Saturday, September 03, 2011

"Spiritual but not religious" and all that.

Making the rounds earlier this week in the blogosphere and on Facebook was Congregational minister Lillian Daniel's response to those who describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious" - a response so perfect that I decided to post it here in full:
On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.

Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don't see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.
The above reflections may strike some readers as a bit snarky, but perhaps religious believers should be more pointedly critical in responding to individuals who profess to be "spiritual but not religious." As I've previously noted in passing (more than once, in fact), members of the "spiritual but not religious" crowd tend to rely on a mistaken understanding of the terms "spiritual" and "religious," thinking that the two can be easily separated, when they are actually facets of the same phenomenon. We may be tempted to think that we can simply be "spiritual" on our own personal terms without any kind of authority, community or tradition to both challenge and support us, but (as Daniel points out) this approach tends to lead to nothing more than self-indulgent navel-gazing.

To develop the above point a bit further, I should note that I'm not at all sure that "spiritual but not religious" people operate with a clear working definition of the term "spirituality": I take it that they understand "religion" to mean "organized religion," but it's not clear what "spirituality" means for them beyond a vague appreciation for the ineffable aspects of human experience. In practice, as Lillian Daniel observes above, this seems to boil down to a kind of religious naturalism - finding God in sunsets and mountains and the like. Daniel rightly notes that the Christian tradition encourages us to find God in nature, though I would add that the idea of treating appreciation of the natural world as a self-sufficient substitute for religious practice is hardly new. (One can find ample evidence of this sort of religious naturalism in the various strands of Romanticism prominent in Western culture in the 19th century, and probably in earlier movements as well.)

Though I suppose that the term "spiritual but not religious" might really mean something to someone, I also wonder how many people who describe themselves in this way really mean what they say. Most of the "spiritual but not religious" individuals I've known have not professed any explicit interest in spiritual things, not even in a 'sunsets and mountains' kind of way. I suspect that many who embrace the "spiritual but not religious" label do so because it gives them a sense of collective identity and belonging which they desire on some level even though they aren't interested in organized religion.

On another level, I wonder whether the popularity of the "spiritual but not religious" label in this part of the world reflects a broader cultural tendency to favor the appearance of flexibility and open-mindedness over strong commitment to unchanging principles. Secular North American anglophones may be more inclined to describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious" than to admit that they're not spiritual at all; to many North American ears, saying that one is simply indifferent to spirituality and religion may come across as harsh or presumptuous, or perhaps expressive of a subtle judgment against those who feel differently. The desire to avoid such perceptions could lead many to claim to be "spiritual but not religious" even if the label doesn't fit them. (As an aside, I suspect that an opposing cultural tendency may be operative in western Europe, such that it's easier for many people to simply choose the "secular" label and disclaim any interest in spirituality than it would be to say that they're "spiritual but not religious." Of course, that could be a topic for another post.)

A lot more could be written about all of this, but I'll stop for now. For a gentler but still pointed argument against being "spiritual but not religious," take a look at this article by Father James Martin, S.J. published last year on Busted Halo. AMDG.


At 9/03/2011 6:13 PM, Blogger Robin said...

I mentioned on FB when someone linked to the Lillian Daniel piece that I had much preferred Jim Martin's approach to hers!

OTH, I do get tired of people who, when they find out what I do, convey that I am somewhat quaint and unenlightened - as another blogger described it.

At 9/03/2011 7:11 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

I wouldn't say that I prefer one approach to the other - I think they're both valid, but I do appreciate the Daniel piece because I think she tells it like it is; the "spiritual but not religious" phenomenon may need to be taken seriously in sociological terms (simply because a lot of people claim it), but I think Daniel is right that it's a nonsensical concept. Context surely matters a lot, but in some cases the blunt and direct approach that Daniel offers may be the right one.

At 9/04/2011 8:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this, Joe. I really enjoyed it - except for the (ignorant!) stereotype about "monastic little hermits who never leave the church building"!

I wonder, though, about your suggestion that Europeans would be more likely to be openly secular and not interested in "spirituality" than North Americans? While my experience is limited, the impression I gained in the Netherlands was that the last decade (or perhaps a bit more) has witnessed an explosion of interest in "spirituality" and that this was to some extent a reaction against a reductionistic secularism. However, this was of a most diverse and diffuse variety (although generally verging into a monistic "New Age" direction), was certainly not interested in religious tradition (except in a sort of romantic nostalgia) and much less in any sort of authority.

