The Future of “Spiritual But Not Religious”

The Future of “Spiritual But Not Religious”

[MUSIC PLAYING] I’m very pleased to welcome
you to this afternoon’s panel on the future of the
spiritual but not religious. Which is part of a
three day conference we’re holding here
at the center, generously co-sponsored
by the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. A special welcome
to those of you who might be joining us
from the Alumni Council, the Dean’s Council, or the
Dean’s Leadership Forum. If anyone is looking for a
seat, there’s two seats up front that are open. Maybe one here. And one there. So there’s plenty
of seats still over. Don’t feel shy. Just no one take
my seat, please. I will need to sit
down at one point. I should say a special thanks to
the folks at Esalen, especially Jeff Kripal, and Mike Murphy,
and Bill Parsons for helping make this conference a reality. If this is your first
time to the center, please have a look around. And if you have any
questions, please ask me or any one of the
staff who I’ll show shortly introduce. You can also fund
brochures in our lobby if you’re interested
in our programming. Now speaking of the staff,
I owe them all a great deal of thanks for their
help in organizing this panel and the conference
of which it is part. And I wish to
thank them in turn. First of all, I’d like
to thank Cory O’Brien– associate director
in the corner. Ariella Ruth
Goldberg in the back, thank you so much
for all your work. [INAUDIBLE] I believe
has stepped out. [INAUDIBLE] There’s [INAUDIBLE]. And Matthew Whitaker I don’t
believe is in the room, either. But these four been absolutely
instrumental in pulling off today and this whole weekend. So thank you all. Before I say more about
our topic this afternoon and introduce our
panelists, I’d like to remind you to please
silence your cell phones. Thank you. So I count it among the great
pleasures and privileges of my scholarly life
to have been included in a series of conferences
in recent years, hosted by the Center
for Theory and Research at the Esalen
Institute in Big Sur. My friend and
colleague, Greg Shaw– over here to my right– was the first to invite
me to one of those week long conferences back in 2015– where I met Mike Murphy
and Jeff Kripal– and who’s conjoined
genius is what leads the programming at Esalen. I mention that because a
conference on the Spiritual But Not Religious movement–
or the SBNR movement, I come to learn the acronym. There was a conference
scheduled to take place at Esalen last February led by
Bill Parsons and Jeff Kripal. But mother nature
had other plans. You may have recalled
that mudslides in Big Sur downed roads and bridges all
along the coastal highway, which crippled Esalen. Cut it off I think from both
the north and the south. And the SBNR conference
was canceled. And in fact, Esalen was
closed for six months. That was in February. And sometime in March,
I learned that I was to become the next
director here at the center. And in light of all
that as Esalen had done for me in recent
years, it seemed only right to repay the favor. I offered to host this
conference here, albeit a year later. Sadly not everyone from
the original conference was able to make
it this weekend. That probably has
something to do with that we don’t have quite
the same vista of Pacific Ocean and there are no hot springs
anywhere in the center’s grounds. Though you know we are
accepting donations. If anyone would like to
fund the CSWR hot baths. [LAUGHTER] But we have been able to– I mean it might be tough to
get by the dean, but we’ll see. Other scholars though
have been able to join us. And I’m very grateful for the
new additions despite the fact that they have to suffer through
these relative hardships. So I’m going to leave it
to our three panelists to explain exactly what SBNR
is, and why assessing its future is so important. But I want to say that the
conference fits perfectly with one of the center’s five
new programming threads– namely what we’re
calling The Future of the Study of Religion. So with this new
thread we’re hoping to explore both how the
history of religions is evolving in
around us already, and how we as scholars
must evolve with it. We must cultivate
senses and sensibilities attuned to these new religious
forms and expressions, and must find new ways, and
new means of interpretation if we are to remain
rigorous and relevant. So let me now introduce
our three panelists. Jeff Kripal holds the Jay
Newton Razor chair in philosophy and religious thought
at Rice University. He is the Associate
Director– as I said– at the Center
for Theory and Research at the Esalen Institute. He the author of numerous books,
including his most recent– Secret Body, Erotic
And Esoteric Currents in the History of
Religions– from Chicago. He specializes in
the comparative study of extreme religious states from
the ancient world till today. Bob Fuller is Professor
of Religious Studies at Bradley University. Professor Fuller came to Bradley
from the University of Chicago, where he received
his PhD in the fields of religious
psychological– religion and psychological studies
and American religion. Professor Fuller’s
research concerns the relationship between
psychology and religion, as well as the study of
contemporary religion in the United States. He’s the author of no
less than 13 books, including most relevant
for today, Spiritual But Not Religious, Understanding
Unchurched America. And finally, Linda Mercadante
is the Straker senior professor of historical theology at
the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. Her research
centers on questions of how religious beliefs
are embedded in culture. Her current research
focuses on the SBNRs, challenging stereotypes of
them, and finding a coherence in the spiritual belief
narrative of the hundreds she’s interviewed. Her book, Belief
without Borders, Inside The Minds of the
Spiritual but not Religious has been featured by NBC’s
The Today Show, New York Times, and others. So this is how these
panels will work. I’ll invite each of our
panelists up to speak. And then after we’ve
heard from them, we’ll bring their
three chairs up. They’ll face you. I’ll stand here
and take questions, in which they will
answer, I hope, because certainly I can’t. But we’re hoping to
have plenty of time for questions and discussions. So please do stick around. So without further
ado, please join me in welcoming our
three panelists. [APPLAUSE] I’m going to pass these books
around if anyone’s interested, but I would like
them back, please. [LAUGHTER] Thank you, Charlie. So I’m Jeff. I’ve got three hats on
even if you can’t see them. First of all, I’m a
historian of religion. So I’m really
interested in the SBNR as a kind of modern
religious movement with its own complexities
and its own histories. I do director or co-direct the
Center For Theory and Research at Esalen, which is
an in SBNR community. No question about it. I so wanted us to meet there. Not because of the hot
baths, but because I wanted the community and
its leadership there to hear what these
scholars had to say about the history, and
nuances, and possible future of that movement. That didn’t happen. So I was thrilled when Charlie
called and took it up here. And finally, I have the hat
on as a teacher, whose job it is to teach young people– 18 to 23 more or less– but also a number
of PhD students. Many of whom would
self-identify here as well. So I’m very– I’m not just interested
in this intellectually. I’m concerned about
it pedagogically. And I’m involved with
it institutionally. So I’ve got a lot of hats on. And my comments might
be a bit scattered. But I think they’ll
all come together if you just keep those
three things in mind. The first thing I
want to say is a bit historical to Charlie’s
question, why SBNR? Why is this important? The first thing I would say
is that the SBNR was partially created by the comparative
study of religion. There is an intimate historical
and conceptual relationship between comparison itself as a
cognitive and intellectual act, and the spiritual but
not religious position. That’s not always recognized,
but it is in fact the case. The comparative
study of religion is stranger than you think. Most of the received fathers
and mothers of the field had very interesting
and often eccentric personal, mystical lives. And I think a Fuller
history would reveal that. I’m just going to talk about
four of them here just briefly to give you a sense of this. But Max Mueller, for example– often called the father of the
comparative study of religion– really ended his life
writing autobiographically about his own mystical humanism. Which was really a kind of
fusion of Christian theology and the Hindu [INAUDIBLE]. William James. We all read– William James is a local
figure here I recognize. We all read The Varieties
of Religious Experience in graduate school. And many of us have read it
as well in other contexts. But I know when I read the
book at Chicago in the 1980s, no one ever told us that
William James was involved in psychical research for pretty
much his entire adult life. He spent as much time sitting
