Religious Diversity Today – Experiencing Religion in the Contemporary World ed. by Jean-Guy A. Goulet, Liam D. Murphy and Anastasia Panagakos,
Praeger, Santa Barbara CA
Echoes of Hope – When bad things happen to Spiritual-But-Not-Religious people
I have been listening to young adults who identify themselves as SBNR – Spiritual But Not Religious. In my ministry as a university chaplain and my research as a social scientist, they have told me how they think about life and suffering, religion and God, the world and their place in it. These are some of the thoughts I have heard:
Religion for me is a scary thing.
So much bloodshed, millions killed and lives destroyed all in the name of religion.
When harmful, damaging practices and actions are carried out in the name of religion,
I find it difficult to respect.
In the news and history, we always hear about holy wars of the past (Crusades)
and the present (Palestine-Israel) taking place, terrorism and killings (9/11) done
Nobody knows for sure, but despite this, cultures have threatened and murdered
in the name of their religious beliefs. (The Crusades come to mind).
Millions worldwide are being denied rights in the name of God. Some aren't allowed to show their faces, while others are butchered if they openly admit their sexual preference.
One of the traditional functions of religion in the lives of people has been to respond to the occurrence of human suffering by interpreting the experience and offering support. What about people who see religion itself as a cause of suffering? Where do they turn for answers and comfort when facing death, disease, disaster and divorce?
Such people exist in the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain and other western societies. Many of them are the children and grandchildren of religious people, but they reject their family religious traditions. They seem to be a growing population, comprised mainly of young adults, who identify as “SBNR” – “Spiritual But Not Religious” – and many of them are quite articulate about identifying Religion as a significant source of human suffering.
New Canadian data provide some sense of the dimension of this attitude, and the expression of a new, eclectic, unfocused theodicy that is developing out of it. A national study has generated nearly 700 statements from young adults addressing this issue; but before reporting the findings, it is necessary to provide some background and to define our terms.
“SBNR” means “Spiritual But Not Religious.” It is a fairly new term but the acronym has quickly replaced the full expression, joining RSVP and TGIF as commonly used abbreviations.
It is certainly a modern phenomenon, but it is possible to consider historical and even biblical figures in terms of the concept. Any prophetic leader who challenges the religious establishment with a new theological emphasis might be seen as “spiritual” in a new way “but not religious” in the traditional ways. Perhaps some saw John Wesley as Spiritual But Not Religious. Perhaps Luther or other Protestant Reformers had moments of feeling that they were Spiritual But Not Religious. Jesus seems to urge his disciples to be Spiritual But Not Religious when he challenges the legalism of the Pharisees and teachers of Torah. Consider his conflicts with the religious leaders of the day as reported in the gospels, especially in Matthew 23, below, and especially if we listen to Jesus' anger and frustration in Peterson’s vivid paraphrase:
"I've had it with you! You're hopeless, you religion scholars, you Pharisees! Frauds! What arrogant stupidity! What ridiculous hairsplitting! You're hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! Do you have any idea how silly you look?1
“If these people are religious,” Jesus almost says, “then I’d rather be spiritual.”
When they talk about organized religion and explain their attitudes and behavior, the SBNR young adults sometimes sound like Jesus criticizing the scribes and the Pharisees. This should be disturbing for religious leaders today who feel called to be stewards of tradition in a time of change. It is challenging for those who do not take the SBNR phenomenon seriously.