“Spiritual But Not Religious” and the Path to God

St. Irenaeus of Lyons, the Gnostic's least favorite guy

I sometimes encounter folks who tell me that they are “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). I wish I asked more often what exactly that is supposed to mean, though I am usually held back from asking by a strong suspicion that such a statement is not meant to undergo any sort of scrutiny. But what does it mean, anyway?

This post is a reflection on why people choose to be SBNR, along with an examination of its inherent problems as a religious movement and some answers from an Orthodox Christian point of view. I think this is a major question that needs to be addressed these days, as the SBNR are those who are often likely to respond to the Gospel not so much with outright rejection but rather with “Sure, whatever.”

Underneath, “spiritual but not religious” probably means, “I like certain religious things, but I have had a bad experience with religious people and don’t attend any sort of religious gatherings, at least, not ones I wouldn’t feel bad about abandoning next week.” (In other words, they are the victims of people who are religious but not spiritual.) But I think most SBNR sorts don’t mean to put that out as a viable reason for their self-description. After all, that just sounds rather cowardly, lazy, etc. (And in many cases, it is.) But usually, once the SBNR person dwells on their SBNR state for a while, they eventually come up with their own theology—probably their favorite parts of what they used to have, coupled with some reactions to what they didn’t like. SBNR becomes itself a kind of religion, complete with its own (usually assumed but not stated) dogma.

Mind you, there are of course SBNR people who have never been involved in religious communities, and while on the rise, they are still not the majority of such people. Despite what you may see on television or read in newspapers (if anyone does that any more), “organized” religion in America is still quite strong.

At its most basic and in its most understandable form, SBNR is typically a reaction to bad people. Having been burned (or seen others burned) by connection with religious believers, the SBNR person withdraws and makes “spirituality” (what in any other context would still be called “religion”) subject only to his own private preferences. This makes sense in our culture, which (despite our constant tendency to out-source) still sees itself as a do-it-yourself culture. But what is not usually examined in this approach is that it is essentially Gnostic, a privileging of private revelation and opinion over corporate knowledge and tradition. It is also essentially Protestant, in that its basic movement is one away from community and tradition.

There are a lot of issues packed into this essential narrative of escape. Let’s look at three of them:

  1. Abuse: Religion is full of bad people. But so is pretty much every other pursuit in human experience. Bad apples do not, in human associations, spoil the bunch. Some bunches are spoiled from the get-go (e.g., the KKK), but just because the Inquisition killed people does not mean that Christianity is broken. (Indeed, one can easily argue from within the Christian tradition that the Inquisition was a betrayal of Christianity.) Religions should not be judged by their worst adherents, but by their best—those the religion itself holds up as saints. It should also be judged by its doctrine, not by those who fail to do what the doctrine says (e.g., Roman Catholic ephebophile/pedophile priests do not by their behavior render Roman Catholicism illegitimate).
  2. Authority: Once you escape from authority (other people who have legitimacy in telling you how you should live), where do you go? You have a choice between finding a better authority or making yourself the authority. The SBNR chooses the latter. He is the sole arbiter of what is true and good. If he realizes that he is not really an expert, then he will mitigate his theology with a strong dose of relativism: “This is what works for me, but I’m not saying you have to do it.” But if you’re going to embrace relativism, what’s the point in being “spiritual,” anyway? If spirituality is in any sense about becoming a better person, who defines what “better” means? At the bottom, there really is nothing noble about striving to meet a set of standards if you get to make the standards up for yourself. Or, at least, the relativist who believes in self-sacrifice is inherently no nobler or in any way better than the relativist whose goal in life is to eat more twinkies. If you think he is, then you have to dump the relativism, because you just embraced a transcendent truth, one that is not subject to what any of us think about it.
  3. Community: Where there is no authority, there can be no community. Community always requires hierarchy, and hierarchy means that someone will have a coordinating role. But where there is no coordination, there is no community. A group of SBNR people can, of course, function as a kind of spiritual club, but the longer they stay together, they will find they have either formed a religion or irritated each other enough that the whole thing will eventually dissolve. Community is a critical element of human life, which is why SBNR cannot bind it together, being inherently anti-communal. It is also why so many SBNR people eventually end up either completely non-religious (e.g., as atheists, agnostics, or “SBNR” who nevertheless never do anything remotely “spiritual” or religious) or as members of religions. It is an unsustainable way of being. Any philosophy or mode of life which makes claims about higher order issues such as spirits and religion has to resonate with essential humanity. And since humanity is communal, SBNR does not last nor can it truly satisfy.