with mediums and psychics as he did probably
in the classroom. And that’s a whole part
of the Jamesian legacy that just gets lopped off. Mircea Eliade– someone who
founded the discipline I was trained in Chicago– his last novel,
Youth Without Youth is essentially a piece
of esoteric fiction in which he really kind
of plays his cards. My own mentor, Wendy
Doniger, has always argued that that’s his most
autobiographical novel. It’s about a scholar
of comparative religion who is going to commit
suicide on Easter day. And he walks across the street
and gets struck by lightning. And as he heals in
the hospital, he grows younger, and develops all
kinds of paranormal abilities, including the ability
to dream the next day. Houston Smith, a paragon
of comparison quite radical in the 1960s and 70s. But of course psychedelics
were a very important part of his theorizing in his life. We all know that, but
we just sort of forget that when we think about the
comparative study of religion. So these are just
a few examples. The way the story of the
comparative study of religion is usually told is that
it finds its origins in 19th century
British colonialism and missionary activity. And it’s somehow inherently
hegemonic and colonizing. That’s part of the story and
we need to struggle with that. But the truth is is that
in the 20th century, the real origins of the
comparative study of religion lie in the counterculture. They lie in the 1960s when most
of these programs were funded, and founded. And where many of the
professors emerged from that counter culture
after taking something like LSD or something, and
realizing that there’s more to the human being than this. So that’s the first
thing I want to say. The second thing
I want to say, is that there are different
forms of the spiritual but not religious orientation. Some of them vary. Some of them are emerging
from extreme or robust mystical experiences. Give you an example a moment. And most of them I
think are emerging from a deep moral
sensibility, and not requiring any kind of unusual
or extraordinary experience. The first case, I spent the
last two and a half years working with a woman from
Houston named Elizabeth Crone. In 1988, she was attending
the first year anniversary of her grandfather’s death
at her local reformed Jewish synagogue– which happens to be
right across the street from my own university. She stepped out of the car
with her two-year-old boy in her hand, and she
was struck by lightning. She then had an elaborate
near-death experience. And as she was healing, she
developed paranormal powers, including the ability
to dream what was going to happen in the next day. The next day’s news. I handed her Eliade’s
Youth Without Youth, and told her that
she should read this. And she gave it back
to me after reading it, and says that’s not fiction. So now what’s interesting
about Elizabeth though, is before the lightning
strike, entirely secular, mocked all religious,
or spiritual, or new age sensibilities. Her first experience after
getting struck by lightning and standing over her body
in the wet parking lot was the sense of how wrong she
had been to judge those people. And she herself describes
herself as spiritual, but not religious now. The near-death experience made
her less religious, but more spiritual. And she has her own
way of expressing that. So that’s a kind
of extreme event. A kind of revelation as it were. I think that’s the exception. I think in the classroom
and among younger people, the spiritual but not religious
is simply a placeholder. It doesn’t name anything
specific for them. Although they have
their own beliefs and their own convictions. It’s primarily a form
of moral protest. They are horrified and
disgusted with the way religious voices in the
public have essentially promoted a kind of hatred
of their own friends and their own peers. And they simply want
nothing to do with it. For better or for worse,
those are the voices they hear in the public. They’re not aware of the
more nuanced, and the more sophisticated voices. And so that’s the kind
of thing that I think we work with in the classroom. The question that I have
as a professor of religion at a secular university working
with these young people, is what our role is now? What can we do in the
classroom to help them reassess the religious traditions? Get a much better sense of their
richness and sophistication, but also better articulate
where they’re at morally, theologically, existentially? And I think we can go a
long ways in doing that. And finally, let me say that
sometimes the classroom itself can be an extreme and
extraordinary place for these young. let me go back to Esalen. Esalen’s founding goes back to
a comparative religion classroom at Stanford in the early 1950s. In which a young man
named Michael Murphy was– thought he was in a
social psychology class, but he mistakenly walked
into Frederic Spiegelberg’s comparative religion class. Spiegelberg was a
German comparativist who was friends with Martin
Heidegger and Paul Tillich, and who had had a mystical
experience in a wheat field in 1917, and
developed a notion he called the religion of religion. Which was essentially
a mystical theology that resisted the exclusive
truth of any single tradition, but insisted on the divine
presence in the natural world, and in all of humanity. And it was really
that mystical theology that Mike imbibed as a
young college student. And then went on to
help found Esalen and the Human
Potential movement. So we do have effect sometimes. They are listening. And it doesn’t
matter what we say. And so I think I’ll
just leave it at that. [APPLAUSE] I’m Bob Fuller. I too am a professor
of religious studies at a secular university, a
private secular university. First of all, I did take
the announced topic today– The Future of The
Spiritual But Not Religious Movement serious
for the kind of remarks that I had planned to give. But let remind you that when
we get to question and answer some questions– the whole phrase spiritual,
but not religious were here for a conference. Where we’re very painfully
aware in many, many ways, those words mean the same thing. At the end of the day, what
is though highest reality to which I should adapt myself? And whether we use the word
spiritual or religious, as opposed to economics, or
politics, or social realities, et cetera– whether we use the word
religion or spirituality, it’s about sensing that there
is a reality that transcends the sensory experience
to which in my life I ought to harmoniously
adapt myselves there too. And the words mean the
same in that sense. But we do know that over the
last three or four decades it has become more and more
common practice in the United States to use the
word spiritual to mean something individual,
more subjective, based on my own experiences. And we’ve come to
use the word religion to be more affiliation
with a congregation, with a longer
standing tradition. And here in the
United States it would be predominantly Christianity,
to little lesser extent Judaism. And so we think of religion as
more institutional expressions. But the words ultimately
mean the same thing. So arbitrarily
coming up with this, I consider myself
spiritual, but not religious is a little bit of an artifact. And we know it doesn’t hold
up if you ask good questions about that phrase. I’ve spent much of my
career examining what I call unchurched American religion. And one of the things
that I discovered, is that it has a long
tradition in the United States, even if we go back to the
settling of the United States. The earliest colonists here
looked for God in many places. Not just the revealed scripture,
but they also looked in nature. Jonathan Edwards, the fire and
brimstone Puritan minister, was at heart a mystic. And he had a pantheism. He saw divine
presence everywhere. And by the time we get a
couple of generations later, Ralph Waldo Emerson
abandons his pulpit to become a spokesperson
for transcendentalism. Now don’t mistake it. He wasn’t a secularist. He believed in a
transcendental reality. But he believed you can
find it in many places out in the world. And we have to open ourselves
radically to experiences that we might get
glimpses of that more. Another generation
later, William James is writing the Varieties
of Religious Experience. But he’s saying the same. He was convinced
there is a more, a more of our sensory experience
but he looked many places to find it. What he even called empirical
evidence of that more. So we find throughout high brow
and low brow American culture, a long, rich history. What it tends to share is this. People interested in the
spiritual but not religious will see are probably not
as motivated to religion by a sense of sin. They kind of reject
that, and fear, and guilt as the prime motivations. They’re also not primarily
interested in religion for procuring an afterlife. They’re more interested in
a rich, vibrant, abundant this life. And what connection with the
more might mean about that. So they don’t always buy all
the categories that we think of. But I came here today
to try to say, also what is the future of this. We know it’s gaining. I don’t know if you noticed that
