Monday, October 1, 2012

Spiritual but not religious?

This article from the religion column has got Facebook buzzing. Saw discussions about it today on two others' profiles, besides mine.

Alan Miller, the author of the article, states,

Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling the notion that by being independent [...] they are in a deeper, more profound relationship than one that is coerced via a large institution like a church.
That attitude fits with the message we are receiving more and more that "feeling" something somehow is more pure and perhaps, more "true” than having to fit in with the doctrine, practices, rules and observations of a formal institution that are handed down to us.

Despite his patronizing tone, Miller has a point here, and that point is the one of coercion. Does he not realize that all around us, people are questioning authority at all levels moreso than they did fifty years ago? Teachers are certainly not respected anymore, and neither are the police as upholders of the law and social order. We publicize our elected officials' sex scandals on prime-time TV and we have even impeached two presidents. And this distrust of authority is certainly not unwarranted; scandal, corruption, and hypocrisy are rampant in those we consider "authorities" and with the internet, it's a lot harder for a publicist or PR team to keep these things under wraps. We have already lost faith in our leaders; no wonder we are also losing faith in the institutions that are also seen as "supreme authority."

If people feel coerced, they will get up and walk out. This is America and we can do that sort of thing. Respecting authority for authority's sake is no longer a value here.

It's not all about coercion, though. It's not all "Christians are all hypocrites so why should I count myself among them?" -- although that does play a part. The devout would say these people are throwing the baby out with the bathwater, that the hypocrites will end up in hell, and by not believing, you would join them there for eternity. But the reasonable person has already thought through that argument; if the only reason people are leaving the church is because of the hypocrites, then they'll be sorely disappointed to find that the whole world is full of such people, be they Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Atheist.

So there has to be another reason, and it seems to me to be that the old patterns do not fit. One of my friends put it very succinctly on Facebook:
People that i know are "spiritual not religious" have extensively studied and looked at many religions only to find a common thread among them all.
This can be a very traumatic moment for someone who sincerely followed a spiritual path, believing it was the only one.  At this point in a crisis of faith, I think it is very natural for people to go "religion shopping," to put it crudely. We have access to so much information today; people can even go to Beliefnet and take a quiz to figure out what belief they should follow. So I can definitely see how people may try, as Miller put it, "A bit of Yoga here, a Zen idea there." Our lives -spiritual and otherwise- are a process and people who have felt alienated or marginalized by one faith may indeed go searching for another one; they have left the confines of one belief system but don't want to give up on God just yet. I think even those people - especially those people?? - should be treated with dignity and respect as seekers, not dismissed as shallow or dabblers.

[...] the spiritual-but-not-religious outlook sees the human as one that simply wants to experience "nice things" and "feel better." There is little of transformation here and nothing that points to any kind of project that can inspire or transform us.

How arrogant. How is leaving the safety of a path that offered a person no more inspiration or transformation an outlook that offers "little of transformation"? And what is wrong with "feeling better"? Indeed, two of the main purposes of religion throughout time have been to establish social order and to find peace of mind. In this statement, Miller seems to be dismissing this latter purpose (which is why people cling even to mainstream religions) and to reduce religion down to obeying the social order, almost as if he were ridiculing people who do not "fall in line." It's okay to "feel better," it seems, as long as it's in a church where you dress up nice and smell the fragrant incense and go to the yummy church potluck, but if someone's spiritual practices are outside the norm, suddenly their need to "feel better" is something to thumb your nose at.

But I really don't think Miller believes that, because at this point, his article takes a bizarre turn.

At the heart of the spiritual but not religious attitude is an unwillingness to take a real position. Influenced by the contribution of modern science, there is a reluctance to advocate a literalist translation of the world.

Take a position? What position needs to be taken? And what does a literalist translation of the world mean? Literalist as in the Biblical view of creation? Maybe the editors left something out; let's ignore that and just continue reading.

But these people will not abandon their affiliation to the sense that there is "something out there," so they do not go along with a rationalist and materialistic explanation of the world, in which humans are responsible to themselves and one another for their actions - and for the future.
If redemption of humankind can be found in both traditional religion, as he seemed to be saying in the first half of the article, and also in materialistic humanism, why can it not be found also by those who do not fall into either bucket? Also in these two paragraphs, Miller is treading dangerously close to now reducing spiritual belief to the absurd question of how the world came into being, simply to contrast it with a scientific, rationalist viewpoint, which does have answers to those questions - at least in part - and should be favored over foolish religious belief.

Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either. Take a stand, I say. Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action? Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide.

