Echoes of Hope – When bad things happen to Spiritual-But-Not-Religious people Introduction


The Problem of Suffering – SBNR Strategies



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The Problem of Suffering – SBNR Strategies

As SBNR people deal with the experience of suffering, they face all the challenges of other generations throughout history plus two concerns that make it more difficult: firstly, they see Religion as a cause of human suffering; and secondly, they lack a community of support as they search for meaning in the context of suffering.

In the pages that follow, many of the participants in the Canadian research project will speak for themselves; but it is perhaps helpful to highlight the patterns of response that emerge when one considers the entire population.

The starting point for the SBNR population is the rejection of their religious tradition.

A second step may be experimentation with another religious tradition, possibly conversion.

A third pattern has been called "fusion faith,"18 "multiple religious belonging"19 and "double religious belonging."20 It is actually not so much a matter of belief as of practice.21 In Yann Martel’s award-winning novel, Life of Pi, the adolescent title character seems to be becoming Hindu, Christian and Muslim at the same time. His father says, "He seems to be attracting religions the way a dog attracts fleas."22 This individual, eclectic practice of diverse rituals drawn from many sources is quite common in the SBNR population.

A fourth strategy is even broader and more inclusive, going beyond the rituals and symbols of world religions to include elements of yoga, Reiki, tarot readings, horoscopes, other forms of divination, forms of meditation, and other practices that are not usually called “religious” in North American society, but which may function in the lives of young adults like religion functioned in the lives of their grandparents.

The fifth pattern is to keep seeking, in the optimistic belief that The Answer or An Answer is out there somewhere.

One obvious observation is that the search for meaning has priority over the search for belonging or community. Much of the struggle to understand why bad things happen to good people seems to take place in individual, internal exercises, although there is an occasional reference to alternative communities, they have to be places “where I can be fully expressive with no concern of being judged.. freedom of expression… no social constraints.”23

It should also be added that science is a reference point. The young adults who participated in Listening to The Echo grew up in a scientific world view, and are well educated. But in their struggle with suffering, we observe a suspension of disbelief, a sense that science does not explain everything or, at least, does not completely satisfy. They pursue various spiritual quests, aware that scientific explanations are off to the side and never far away.

These are the general themes of the statements provided by nearly 700 young adults from across Canada; but it is more vivid to hear them speak for themselves. Imagine that dozens of the Listening to The Echo participants could gather in one room at the same time, agreeing to become a sort of focus group, responding not only to my questions but also to each other’s remarks. The following is a constructed conversation, derived from the actual words of Canadian young adults, edited only to protect their anonymity and allow the conversation to flow. “R158” is respondent 158.




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