There is a lot more one could say here (e.g., about SBNR being just another form of consumerist, “have it your way” religion), but down underneath all of this is the question of whether God actually cares about His creation, which is why I believe that these issues touch upon the very heart of the Gospel.

If God does not care about His creation (deism), then of course there is absolutely no problem with being SBNR. But there’s also no more point in being SBNR than in being a golfer. The golfer probably isn’t making any claims to higher order knowledge and experience, though. (No offense, golfers!) But he’s just as much entitled to do so as the SBNR person, because God hasn’t bothered to let us know that He even exists, much less that there are transcendent truths to which we are all responsible. Thus, once again, the proper response is, “Sure, whatever.”

I can certainly agree that deism is a logical conclusion to come to—the world is so complex and interesting that there has to be a Creator. But anything beyond that (e.g., chi, spiritual energies, wisdom, goodness, virtue, nobility, and even love) is really just anyone’s opinion. It still falls down the Nietzschean hole, however—with no revealed truth, it’s finally all about power. If there are no revealed truths, then why should I not just take whatever I want, because I can?

At its heart, I believe that the SBNR person simply does not want to worship. At least, he doesn’t want to worship anything other than himself. (This sounds really bad, and it is. But we all do it, SBNR or not.) Worship is fundamentally about giving oneself over in complete union to the Other, which involves sacrifice and risk. It is love, but it is a much higher order love than the “love” which is spoken of in the idolatrous language of popular eros. Worship requires submission, freely offered, and that is something the SBNR person is simply not going to do. Once there’s a divine Thou to go with my I, then that means there’s religion, for religion is the reconnecting of what was separated (re+ligio). When there’s connection going on, then that means there must also be some sort of arrangement between those being connected, and that is, once again, religion.

Fundamentally, the SBNR person is cheating himself out of the real transcendence he is probably dreaming about. After all, transcendence means ecstasy (ek+stasis), standing outside yourself, and that means that your own ideas about what’s true don’t matter in the face of what really is the truth. There cannot be “your truth” and “my truth” in transcendence. There is only the Truth. After all, if we are transcending to a somewhere, then it’s certainly not a somewhere that we make up for ourselves. Nor is it a place that can be navigated by our opinions. One does not step into outer space without a spacesuit.

The Gospel is simple, though: God speaks to us. That means He’s real, and that He has an objective existence apart from our opinions of Him. Seeing our disconnection from Him, He sent us His Son, Who became one of us. He entered into the whole human experience, even death itself. And when death met the God-man, it began to work backwards. And if we want to have that same conquest over death, we have to follow the God-man and be united to Him.

That’s the path to God. There aren’t any other paths to Him, because He didn’t build any others. And no civil engineer, no matter how spiritual, can build one in place of that one. Why would you want another one, anyway? Conquering death is where it’s at, folks. Let’s do it.

17 comments:

  1. Father Andrew,
    This is a superb article! You could make it into a tract. I would gladly distribute an article like this on a college campus. It is ideal for evangelization.

  2. Spot on Fr!

    I often argue with SBNR who are exactly as you say – disenchanted with XYZ religion because of major inconsistencies IE Crusades, Jihad, immortality – but who still don’t accept that there is nothing else ‘out there’. It is depressing how easily they dismiss XYZ religion based on those few problems, as if somehow religion is supposed to be ‘perfect’, while blindly ignoring the naivety of their own ‘religion of self’.

    We can only follow His example and live amongst our fellow humans and hope some of His glory touches them in ways that reveal The Truth, as has been the positions of Orthodoxy for the past 2000 years.

