The Spiritual Vs. Religious Debate

A quick Google search for the phrase “spiritual but not religious” yields a list of varied results-everything from webpages espousing spiritual aid, to humanist chaplains writing on how to be good without God, to religious advocates warning against the dichotomy of spirituality and religion, to a host of popular media sites, each with its respective columnists and pundits popping opinions left and right.

A 2012 Pew Research survey found that one-fifth of Americans claim no religious affiliation, but a large majority of this same group claim belief in a God or some supernatural, higher power. At the same time, though, almost 90 percent of this group of unaffiliated people claims they are not looking for a religion. What we have here, then, is the rise of the Spiritual-But-Not-Religious movement in the U.S. So popular is this alternative to institutional religions that it not only generates 37 million results on a Google search, but it also claims the abbreviation SBNR, as well as a dot-org web address and a Facebook page.

Many authors-both on the side of religion and not-have tried to lay out the problem of spirituality and religion and how the two are supposed to relate to one another.

In his CNN article, “Are there dangers in being ‘spiritual but not religious’?,” John Blake introduces many proponents of the SBNR school and holds them up against popular religious figures, such as Rev. James Martin, S.J. Although he could have better brought the two sides into conversation in his article, Blake highlights the main objections and responses.

Blake presents the argument of BJ Gallagher, a sociologist and Huffington Post blogger, who contends there is nothing wrong with a “Burger King spirituality” in which you “have it your way.” In this way, it seems one finds contentment in going through life accruing those principles with which one agrees, and maintaining an ethic or morality that suits one’s particular spiritual experience. (It should probably be assumed that the positivist principles of J. S. Mill’s utilitarianism provide some framework or guide for this kind of make-it-yourself spirituality and humanism.)

Others, though, encourage seeing spirituality as attached to a religion or a tradition. They warn against the potential for a self-centered or egotistical spirituality that can come of a spirituality divorced of a religious community. As Martin explains in his 2010 article for Busted Halo, “Spiritual but not religious-Not so fast!,” spirituality in community generates a healthy tension between the individual and the institution. He writes, “The wisdom of our religious traditions provides us with a corrective for our propensity to think that we have all the answers; and prophetic individuals [within the community] can moderate the natural propensity of institutions to resist change and growth.” He provides a powerful case for contextualizing personal spirituality within a religious tradition.

Martin is not alone. Rabbi David Wolpe, in a 2013 Time magazine article, makes a practical case for institutional religion, though not without criticism of the system. He writes, “Institutions can be slow, plodding, dictatorial; they can both enable and shield wrongdoers. They frustrate our desires by asking us to submit to the will of others. But institutions are also the only mechanism human beings know to perpetuate ideologies and actions. If books were enough, why have universities?”

Critics like Martin and Wolpe advance a convincing argument against spirituality unattached to religion. A spirituality without a community is in its own right a kind of religion. People who claim to be SBNR could, if asked, write up a list of morals or principles by which they live and breathe and interact with mankind. In a sense, these individuals have constructed their own religion, one entirely based on their perception of things, informed by their experience of the world, and owing only to their own hopes, dreams, and desires. Accordingly, they are accountable only to themselves, and even should they profess belief in a God, the individual comes first. The SBNR movement produces a kind of “I bow to no one” attitude that can foster unhealthy self-centeredness.

This is not to say all SBNR individuals are egoists or that all religions and religious institutions are without fault. Wolpe fairly admits and criticizes the potential for corruption, abuse, and violence in institutionalized religions. However, the idea of being accountable to and living within a community that we can share with one another is much more conducive to generating a spirituality of charity, directed outward and not focused on the self. When we conduct our spiritual life within a community, we will face the frustrations, critiques, suggestions, and support of others who share our morals and our spirituality.

Now, a quick Google search for “religious but not spiritual” yields not only the suggested correction “Did you mean: spiritual but not religious?” but also a number of individuals reacting to the SBNR movement-good-intentioned religious people who see their institutions under attack. This phenomenon, though, is equally as reprehensible as the movement to which it is reacting. To divorce religion and spirituality in any way is to misunderstand both. A religion without a spirituality is a set of rules and regulations, dogma and doctrine, without the life and breath of a community and its individual faithful.

The SBNR phenomenon so pervasive today that even a Catholic institution like Boston College is not immune to its presence. Scores of students at BC would probably claim they are SBNR. Groups like the Ignatian Society, with its “Finding God at BC” conversation series, are trying to respond to this phenomenon at BC with discussion (and pizza!). Perhaps more attention should be paid to these efforts, and to the problem altogether. It is unlikely we will have a campus sprawling with self-centered spiritual egoists if we disregard the question of SBNR, but there is real value in seeking to bring people who are spiritual into a community in which they can share, grow, create, and transform. And if Google is any indicator, a quick search for “spiritual community” and “spiritual religion” yield, respectively, almost double and well over double the results as “spiritual but not religious.”

Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.