I must say, all of this sort of stuff makes me very hesitant about using the word "spirituality" although sometimes it seems unavoidable.


At 9/04/2011 11:48 AM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thank you for the comments. I agree with you about the "monastic little hermits" bit - I cringed when I read it, though I suppose that the stereotyping is understandable (though still lamentable!) given that the author of the piece comes from a Protestant church without a tradition of monasticism or a real context for eremetical life.

As for the European interest in "spirituality," your experience is greater than mine and I'll defer to your insight. I've spent months in Europe rather than years, and the non-religious people that I have encountered (mainly in Austria and Britain) mostly seemed indifferent even to non-traditional or 'New Age' spiritualities (and I'll agree that the word 'spirituality' is itself problematic - I sometimes joke that I consider myself "religious but not spiritual," partly because the term "spirituality" has a lot of baggage yet seems to mean so little). I recognize that local cultural contexts can make a huge difference, so I should not generalize too much about what goes on in "Europe" as a larger cultural entity.

Your point about the turn to New Age eclecticism as a reaction to reductionistic secularism makes me wonder what ostensibly 'secular' people are really looking for, and whether the apostolic Churches could find more proactive ways of responding to them. More effective efforts at evangelisation are needed, I think, but at the same time I suspect that many secular people simply won't respond to any kind of religious outreach until the desire for something more comes from within themselves - if they are really content with their lives and don't feel that anything is lacking, they probably aren't going to be drawn to faith.

On the other hand, though, I suspect that many people do feel that something is lacking, but they don't know to articulate this or what to do about it. That's where I see a promising opening for evangelisation to secular and unchurched people, even if the form of this evangelisation still needs to be developed.

There is definitely another post here, perhaps even several - I hope I have time to continue on this theme!

At 9/04/2011 6:20 PM, Blogger Barbara said...

This is such an interesting topic, Joe, and your post (and comments) raise many questions in me. I was at a party in the early summer where I found myself the only Christian among a group of drum-beating shamans!!! Such is Quebec these days. I suspect secularism has somewhat greater resonance here than "spiritual but not religious." The latter may be more common with the children of baby-boomers. Their children in turn haven't a clue or a shred of interest in spirituality or religion. I suspect, they will eventually come upon the God-shaped hole within and wonder what that is.
I would like to add that, at least hereabouts, the "spiritual but not religious" phenomenon may arise from a rejection of the trappings of an establishment church and its sadly obvious shortcomings. People have been hurt and turned their back on church. Others resent what they consider hypocrisy and an anti-scientific stance in some very conservative groups.

At 9/04/2011 7:22 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thank you for the comments - your words and those of Robin and Macrina give me more to think about; there's really so many angles to this topic, and I'd like to write more about it.

For now, reactions to a couple of your comments:

I suspect secularism has somewhat greater resonance here than "spiritual but not religious." The latter may be more common with the children of baby-boomers. Their children in turn haven't a clue or a shred of interest in spirituality or religion.

That confirms my experience, I think. "Spiritual but not religious" people seem to be searching for something, even if they aren't able to name or define it within precision. What I've been referring to as "secular" people aren't searching for anything beyond the here and now - they have hopes and dreams and want to be happy, but they understand all of this in purely earthly terms, with no felt need for transcendence. In that sense, "spiritual but not religious" and "secular" are two different categories, and I wonder whether religious people need to adopt different strategies to dealing with each.

Your point about the Boomers and their children makes me think of a similar dynamic which I've seen in a Roman Catholic context. I've known various Boomers who grew up in the Church of the 1960s (just old enough to have been formed at least partly by the more all-encompassing culture of pre-Vatican II Catholicism) who were not practicing Catholics in adulthood but nonetheless kept a sense that what might be called 'major life-cycle events' should be celebrated in church: so as a result, they themselves married in church, made sure that their children were baptised and catechised (at least to the point of making their First Communion), and made sure that their parents (often considerably more devout) received Catholic funerals.

For many of the children of these Boomers, who may have had a generally fragmentary religious formation (note the baptism and communion piece above) and who haven't known the comprehensive cultural Catholicism of earlier generations, even the cursory nods to God that their parents made seem to have become superfluous. Thus, when members of this post-Boomer generation get married, they often don't bother with a religious ceremony; when they have children, they often don't baptise them or give them any kind of religious formation.