when the Pew Research Center or Gallup Polls asked
people to self-identify. They are now giving
them three categories. My students only fill
out forms probably that give them these
three categories. You can identify
as non-religious. None. You can identify as
religious with affiliation with a existing
traditional, a congregation. I’ll for the moment call that
conventionally religious. Or they’re using the phrase
spiritual, but not religious. And increasingly, Americans
are being if nothing else forced to self-identify in
one of those three categories. Not that any of us are pretty
comfortable [INAUDIBLE] cross over two of
them or something. But it’s becoming. So we know now that it’s
probably at least 20% of the adult US population
might feel comfortable using that phrase
as long as they can adjust it a little bit
for their own particular circumstance. Among the younger individuals it
could be as high as 25% or 30% of the millennial generation. So we know it’s got a lot of
traction in American culture. The question is,
what is its future? And I am going to speak to that. Now when I look at
any topic, I probably am different than both
humanities professors and religious studies
scholars in one thing. I don’t always look
to the environment, and to society, historical,
and cultural trends. I believe we also
need to keep in mind, we are a biological organism. You and I are part– we have a
genetically evolved mechanisms, just like squirrels,
robins, and tadpoles all come into this universe with
biologically evolved mechanisms that structure many aspects
of the way we think, feel, and behave. And I don’t want to lose sight
of that when I talk about this. But the one caveat, asking me to
predict the future of something in religion, is probably
a waste of time. I began my teaching career
at Bradley University 40 years ago,
telling students well you will live in the
generation where we will still have Catholicism in America. But it won’t be
Roman Catholicism. The United States
Catholic Church will disassociate from Rome. And I gave reasons of divorce
issues, and women clergy, et cetera, and went on and
on with all my reasons. Well you saw how well that
prediction worked out. [LAUGHTER] Wanna know how my prediction for
the 2016 presidential election went? Not so well. So asking me to predict
this is probably an exercise in futility. But with that, I definitely
do see the spiritual but not religious movement. Which again, is somewhere over
20 or higher percent of the US population solidifying,
and possibly making slight more
growth inroads into what I might call the
American spiritual marketplace in the near future. My reasons for that are one,
based in the biological. The nature part of the
nature-nurture part. The human organism is
incurably religious. I call us homoreligiosis. The propensity towards
religiosity is deep within us, if for no other
reason we are the one species that can
cognitively ask questions of ultimate causality. We can ask why are we here? Why did I wake? Why does every human being
wake up in the morning, and find themselves in the
universe– in a universe– that finite creatures
did not create? And at the end of
the day, what do I want to have done with my life? We can ask those questions. And even if we’re vexed at our
inability to sometimes answer them as convincingly
and for once and for all as we would hope,
we ask and are even hunted sometimes by those questions. I don’t think if part
of it is, will there be a progressive movement
towards non-religiosity, non-spirituality, and to
become wholly secular. I don’t think so. And my reason is
once again anchored less in cultural, environmental,
historical kinds of categories than what I call our
genetically evolved beinghood. And I think that
Homo sapiens will continue to be homoreligiosis. And so I do believe
there will be a vibrant religiosity in
American culture for long into the future. I also want to point out
that when we look today, it’s easy to
caricature people drawn to if you want to call it new
age religiosity, various forms of being spiritual. But not aligned with a more
long lasting congregation and religious tradition. We tend to think that
this is new or abnormal. But can I please for a
moment proposed to you, that it is normal. That we should expect this
kind of freelance spirituality. [INAUDIBLE] And some
of us just presuppose that the normal
thing is to belong to a longstanding religious
denomination of some kind. And maybe it’s not. I ask you just to quickly think
about your music sensibilities. You don’t really expect people
to belong to a Beethoven society? Where every Sunday morning, from
11:00 to 12:00, one [INAUDIBLE] creeds about Beethoven being
the one and only best composer, and that we will shun the other
composers, et cetera like this. You expect a little more variety
in people’s– you don’t expect them to be singularly focused
in their musical sensibility. Same with artistic sensibility. And I would propose with
spiritual and religious sensibilities. Some form of eclecticism
probably is more normal. And with this I
want to say what I think that will be normal
for a short time to come. There– we do live compared to
other generations of humans, with less material insecurity. Or put differently, with
some more material security. I might propose to you that
in part, the spiritual but not religious expression
are expressions of a form of spirituality less
driven by material insecurity. Secondly, I might
also suggest that it’s where we have more
choice, and we have weaker cultural constraints upon us. If you were born
in medieval France, perhaps you would have
been the village atheist. But it would have been
Roman Catholicism that you were the atheist about. It wouldn’t have
been Buddhism, Islam. It wouldn’t have
been Protestant– what century did I put this in? Let’s put it 14th
century so we can safely say you wouldn’t even
Protestant Christianity. You were under
cultural constraints about what traditions you
could be bound by, et cetera. So we have fewer of that in
our mobile pluralistic society. I think what we’re seeing
is what you would expect to see in spirituality less
driven by material insecurity, and with greater freedom
from cultural constraints. Also of course, I
mentioned pluralism. In our age of internet
connectedness, and all of us have some much more
level of global awareness. We’ve seen things posted
from other countries, other cultures. We’re aware of the relativism
of any one tradition, maybe more so than
in other times. And so once again this frees
us from cultural constraints. We think of the word heretic. But one of the root meanings
of the word [? heresis ?] is to choose. We live in an era where you not
only can choose in religion, you really must choose. You really must choose. And we do have three
broad categories into which to choose. I can become wholly
non-religious. And I can see my life
through wholly secular. I’ll call it for the clearly
scientific materialism. I kind of made a straw
man out of that argument, but we’ll let it go. Secondly, I can adhere to a long
lasting religious tradition. Or three, I can explore. And I think in our age expecting
what we see in the spiritual, but not religious– again,
it’s only going to solidify, it will probably at least in the
near future continue to expand. But now, I want to
move to one other side. And this is where I’ve got to
put some qualifications on why I don’t think that it will
ever totally dominate, or we’re going to see
other forms of religiosity. Can I remind us as one little
background to all this. The world population
is growing rapidly. And in places we don’t often
think about or talk about. But the places on
planet Earth that have the fastest growing
population growth are places that
are very religious. Very conservatively religious. And of a religion that we may
not be real comfortable with. It tends to be tribal. It tends to be in-group
versus out-group. It tends to be very
strict and rigid. And I just see this also as
something on planet Earth, if we look across
both hemispheres and across all continents. The spiritual but
not religious that we see in parts of Western Europe
and in the United States aren’t going to
in any way eclipse that kind of a future
for religion on Earth. But I want to also say that
part of our genetically evolved systems, is when we’re
confronted with limited resources, when there’s
fear, when there’s a threat– can I just use the word stress– it elicits behavior,
feelings, and thoughts in us that are very
different when we’re freed from those
threats, that stress. And could I say that the
appeal to powerful authority, and to wanting and feeling more
secure when there is powerful authority is much greater
in periods of stress, and threat, and problems
of material security. Secondly, in those
times there is much more sense of need for
tribal solidarity. And determining who
is the in group? Who is the out group? And throughout human history,
one way we know who is in group is whether they profess the
exact same religious beliefs we do, because they must have
