also created a table of ritual items, including sand from the Cape Cod beach where she summered as a child and a brick from their home in Pittsburgh.
What struck me about these paragraphs is the importance that the people described accord to ritual. Having rejected religion, they are apparently trying to craft elements of form and structure that can take the place of traditional religious practices. This may involve the outright appropriation of some religious traditions (the huppah, for example) with references to the transcendent carefully expunged (or "vigorously scrubb[ed]" away, as the article puts it), or it may involve creative new practices like the "table of ritual items" described above. All of this strikes me as very sad, as it suggests that the individuals in question are still grasping for a sense of meaning and transcendence but don't know how to go about finding it.

On the other hand, the attitude toward 'ritual' expressed here could be nothing more than an empty aestheticism - the mentality of people who collect idiosyncratic "ritual items" and select Wendell Berry poems to be read at Phish-themed weddings may not be far removed from that of individuals who don't like to read but nonetheless enjoy buying old books simply because they look nice on the shelf. In any event, the whole phenomenon described in the WaPo article strikes me as terribly banal and tacky - so if you're planning on getting married on the beach by a college roommate who became a Universal Life minister "for the occasion," you might think twice about sending me an invite.


So where do we go from here? What do we do about all of this? Here is a proposal from Lost in Transition author Christian Smith, offered in the HuffPo piece mentioned above:
I think we need to reject both sectarian conflict and liberal whateverism and commit ourselves instead to an authentic pluralism. Genuine pluralism fosters a culture that honors rather than isolates and disparages religious difference. It affirms the right of others to believe and practice their faith, not only in their private lives but also in the public square - while expecting them to allow still others to do the same. Authentic pluralism does not minimize religious differences by saying that "all religions are ultimately the same." That is false and insipid. Pluralism encourages good conversations and arguments across differences, taking them seriously precisely because they are understood to be about important truths, not merely private "opinions." It is possible, authentic pluralism insists, to profoundly disagree with others while at the same time respecting, honoring, and perhaps even loving them. Genuine pluralism suspects the multi-cultural regime's too-easy blanket affirmations of "tolerance" of being patronizing and dismissive. Pluralism, however, also counts atheist Americans as deserving equal public respect, since their beliefs are based as much on a considered faith as are religious views and so should not be automatically denigrated.
Smith's words strike me as at least somewhat congenial to the way of thinking of another keen social critic, Pope Benedict XVI, who had this to say earlier today at the start of an official visit to Germany:
. . . we are witnessing a growing indifference to religion in society, which considers the issue of truth as something of an obstacle in its decision-making, and instead gives priority to utilitarian considerations.

All the same, a binding basis for our coexistence is needed; otherwise people live in a purely individualistic way. Religion is one of these foundations for a successful social life. "Just as religion has need of freedom, so also freedom has need of religion." These words of the great bishop and social reformer Wilhelm von Ketteler, the second centenary of whose birth is being celebrated this year, remain timely.

Freedom requires a primordial link to a higher instance. The fact that there are values which are not absolutely open to manipulation is the true guarantee of our freedom. The man who feels a duty to truth and goodness will immediately agree with this: freedom develops only in responsibility to a greater good. Such a good exists only for all of us together; therefore I must always be concerned for my neighbors.

Freedom cannot be lived in the absence of relationships. In human coexistence, freedom is impossible without solidarity. What I do at the expense of others is not freedom but a culpable way of acting which is harmful to others and also to myself. I can truly develop as a free person only by using my powers also for the welfare of others. This holds true not only in private matters but also for society as a whole. In accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, society must give sufficient space for smaller structures to develop and, at the same time, must support them so that one day they will stand on their own.
To be continued, I hope. AMDG.


At 9/25/2011 9:23 AM, Blogger Robin said...

Such an interesting post - I read it in bits and pieces, as it appeared during a rather challenging time for me.

I'll just comment on one aspect now, to say Yes! to:

"Authentic pluralism does not minimize religious differences by saying that 'all religions are ultimately the same.' That is false and insipid. Pluralism encourages good conversations and arguments across differences, taking them seriously precisely because they are understood to be about important truths, not merely private 'opinions.' "

When I taught world history in an orthodox Jewish school, the above is exactly what I emphasized to my students - and I continue to emphasize it today in a Catholic university.

My Jewish students, carefully and rigorously reared in their tradition, had no trouble understanding that we have significant differences around matters of great import; their struggle lay in learning to talk openly and honestly with people with whom they differed (I was their practice partner). My Christian students think that the conversation is easy, because they have picked up the idea that "all religions are ultimately the same" - with them the task is to convey that the differences are, in fact, profound, without damaging their intuitive eagerness to talk and to listen.

Still one of my favorite conversations, with a 14yo Jewish boy (this is the end of a lengthy exchange):

"Ms. C, G-d would never become human. G-d would never lower Himself to human status."

"Can we agree, Y, that God can do whatever God wants?"

"Yes, we can agree on that."

"Then God could become human if God wanted to?"

"Yes, G-d could do that. But He never *would* do that."

Great respect - and love - in the face of great differences is entirely possible.

At 9/25/2011 11:27 AM, Blogger Joe Koczera, S.J. said...


Thank you for the comment, and for sharing that beautiful exchange - please know of my prayers for you this week and in the coming days.


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