At the same time, members of the younger generations (e.g. the "Millennials" who are now coming to adulthood) who are religious tend to be more strongly committed and more traditional in orientation - this phenomenon has been observed across religious lines and has a lot of ramifications, so I'll simply note it for now (I've often thought about posting on this, as it's something I often think about, but, again, it's a big enough topic that I usually give up for lack of time to treat of all the important aspects).

I would like to add that, at least hereabouts, the "spiritual but not religious" phenomenon may arise from a rejection of the trappings of an establishment church and its sadly obvious shortcomings.

I've sometimes wondered whether the same phenomenon might give rise to outright secularism on the part of some - if the "spiritual" is so much associated with a traditional religious establishment that some people are rejecting, that could give "spirituality" such a bad ring that people go all the way to aggressive secularism. I suppose that the "spiritual but not religious" and "secular" responses can occur in the same cultural context among different people as complementary ways of responding to the same realities.

So, in short, there's a lot here to consider - thanks again for the comments!

At 9/04/2011 7:52 PM, Blogger Robin said...

I'm taking a break to read these comments -- a break from grading the "What is religion?" papers of my mostly college freshmen students. They can write about much anything they want to in these papers, and they do. The faith histories they report cover the spectrum; some are deeply religious in a fairly traditional sense; a couple think of religion as a joke perpetrated on society; most are somewhere in between.

What is particularly striking to me this time around is that the young people who profess to be religious know next to nothing about their faith. I have a high percentage of Catholics this time, but at the moment I am generalizing about both Catholics and Protestants. The general understanding of religion as revealed by these papers is that it consists of a set of rules or guidelines for life; the concept of revelation or a God engaged with them has been lost on most of them. They also, as a group, indicate a strong sense of faith as a private matter.

We aren't talking about religion as a concept beyond their personal experience yet -- that sort of thinking clearly lies ahead for most of them.

My point is simply that those who would definitely describe themselves as "religious" (and not SBNR) know little about religion, either the one they profess or as a much broader topic. I'm not sure that "spirituality" interests them all that much at the moment.

Perhaps that will change. Next week is all Ignatian -- my contribution toward making them aware of the heritage of the school they've come to. Only one of 33 raised her hand when I asked whether any of them had chosen their college specifically because it's Jesuit. I hope that by the end of next week at least some of them will be delighted by their inadvertent choice.

At 9/04/2011 9:46 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thanks for the follow-up - I can relate well to the context in which your comments were written, as I have a stack of student papers waiting to be read, sitting right next to the computer I'm typing on!

I've noticed a similar spectrum among my students at SJU. Though I'm teaching philosophy rather than theology, given the content of what I most often teach (ethics) students' religious views often emerge over the course of the semester. I think you're right that there are many identify with the tradition in which they were raised but don't really know much about the details. (I said a little about members of this group in a post from last year.) I sometimes wonder what members of this group will pass on to their own children: will they be like the nominally religious Boomers I mentioned in my response to Barbara (I wrote there of Catholics Boomers, but I think that I what I wrote also applies to many Protestants in the same generational cohort), or will their sense of religious identification prove strong enough to to enable them to effectively transmit their faith to the next generation?

As I write this, it occurs to me that even those who are not well-versed in the particulars of their faith may still be able to pass it on effectively - if, say, they have a sense that going to church is important and make sure that their children receive a religious education in that context. (Of course, I also hope the students at places like JCU and SJU are able to grow in religious knowledge while they're in college!)

Interesting stuff... and, to be sure, good stuff for both of us to be thinking about!

At 9/05/2011 3:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

FWIW, I just invited my students to comment on Lillian Daniel's piece in an online discussion forum.

At 9/05/2011 3:54 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Thanks for that, Robin - I hope the piece provokes good discussion among your students, or that it at least produces some interesting and thoughtful responses...

At 9/09/2011 7:39 AM, Blogger Robin said...

So far there have been few comments, but one of the students is genuinely angered by the piece; having recently found her way back to Catholicism, she says she would not have approached the church again had a person in authority responded with such ridicule to her journey. She is deeply grateful for the gentle welcome that she received instead.

At 9/09/2011 12:43 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thanks for that; the one instant response I can make is that I believe that one can be gentle in responding to a person in a situation like that without uncritically affirming every aspect of her or his "journey." At some point, I hope that she or he would come to understand why it's problematic to claim that one is "spiritual but not religious."


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