willed themselves to do this. And publicly
professing that is what it’s called in kind of
physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, costly
displays of group membership, because you must will
yourself to profess those. They’ll be much more
concerned with that. And also much more concerned
with strictness, and behavior, and conformity to the group. With those there,
some of the kinds of open, eclectic, tolerance
of all forms of doctrine that we see
expressed won’t force in those kinds of environments. So I think I want
to just make sure that as I pause, and let now
Linda to come in, and add additional comments to the
future of the spiritual, but not religious
movement, there are some variables at stake. And where we see more
pluralism possible, where we see more
material security, and where we see more
ability to interconnect with the cosmopolitan
world outlooks, we’ll see the spiritual,
but not religious movement continued to thrive. But in cultural and
social environments where that’s not the
case, I would rather suspect we’ll see something
very diametrically opposite as the
expression of religion. [INAUDIBLE] [APPLAUSE] Thank you very much for coming. It’s great to see you here. And I thank my
previous speakers. So I’m going to take a
slightly different approach. Salad bar spiritualists,
narcissistic commitment phobes, anti-dogma experience seekers,
victims of religious abuse, rich white women in
expensive yoga outfits, these are some of the
stereotypes that I’m sure we’ve all heard about
those non-religious nuns who self-identify as spiritual,
but not religious. Now having been
an SBNR myself, I have long felt these hyperbolic
labels do an injustice to the thoughtful,
determined, spiritual questers that SBNRs often can be. To dispel the
stereotypes, SBNRs need to speak in their own
voices to be heard. And they deserve our attention– I think that’s obvious here– because they’re
rapidly contributing to a profound change in the
spiritual narrative of the US. Now so far, as you
may know it’s largely quantitative and
statistical analysis. I mean until recently
that was mostly– those have mostly been
the dominant tools that are used to study them. But the various researchers do
agree on some core insights. That the SBNRs have an
anti-institutional bent. That they have differences
and commitments styles. That there’s increasing
individualism among this group. That it’s somewhat secularizing. And that other features
in them reflect a globalized post-modern world. However, the one topic
that’s rarely looked at, or not looked at
in depth is belief. And even when it
does come up, there’s often assumption and
assumption that SBNR beliefs are disorganized, that they’re
eclectic with very little agreement across the group. Others speculate that the SBNR
ethos shows that religious quote, dogmatism– which is a
negative code word for belief– has come to an end. And some scholars such
as Nancy Tatom Ammerman, suggest that the SBNR separation
of spirituality from religion is largely a boundary
maintaining discourse, rather than actual rejection. A behavior is often
considered religious, but even in her cogent analysis, belief
doesn’t play a central role except to be identified
with religion, and rejected by
SBNRs as implausible. Now I agree that the SBNR ethos
is a boundary setting activity, totally. It’s a rejection of the
sacred secular dichotomy. It’s a recognition
that spirituality infuses everyday life. And it’s clearly a weakening
of the bonds of religion. That’s true. I agree with it. But when I frequently
speak with SBNRs, I hear a lot more than that. And that’s what I
set out to study, because quantitative
analysis really doesn’t do a good job probing
the nuances of motivation and belief. Neither does it let
genuine voices be heard. I created a qualitative
research project consisting of an open ended,
semi-structured interview process. And I spoke into doing this
research with hundreds of SBNRs all across North America. Then I analyzed about
hundreds of these interviews, and that’s where that
book emerged from. I looked at all
sorts of age groups, Silent Generations all
the way to Millennials. And the interview is
consisted of men and women. There was a LGBTQ participants,
some racial and ethnic diversity, and people
from both coasts, as well as the
Midwest and Canada. So I tried to get a
sample of qualitative– doesn’t have to do
representation samples, but I tried for that. Now what I found
was that belief, rather than being
ancillary or important, was actually a critical
aspect of the SBNR ethos. And it absolutely cannot be
taken out of the equation. Now this boundary setting
rhetoric– which it of course– has a purpose beyond
the resacralization of everyday life. Instead it is one
which specifically allows its participants to carve
out new theological territory. Charting this new
territory is critical, because it will inevitably
affect all of us, just like the dominant
Protestant ethos has affected all of us and in the US. So in case you’re
wondering about the method, there were several parts. Of course, at first I
explored their prior religious background
or lack of it. That was essential. Then we covered four
major themes individually. These themes are transcendence,
human nature, community, an afterlife. Everybody covered those with me. Now I chose these areas, because
they seemed topics upon which most people might speculate. At least, those in
a Western culture. That is, one, is there a
power greater than myself. Two, what does it
mean to be human. Three, do we need community
to flourish spiritually, or is this essentially
a solo effort? And finally, what if anything
would happen to humans after death? At least in a Western context,
those are questions people ask. Now against the stereotype that
SBNRs don’t care about belief, that they just reject
it out of hand, nobody balked at being
asked about their beliefs. Instead the people I encountered
were deeply interested in these topics. And they were grateful to be
asked their thoughts on them. Many claimed that this was the
first opportunity they had ever had to talk about these things. All the interviewees seemed
very eager to give their reasons for avoiding or withdrawing
from organized religion. And it’s highly
significant, I think, that quote, religious
distress– in other words, they were hurt by religion– did
not emerge as a main motivator. And I identify
religious distress as being seriously
hurt by organized religion in some tangible way. Whether that would be
physically, emotionally, or relationally. The most important
reason that they gave for leaving or
avoiding organized religion did not have to do with abuse
or politics as you might think. Instead it was with belief. Many said they could not
support some of the beliefs they identified with
organized religion, in particular Christianity. For those previously involved
in organized religion, theology was so
important to them that when they realized they
did not agree with at least one or more official
teachings, they felt quote, honor bound to leave. So it was a matter of
integrity that when they found something
they didn’t agree with, they felt they should leave. So that belief was
pretty important to them. But there was often
more than that. Many felt it was more
mature to give up their former religious beliefs. Such as a belief
in a personal god, or in heaven, even
if they still felt emotionally attached
to these beliefs. Some felt guilty or
even weak for not being able to successfully clear
these beliefs from their minds. Others felt liberated
from old ideas, and free to pursue their
spiritual explorations anywhere they chose. So rather than rejecting
belief, interviewees saw the constructing of
new theological territory as a crucial part of
their spiritual journey. And it occupied a
lot of their time. Well what about belief
then in particular? Interviewers were nearly
unilateral in rejecting certain positions
they identified with organized religion,
particularly Christianity. And I’m making no
bones about this. It was directed
against Christianity. They might not say that,
but it was so clear. For example, all of them
rejected quote, exclusivism. In other words, the my way
or the highway theology, which declare some people
are in, some people are out, et cetera. Now a very few seemed
aware that this is hardly a unilateral position within
contemporary Christianity, especially say
mainstream Protestantism. But it didn’t matter
to them, because they felt that Christianity presented
a capricious, and arbitrary, or an inscrutable God, and they
thoroughly rejected this God. Now interviewees went even
further with rejection. They didn’t simply posit a
loving, accepting, or fair God, or perhaps a more feminine
God, soft God, or motherly God. And only a few were
aware that for decades within progressive
elements of Christianity there has been a movement
to depatriarchalize God– God’s images. For these SBNRs, simply
putting God in a dress was not going to do it. Period. Instead they just threw God
totally out of the picture. In fact, nearly all
the interviewers– this was amazing–
nearly all of them hesitated or completely