    Keep up the good work, maybe you can compile all these into a small booklet as Darlene suggests, your writing style and ease of read make it very compelling!

    In Christ,
    Josh

  3. Loved this post! I do not intend to ego stroke, so forgive me if I sound as if I am… but this is excellent! What is the word on your book? any advancement happening?

    Happy Sunday of Orthodoxy Father!

    -g-

  4. What an insightful piece you wrote. I am always left speechless when someone says they are SBNR so after reading your piece, I do believe that is the point. Discussion ended.

  5. I wished I read this yesterday before church. My college-aged son was home for the weekend and attended church with me and his younger sibs (he’s not Orthodox). I asked him what he had been reading in his Bible (Minor prophets) and then asked what had stood out to him in them… his answer was “God hates religion.” Sigh. I countered that God certainly looks at our hearts and wants a humble and loving heart but that we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath-water. I hope and pray that he will someday join us in the Orthodox faith. But, I still think he’s got some wandering to do.

  6. This is a very interesting, engaging article – but your works are ever evocative of deep thought and consideration!

    My comment on it is, of course, from an outside perspective. I have known many SBNR folks at a very personal level, and have been a spiritual director for a few. I have to say that issues with abuse in religion, when experienced personally, are often both abuses of authority and community, as well.

    Though it’s such a loss when one throws the baby out with the bathwater, it really isn’t as easy as separating bad apples from the organization they are in. Clergy and community abuse can violate the every notion of Deity, and for life. The rejection or mistreatment by a community or authority can become seen as rejection by God Himself.

    When those who have been mistreated, on any scale, by a religious group move into SBNR, I see it as a sign of hope, really. These folks are willing to try to forge some relationship with God, however tentatively. I will forever encourage them, and hope to point them in a direction where they can find the love and inspiration they were denied.

    Thank you for the food for thought, Father! Peace and All Good!

    1. I definitely agree with you that SBNR is better in some sense than outright atheism, especially when it is a sort of defense mechanism (though both, in their essential form, are about not being responsible to anything outside oneself). My comments are really aimed at the self-institutionalization, as it were, of SBNR as a settled way of thinking and life.

      By the way, if someone has a spiritual director, I would say that he’s religious! 🙂

      1. You make an excellent point. A transitory, exploring designation of SBNR is certainly far different from a settled, final SBNR concept.

        And you’ve also got a point about people looking for spiritual direction. 😀

      2. What about those who have no living spiritual director with whom they meet or correspond but instead base their philosophy on, well, philosophy? Would your classification (SBNR vs. religious) change if such a person is eclectic or is devoted to a specific philosophical school, for example, Stoicism?

        1. Well, my aim was not really to present a system of classification so much as to talk about one label people use and what it might mean and whether that actual content holds up to scrutiny. I really have no particular comment on the religiosity of those who follow some school or other of philosophy without reference to spirituality.

  7. As an SBNR’r I see it this way: Jesus freed us from sin, Luther freed us from the Law, and Harold Camping freed us from the Churches.

  8. I believe that one important thing that the article fails to mention is how to be compassionate towards non-believers, whether or not they see themselves as Atheist or spiritual. No one starts out as anti-religious, anti-Church. or anti-Jesus, but is instead shaped and affected by one or more negative experiences. For example, the article mentions child molestation by priests in the Catholic Church. Can we really expect a child or child’s family who has gone through such a horrific experience to just “get over it” and move on? Unfortunately, we often do, and as a result we lose people. But since (as the New Testament mentions) God has put it in our hearts to worship Him, people will try and try again, to find “safe” ways to achieve a relationship with God; one that often, doesn’t require one to have a close relationship with a religious authority (priest) in order to have such as relationship. Therefore, before we lay ALL the blame at the doorstep of people who have either fallen away from the Church or have never been a part of It, we must seek to establish an integrative approach with accountability on all levels in order to come up with solutions to this problem.

    1. I certainly do agree! The article’s purpose was more to analyze where these attitudes come from and how they’re situated rather than to give suggestions for dealing directly with such people. But you’ve got some good comments here. Thanks!

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