avoided using the word God, all the time. They made a point of it. In addition, almost all
of them rejected any kind of transcendent deity,
even if conceived in non-patriarchal terms. On another note, all
rejected the idea of sin. The word itself
particularly rankled them. They especially hated
the idea of original sin, misinterpreting it as
God creating humans bad, and then punishing them for it. Corollary to that, most
rejected traditional views on the afterlife, in
particular, traditional notions of Heaven and Hell. Now I could go on
and on about this, but I won’t, because
we’re limited, but let me say what they proposed. OK, it was clear
what they rejected. But what did they propose? Because rejection
of certain beliefs was not the whole story. The interviewees also had
beliefs which they affirmed, and which cohered– believe it or not–
cohered across the group in very interesting ways. For instance, almost all
insisted that they nevertheless quote, believed in something. For them this was a
type of transcendence, but I called horizontal
transcendence. And that’s the idea that there
is a sacred dimension that’s larger than yourself,
but the horizontal was that they connected it
with human nature, human being, the Earth, things like that. And even so– and
on top of that, many affirm that
divinity resided within. And someone so far
as to say I am God. I heard that a lot. And yet– there’s always an,
an yet– in this research, because some
interviewees found it hard to give up the idea of
the comforting images of a God who guided and cared
personally for them. Now some handled this
by almost personifying the word the universe, making
it sound somewhat interactive and benevolent for
everyone, but also non-demanding and specific to
their own needs and desires. OK, what if– I’m just giving
you the highlights– what about human nature? Well ask for beliefs
about human nature– and this is striking–
the very first thing every single
interviewee said when I ask them what does it
mean to be human was, everyone is born good. A 100%. Amazing. Again, this is likely a
widespread cultural repudiation of the stereotype
of original sin. Most took a therapeutic,
psychological– [CLEARING THROAT] Excuse me, or even
deterministic approach to human dysfunction
and pathology. If someone misbehaved,
many suggested it was likely the result
of environmental causes, distorted family dynamics,
or unhealthy brain chemistry. Yet– there’s always a yet– they often counter
balance that this determinism by claiming that
all behavior is freely chosen. Many– which sounds like
a contradiction, right? Many resorted to the idea of
an impersonal and unbendable, quote, “karmic
process,” to ensure that wrong actions matter
greatly and have consequences. Not only did this dignify
individual choice, but it helped them
understand all human problems as a learning experience
on a spiritual path. In the end, the traditional view
of a god who judges and rewards or punishments has been replaced
by an anonymous process that ensures beneficial consequences
for those who quote, wake up and pay attention, and
dire consequences for those who don’t. I hope you’re getting the theme
that [INAUDIBLE] the balance– there’s balancing going on here
and echoes of previous beliefs. Community, what about that? The interviewees
views on community were fairly straightforward. Many had participated
from time to time in various alternative
spiritual communities. And often credited teachers,
groups, and readings with helping them along
the spiritual path. In the end, however, very few
made long lasting commitments to any of this. Instead they credited
themselves with the ability to see the universal
truths or teachings common to all religions and
to practice them on their own. They believed they
could more safely avoid the unhelpful
aspects of religion by keeping their independence. When I asked in an interview
what are really functional and healthy spiritual
community would look like– because they didn’t
reject the idea at all– they said it would be
one which supported them and their growth,
when everyone was free to believe and
practice as they wished, and one which didn’t
make too many demands. When I asked how they would
recognize such a community if they were looking for
one many said, quote, everyone would believe as I do. What about afterlife? Finally we’ve got to afterlife. A few believe that mature
people should recognize that after death they
would certainly– they would just simply return
to Earth or become energy. But the majority
didn’t like that. They didn’t leave it there. Many believe strongly
in reincarnation. But unlike traditional
notions, eastern notions of reincarnation, however,
which posit the possibility that we might regress
rather than just progress, for the interviewees it
was a very American version of reincarnation with endless
second chances to get it right. The majority did
not believe there was a set theological goal or
end point for this process. No end point, no Nirvana, or
Heaven, or final resting place, and so instead most
believe we could endlessly progress and enjoy happier
and more successful lives going forward. So what does this
movement suggest? It certainly shows the
triumph of imminence a theme that has only grown
since the Enlightenment. Yet this movement is
not simply a large step on the road to secularization. Instead the interviewees
in this study demonstrate an implicit
protest against what they see as an arid and
secularizing trend in society. I think SBNR an is a
protest against that as well, as a protest against a
version of Christian theology. They want to know that
there is something more than consumerism, status
seeking, and focus on body image promoted by our society. They also implicitly protest
against our society’s over reliance on
science with its methods and its seemingly tightly
drawn parameters– scientism. Thus there are quote,
intimations of transcendence in the current culture,
especially in the SBNR ethos. We are witnessing as
Charles Taylor says, quote, “The story of
closed eminence beginning to come apart.” end quote. This is a profound,
theological re-orientation which will have important
effects on our culture. Now, OK as far as the
future part– again, I’m not a prophet, and you
know we can all be wrong– but here’s some ideas. This re-orientation could go in
several different directions. On one hand, it could be a
draining out of the dregs of traditional religion. Even if everyday life
takes on increasing spiritual significance,
this may not coalesce into a new religiosity,
or a culture wide acceptance of one dominant
spirituality, or a renewal of formal affiliation. All those things many
people would hope for, but it wouldn’t
have to go that way. Because after all the Pew forum
recently noted that the longer, quote, nuns, stay away from
organized religious practices the less spiritual they become. And Ammerman notes
that the ones who are the most, quote,
spiritual, turned out to be religious practitioners. That’s what Ammerman says. However, I don’t really expect
that current forms of religion can be re-energized by
the SBNR movement, or even as a counterbalance
to it, unless there are significant and dramatic
changes in organized religion, of course. On the other hand, none of
that might be the whole story. The movement instead
could be the harbinger of something spiritually new. Now I doubt it will look much
like anything we have now. For the anti-institutional
bent in the SBNR ethos is going to make
organization very difficult. In fact, most SBNRs
I’ve met seem unaware that many others reject
the same doctrines and promote similar
theological themes as they do. In fact, some when I tell
them this are disappointed, and some are even angry when
I tell them how similar they are to so many others. [LAUGHTER] While SBNRs might not yet
recognize or even welcome the commonalities
I’ve laid out, it is possible that a common vision
and some form of organization may become desperately needed
in our current climate. In fact, the current
political climate may push SBNRs to
move beyond limiting their efforts on change to
the personal or the lifestyle level. In any case, I think there
is reason to find hope in the SBNR movement. Through it there may be emerging
a new way to experience, find, and theologically
explain the deep feeling that what you see is
not all that you get. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] [INAUDIBLE] Well there you have it. Three very different approaches
to spiritual, but not religious phenomenon movement,
ethos, what have you. So the floor is open. Questions? Kurt? I just am curious about
the historical basis for the use of term. Because my first
encounter with it was on an internet dating site– [INTERPOSING VOICES] –about 20 years ago. And in thinking about
what was meant or intended by my answering that
question for dating purposes, it seemed to be
can I let everybody know I’m cool and independent. Right. Right. At the same time as
I’m letting everybody know that I’m not a fanatic
and I’m not conservative. Exactly. Right. So, at some point, this became
not just a self-descriptor but also a sociological
measuring tool. What’s the context for this? Jeff, you go first. I think Jeff needs
to answer this. Jeff, you’ve got
to answer first. Just speak. It’ll pick it up. I mean, Bill Parsons,
who’s in the room here, can speak to the history. We can trace it back
pretty far, but it seems to be, actually, AA where
it really comes to the fore. Yeah, definitely. Which was itself influenced
by William James, by the way, and Carl Jung. But I think the dating site– it’s a piece of humor, but
it’s also really important. My daughter actually did her
MFA on the effect of the cell phones on Millennial dating. And she told me that if you want
the most dates, you pick SBNR. So that’s a really good sign
that we’re at a major category here for, at least, younger
people under the age of 30. This is the group
she was looking at. So I think you’re right. I think you’re right about it. I think that’s exactly
what it signals for that group of people. I will say that
Bill Parsons and I tried to do a little bit
of historical background on the term. And we could find,
Bill, going back– he’s in the back of the room. Going back into earlier
than this century, we found what a Rotary
Club advertised itself. Right? Matt found this? Matt found it. A Rotary Club was the
first we could find, described itself as a spiritual
but not religious organization. We thought that was unusual. That’s going back, what, to
about maybe the teens or ’20s. We then found in a
newspaper article after, what, the
Lusitania had sunk. There was a grave– they had a solemn ceremony
that was described as spiritual but not religious for that. So we found that predating Bill
W. in the 12-Step programs. But his phrase was actually
spiritual, not religious. He didn’t have the word
but in there– spiritual, not religious. And clearly, that’s
what injected it into the vocabulary
of Americans. As I say, starting
about 15, 20 years ago, Gallup and Pew Research both
started using this phrase. And now, it’s pretty
much so widely used. I use that all the time
when I speak to audiences. I always say, look, when you
get to go to a dating site, I’m going to give you a
little piece of advice. And they think it’s funny. But what I think is when you’re
looking to date somebody, you’re thinking about, well,
what kind of person is this? What kind of character
do they have? I’m going to be spending
maybe a lot of time with them. So if you say you’re an
atheist, people still think that you’re
not a moral person. But I mean, atheists say,
we can be good without God. So do SBNRs, but that’s still
the stereotype of an atheist. And if you say you’re Christian
or some actual religion, they figure you’re conservative. You know, politically
conservative and in other ways conservative
and may be oppressive to them. Like if you’re a woman and
you say you’re a Christian, you’re going to get all
these really negative– like people that believe in
the subordination of women. So you don’t want that. I mean, I wouldn’t, for sure. But if you say you’re
spiritual but not religious, I think you’re saying, I’m a
good person, but I’m not rigid. And then you put down that
you’re walking on the beach and you like to have
fun, and you’re all set. I think another piece here
that’s worth mentioning is the Asian religions piece. SBNR is attractive to Asian
religious ideas and beliefs. This came up with reincarnation. And I don’t recall
the exact phrase, but Rabindranath Tagore wrote a
book called The Religion of Man somewhere in the 1920s, and
he uses a virtually identical phrase already there. So you can see this. I think as we do more and
more historical research, we’re going to push those
dates back further and further. Great. Other questions? Hi. For people that belong
to a traditional religion and take it serious, there’s
probably a real moral struggle that people go through. Because it’s a standard that
you’re probably not meeting. And my sense is that people that
belong to the SBNR movement, they come in already
with these values that are part of the
post-modern ethos of diversity, inclusivity, tolerance. But are there any kind
of moral struggles that you could probably
adhere to to that movement, in a sense, that might tie into
a more traditional structure? My interviewees did think a lot
about their character formation and their– I don’t know if they would
use the word morality, but you know, if they’re
meeting standards. And they just are
getting the standards from different places. So they’re not
unconcerned with it. If they’re very
involved in yoga– we had one of our
participants very learned in the
popular uses of yoga, and they would get
those standards and try to live by those. So I don’t think that
they’re necessarily rejecting standards,
but they think that the standards that
organized religion gives them is old fashioned and rigid, like
it’s homophobic or all that. So they have standards,
but they just don’t want them to be what they
stereotype religion as having. I also think there’s a
kind of unconsciousness in some of the SBNR speak. And what I mean by
that is that you’ll hear a lot of a
naive perennialism that all religions are
basically saying the same thing. And what they don’t
realize is when you say that, you’re
actually saying that all the religions are wrong. There’s a critique there. There’s a kind of negative
critique of the religions through that kind of language. And they’re aware of
the positive language around tolerance,
but they’re not aware of the negative critique
of these religious traditions that, of course, people from
the religious traditions hear right away. So I think that’s
going on here, as well. One of my interviewees said that
he was raised very liberally, without any religion. He was raised SBNR. And he said the only thing
that was wrong in his family was thinking you were right. And so a lot of
people that are– they are perennialists. They do have those views
towards organized religion, that these people
are very limited. But that I can see
what’s common about them, and I can see what’s
good about them all. Which, given that many people
are against what they consider self-righteousness in
organized religion, it has its own form
of self-righteousness. Charlie, did you
have a question? Yeah. This isn’t so much about
religious organizations and whether the academy– [INAUDIBLE] Yeah. So I’m curious about
people like Max Mueller and similar scholars
and the creation of comparative religion. We can recognize that
these traditions, under colonial rule, in order
to be studied and control the narrative, were constructed
and turned into religions, in a Western sense, at least. So to continue
using these boxes, these subfields,
kind of advances its colonial
cartography of belief. I’m wondering if maybe
the academy studies religions too prescriptively
rather than descriptively. And if we were to maybe redraw
the boundaries of religion, if we might make more spaces
in these boxes for people who would otherwise
be labeled SBNR. Recognize more religious
creoles, in a sense. Can I speak to that? Please. I mean, so we’re in the
Center for the Study of World Religions, right? And the category of world
religions in the 1950s was incredibly radical,
incredibly forward-looking, and incredibly liberalizing. Today, I don’t think it is. I share your critique. I teach our Introduction to
the Study of Religion class at Rice to 125 to 200
young people every fall. And I’ve abandoned the
world religions approach. And the reason I’ve
abandoned it is it leaves everybody in a box. The Hindu students are
comfortable in their Hinduism, the Buddhist students
in their Buddhism, the Christians in their– everybody gets to be
in a box or a silo. And they walk away happy
without ever really asking the tough questions. And so a few years
ago, I wrote a textbook called Comparing Religions,
in which there are no chapters on any religions. It’s all about the
cognitive act of comparing and the existential and
religious challenges of that. And it walks the students
through, essentially, how to compare. And many of my case
studies are actually scientists and engineers
who had some kind of mind-blowing
religious experience, because most of my
students are STEM students. And I wanted them to see that
being smart and scientific doesn’t mean you can’t have
a religious experience. So I wanted to break
down their categories. And so I couldn’t agree more
with what you’re saying. And I think that the future
of the SBNR and the future of the comparative study of
religion, I think, are linked. And I think we will see a
renaissance in comparison in the near future, not
because it’s the only way, but because our
students are just there. They’re just there in a way that
they weren’t 20, 30 years ago. Bob, do you want to answer that? No. I was stretching. I’m not quite sure how
to phrase the question, but I think maybe
the best way to do it would be to just jump
off of what you just said. You said that your students– you’re trying to
convey to your students that just because you’re smart
and a STEM student doesn’t mean you can’t have a
religious experience. Or you can’t think or you
can’t ask religious questions. So I guess my question would
be, are you making a distinction there between a
religious experience and a spiritual experience? No. No? OK. My other question
that kind of combines these two things is
that if SBNRs had– if there was a scripture
associated with SBNRs, what would it be? Does that make sense? I have answer. Here you go, Bob. It might have changed
by generations. We were talking
about one at the turn of the century, 100
years ago, called In Tune with the Infinite, written by
a new-age, positive thinker. The deeper that you can
open yourself inwardly to align with cosmic
energy, you will become one, and the powers of the universe
will flow through your life. You know, when I went to
college in the early ’70s, the psychologist Abraham
Maslow had studied people who are peak experiencers. And he wrote a book
called Religion Values in Peak Experiencers. And he made this argument that
what’s common to all religions is a founding individual– a
Jesus, a Mohammad, et cetera, a Buddha– who had had such an experience. But then, when they
go to communicate it, the localisms of time,
place, vocabulary get in. That book, I think, was
the book, I feel like. But then we’ve had
books like The Secret in recent years, The
Road Less Traveled. [INAUDIBLE] Miracles. As a celestian prophecy. So we’ve had a series
of them, but they don’t seem to be as long-lasting. They seem to have their 36
months on the bestseller list and disappear, then, as
fast as you can imagine. But I listed a few
of the recent ones that surely I come
across the most. So your question assumes
people still read. So that’s the first
thing I’ll say. The second thing,
text I use actually happened right over
here across the street. It’s Ralph Waldo Emerson’s
Divinity School address, 1838. It’s one of the finest
expressions of this orientation I’m aware of. And it didn’t go well for
Ralph after he gave it. No, it didn’t. No, it didn’t. By the why, I’ve assigned
that for class for Tuesday this coming week. I don’t think
there’s a scripture, because that’s antithetical
to what the movement is. But there are books
that are passed around. The people I interviewed
do read, and they, oh, this is the best book. And I think the ethos is that
you’re on a spiritual path and that the more
you have progressed on the spiritual path,
the more you know. And so nothing is an endpoint. Scripture is like
a definite thing. And so it’s always, well,
this is the latest book. And so you’ll see
that a lot of the– not gurus, really. But you know, Eckhart
Tolle and people like that, they’re always
retooling their message in a new way. It seems like a new way, so
that people say, oh, this is a new insight, new knowledge. And so there’s an ongoing set
of scriptures that don’t last. That’s part of the ethos that
goes with the whole territory. That’s a great point. Michael [? Benning? ?] It seems to me that a lot
of the conversation that I was listening to, not all of it,
but a lot of it is descriptive. This phenomenon of
SBNR, we’re trying to understand what that is. My question [INAUDIBLE]. So, it seems to me there
are sort of three pots. There’s traditional religiosity. There’s a certain happy
secularism in terms of we don’t have God. We don’t need any. Then, camp three would be SBNR. And I personally find
myself in camp four, which is like we don’t have
God, and that really is awful. A lot of my research focuses
on, for lack of a better term, atheology [INAUDIBLE]. Yeah, sure. I’m wondering if
you’ve heard of that, or I also think that this
[INAUDIBLE] psalm, which is it’s a psalm to no one. There’s just this
God-shaped hole that the Holocaust blew out
of reality for [INAUDIBLE].. So I’m wondering–
again, this is less than a descriptive
question– but do you have anything
to say about that? What you’d say is the form
of religious commitment that’s driven by the kind
of tragic sensibility or a feeling of finitude? I personally think that’s
the study of religion. I think that’s why you’re here. That’s definitely
why Michael’s here. I have a recommendation– Woody Allen movies. Have you tried those? [INTERPOSING VOICES] –speak to you. I found there was a
real sense of longing in many of my interviewees. And like I said, a feeling
that they have to move on. It was a duty to move on. That there was
immaturity in adhering to traditional religious
beliefs, and that was not good. They wanted to be mature people. And then there was a
sense of discomfort. I had the interviews broken
up into four different types of groups. And the smallest group was
what I called immigrants. They weren’t immigrants as
in came from another country. But they were
immigrants as in they got tired of not really
having one thing, so they thought they’d try
something for sure, like say they tried to be Buddhist. Or like I met them
at Naropa in Boulder and they were trying
to be Buddhist. But I found that it was
a lot of discomfort, just like a regular
immigrant would have, like how do I adjust
to this culture? Not everything in it suits me. And there was a sense
of guilt or inadequacy that they couldn’t really
buy the whole package. And I found that a lot. The immigrant group was a
tiny group, small percentage, but I found that. Almost everybody had a
sense that if I really want to be a truth seeker
or a true mature person, I have to give up religion. So it was almost a duty thing. And I thought that was really
interesting about them. So I don’t know where
you’re at, but OK. [INAUDIBLE],, you had
your hand up earlier. Would you like to
ask a question? I’m interested in the
SBNRs and politics. And I think there’s sort of
an interesting dichotomy that is coming up, potentially,
in what you guys are talking about with
sort of the perceived– I think there’s a lot of
hand-wringing over SBNRs being apathetic or too individualized,
kind of like the old [INAUDIBLE] argument, who
are too into themselves, so they don’t care
about the world. On the other hand,
SBNRs are rejecting sort of the religious
aspects of politics and, certainly, evangelical
Christianity, oftentimes. Where do you guys stand on how
SBNRs are politically aligned? Is there– Oh, I’ll speak up. –diversity? Is there a sense of how do
we improve the world if we’re so concerned with imminence? That’s a great question. What I found was that they are
politically liberal, socially liberal, progressive,
all that stuff. And that was pretty
clear-cut across everybody. Did they become SBNR
because of politics? They were very unhappy
about the politics. And of course, a lot
of my interviewing was done during
Obama, but they still knew about the rise
of evangelicalism and their politics. But they didn’t really use
that as their main reason for rejecting religion,
which I was surprised at. Because we tend to think
that they are using that. But it’s certainly
not helping now. Now, it’s adding to
the SBNR population. But what I also found
was that they aren’t as– they do care about everything. They care about the
environment, social action. They really care. So it’s not like they don’t
care and they’re just thinking about their personal growth. But they don’t have
the organization that organized religion has. And so they don’t have a
vehicle to act on this. And so they actually
feel, I think, more despair about the
external situation. They may feel more optimistic
about their own growth, but they don’t feel very hopeful
about the larger picture, although they care
about it a lot. And that’s, I think,
because they don’t have the vehicles of organization. And they reject that,
too, so that makes it like a double bind. Bob, Jeff, do you want to add? Well, a few things. The very first few quantitative
types, polls and studies, definitely showed higher than
average education and income and that they tended to be
more liberal than conservative in their political voting. But I agree with Linda
that I don’t think the politics drove the choice. Remember, stereotyping
a group that now so many will tack that
phrase onto identity, I think it’s getting a little
more difficult, to be sure. And who qualifies as
spiritual but not religious? And it is a map of– a long spectrum of degrees of
commitment to the spirituality. But at any rate, in
the last few elections, we’ve seemed to see that if
you only break down the voting segment of America by religion,
the Republicans have had, as their largest
religious category, evangelical Protestants. Democrats have had nones,
people who, in some way, have no religious affiliation,
which may or may not include people who
would answer none but be spiritual
but not religious. It gets dicey there. But clearly, Democrats
seem to have– that’s more than Roman Catholic,
for example, that segment. So Democrats have their
largest religious among none slash probably SBNR is my good
guess of reading all that, whereas Republicans have
evangelical Protestants. Oh, yeah. Whitney? You talked about
the stereotypes, but of course, one of them is
the rich white lady, whatever. What about race and class? Very important. Yeah. What do we know? Has that changed over time? Yeah, it’s increasing. The SBNR designation is really
not limited to white people, certainly not to women, and I
don’t think to well-off people. I found it everywhere,
which I think confounds a little bit of what you said. But I like to say,
often, that I could take my out-of-work factory
worker from rural Ohio and set him next to my
fairly well off yoga teacher in Boulder,
Colorado– two places I really work and interviewed–
and set them together. And boy, socioeconomically,
they’d be quite different. But theologically,
as I call it, they would find a lot to agree on. And the statistics
show that more and more racial and ethnic minorities
are going in this direction. I mean, you’d think Hispanics
wouldn’t, but they are. I found less among African
Americans, at this point, but I found more
among biracial people, which maybe makes sense. But I think that
surveys are showing that this ethos is emerging in
all sorts of groups, certainly men and women. I had no trouble finding men. It wasn’t just rich white women
in expensive yoga outfits. It really wasn’t. I think we have time, at
least, for two more questions. I’ve seen two hands up. So could you start us off? I guess I think of one
broad cultural trend, which is probably rooted in
commerce and technology, which is that people have
these expectations of ever-increasing
personalization. I go to the market, and there’s
like 25 different brands of water. Or I get my car and the color
and the seats and the stereo and everything. So it sort of makes
sense to me that SBNR would be consistent with that,
like I should make my god. But at the same time,
religion, literally, I don’t know the Latin, but
I think it means to bind. So one role of religion, of
bringing people together, feels to me a little
contrary to that. So I’m curious how you
all think SBNR grapples with that function,
particularly given the other technological
trend, which is for all the
communications, people are increasingly
isolated from each other. Right. So how do we create
a world where people who are authentically
exploring their religion don’t end up diminished
because [INAUDIBLE].. Well, my quick response would
be you’re absolutely correct, that I see nothing
in the spiritual but not religious, broad
array of expressions of that, that would bind
people into intact communities. Right, I agree. So if that’s your expectation,
you wouldn’t look for that. It seems like that’s
a human needs that’s of value to the world. And it’s also of
value to the world that people authentically
explore their religion, but is there a way to allow
the one without the other? Yeah, I don’t know. But again, if that would be
an expectation of something religious or spiritual,
I would think it would be low in its
capacity to do that. So, I’m going to put
my Esalen hat on here. I mean, that’s my big
concern, right there. As someone whose responsibility
is to help lead that institute, the executive director is always
calling me or talking to me and basically wanting
me to help him fashion a narrative
for the next 50 years to bind this community. And I keep saying, Ben, I
wrote a book about that. He says, yeah, but
it’s 400 pages long. And he needs a two-sentence
elevator speech or a four-word tagline
in today’s world. But I think that’s
a real challenge, because an SBNR community
like that– and it is a community of
about 150 people. And about 15,000 people come
through there every year. So it’s a real community. But it’s a real
question about how to create a narrative
around which they can rally and be socially
and politically effective. I think that’s just
a big question. And that might be the real
Achilles heel of the movement. But I would say one more thing. When I was a kid
growing up in Nebraska, I grew up in a
farming community, and I grew up Roman Catholic. And I started to
question the faith when I was in high school. And my mom would always say, you
know, Jeff, just go to church. You’ll meet a nice girl,
and you’ll get married, and everything will be OK. And she’s right about that,
actually, statistically. And I didn’t do that. But that’s a functionalist
understanding of religion. And I think a lot of us are
talking, asking questions, in a functionalist mode. What will work? How can we be
politically motivated? How can we form community? And I really think that
Linda’s right about this. Behind the SBNR orientation
is a deeply philosophical, normative urge. I don’t freaking
care what works. I care what’s true. And they don’t know
what the truth is. But they know darn
well that it’s very unlikely any single
religious community holds all of it. And that philosophical or
normative impulse, I think, is what propels them into this
kind of comparative search. And I think, frankly,
it’s the same search that a lot of
academics are propelled by in the study of religion. And that’s why I
keep saying I think there is this connection
that we don’t quite understand between these
two cultural phenomenon. The things that
are binding SBNRs together are no
longer institutions, like they have been for other
generations, but issues. So they will coalesce
around various issues. But the problem is
issues keep changing. What’s the critical issue of
the day, that keeps changing. So I still worry that the
anti-institutional bent will make it difficult. But I think
need could become so pressing that people will be willing
to put aside that bent and organize. But I hate it to come to
that, where we’re desperate. I’d rather it be a
more positive reason. So, we’re going to
take one more question. And then, if you’re among those
who still have a question, forgive me that I
have to conclude it, but you can ask our
panelists personally. So, Matt? [INAUDIBLE] What it
seems to me, a lot of that not
religious [INAUDIBLE] is based on a very stereotypical
attitude to religion, like a very conservative
brand of religion. And my question is, if we
were to compare beliefs and [INAUDIBLE] SBNR and,
say, a progressive Christian or a progressive person of
faith of any regional religion, would it really
be that different? No. Like progressive
Christian don’t believe that the only way
to gain salvation is by community and so on? I spoke to the Unitarian
Universalist leadership in Portland a couple of years
ago at their General Assembly, and they wanted to know,
these should be our people. Why aren’t they our people? And I went, you’re right. They should be your people,
but they’re not your people, so we need to look deeper. And I think it’s, again, the
anti-organizational bent. They just didn’t want to
show up every Sunday morning or whenever they would meet. But politically, they’re fine. I mean, progressive
Christians can’t understand why the SBNRs
aren’t flocking to them. Unitarian Universalists
can’t understand it. In fact, everybody I speak to–
and I speak to a wide range– says, they should be our
people, if they only knew us. That seems silly. I mean, not that you would. Linda wrote the book that
addresses your question. But just this idea that
all these liberal Christian denominations are saying,
well, clearly, we’re the most attractive option for
these poor, misguided SBNRs. That’s the new mission field
for liberal Christians. It is. Oh, it is. But it’s absurd. I mean, I just
think if that’s not a sign of the death of
liberal Christianity, I don’t know what is. On that note, I think we
should end this panel. Ouch! Negative note. OK, anyway, that
was good, clean fun. Thank you all for
this wonderful– your individual contributions
and these great questions. So, again, we have
some time to linger if you have more questions. Perhaps you three
could just hang out. But thank you. [APPLAUSE] [MUSIC PLAYING]

7 Replies to “The Future of “Spiritual But Not Religious””

  1. Fascinating presentation. Thought provoking. How about those of us who identify as recovering 'fill on the blank.' Such as a recovering catholic? Or recovering baptist? Thank you for hosting & posting. Some brilliant minds in that room

  2. Nice discussion. I like Linda AM, her tongue in cheek opener: "Saladbar spiritualists, narcissicistic commitment phobes, antidogma experience seekers, victims of religious abuse, rich white women in expensive yoga outfits" hahaha very good. SBNRs: "we are all born good…as a reaction to original sin" – I'd like that.

  3. I would like to make a non-educated comment (I only have a high school diploma).I think one big reason this mantra is so popular today is because teens and young adults experience social awkwardness. I believe they
    Jump on this bandwagon to fully or partially justify their decision to avoid church worship.

    My parents we’re Christians in name only. But even as a young child I was deeply spiritual and longed to attend church. I would never consider attending however because I had a birthmark on my calf which I was very self-conscious about, and back
    then girls did NOT go to church in pants! In the 80s they instead would say “I don’t believe In organized religion.” Same difference. So I identified with them because there was no way to deal with my real issue. Thank goodness the social norms have changed and the dress codes aren’t as strict today.

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