A wild false dichotomy appears! And therein, the crux of Miller's argument (if you can indeed call it that.) He says you can either choose religious literalism or secular humanism, and at this point, it is obvious which he prefers. However, there are certainly people out there of every faith who think religion and science are not mutually exclusive, and who apply the Enlightenment ideals he speaks of to the daily practice of their faith. We are not people who are either led by blind faith or pure reason. Our lives as human beings cannot be unadulterated by emotion or experiences that we do not yet have the science to describe.

Give us a few more thousand years of science, a few million more years of evolution, and perhaps this dichotomy will more resemble reality. But at this point in time, the fact that people do still search for something beyond themselves does not make them inferior; it makes them humans struggling on the search for meaning in a short life on a brutal planet, and it makes people who place themselves as superior to them look awfully silly.


  1. I will have to read this properly... it's a slightly different area but I do have a bit of a problem with the standard liberal approach of some agnostic pardesis involving having a Hindu wedding where religion is seen as a means of social expression (it would be almost racist almost not to kind of thing) Whereas for us, we respected Hindu rituals and Hinduim partly because we were Christians so we didn't partake in a Hindu wedding for ourselves. We decided to have the Bou-Bhat, though my husband later pointed out that what we saw as social may have had religious significance so I maybe shouldn't be so judgemental over people who marry in Church say when neither believe for example...but I'm feeling judgemental today! I will read this properly this week and give you a real comment. PS. I would love to have been at your wedding! This is not directed at any individual.

    1. That is an interesting offshoot indeed!

      Interfaith weddings are always a bit of a challenge, and the decisions can take way more into account that simply the personal beliefs of the two individuals involved. Cost, pressure from parents/extended family, willingness of officiants to marry the couple, social responsibilities of the families - some or all of it plays a role.

      And even in non-religious weddings, there are elements that come from religious tradition. The white dress symbolizes virginal purity, but even many staunch feminists will gladly put one on for their wedding! And things that used to have roots in marriage-as-business-transaction (hello, giving away of the bride!) are seen as sentimental moments between father and daughter now and have none of the former significance as female offspring as sellable property.

      If a couple's religious beliefs are so deeply held they can't compromise, they really shouldn't compromise or add anything to the ceremony that would be against their beliefs or would not be meaningful. But if they are not terribly devout, I see nothing wrong in having a ceremony that honors the wishes of those of their family that are - as long as that, too, is not against their beliefs.

  2. I think as well I am unfair to criticise pardesis for going along with something they may perceive as cultural, when their for example Hindu husband may be a more cultural Hindu himself. I was interested in BBBB's blog as she is a practising Catholic who says she is married to a religious Hindu so I am sad she has taken the posts down... :( what's interesting about the intercultural relationships in our community is that for some of us we are not so intercultural really though we might look it to outsiders! I mean both my Dh and I born here, both read English, trained as teachers, both Christians (I became a Christian at 11 he at 16) However, because we started to go often to India, there I find I enter a Hindu family plus looking at my Mother's Anglo-Indian roots that's how I came about 'joining' the desi-pardesi community...glad it's there! The understanding of marriage is similar across many different religions, it's not really marriage which gets me angry, it's baptising your children soley to get them into a school. The church goes along with it because these middle class children get good results. (A truly Christian school should be for the needy, not the aspirant, for the poor rather than the rich) In Britain we have Church schools which are government schools with some church funding so open to all, but as oversubscribed priority is given to 'Christians'. Its very bad because those who are not willing to play the game or who are not Christian can't get in. And because we are Christian we believe in letting our kids choose to be baptised, so we wouldn't have got them in either because no baptismal certificate! (They have one now as they chose to be baptised but that was a couple of years after starting school!) You get in by jumping through hoops. Christ hated this sort of thing. It's like lying.

    1. You're right - you can't really separate religious aspects and cultural aspects in some cases. But I think these issues are two different things. It makes sense that you and your husband would not have Hindu rites in your Christian wedding if the expression of your faith does not allow for it. In my particular case, we only wanted to have one wedding, I wasn't interested in getting married in a church at all, but not being an atheist, I also wasn't dead-set against a "religious" wedding either. We ended up having the wedding in the place my family wanted, and on the date/time and in the style his family preferred. All other details were left up to us :)

      The other issue you bring up, baptising children for non-religious purposes, is simply opportunism. Living in a country that strictly separates church and state, I can't imagine that students going to a government-funded school would be given admission preference based on their religious faith. It does give a disadvantage to those who baptise based on individual choice; both the Catholic and Anglican churches do infant baptism though as a cultural thing and it might be a case of ethnocentrism - administrators see it as a way of saying "well, anyone who's Catholic/Anglican would be baptised anyway so it really doesn't matter; it just means English children would be picked first." Although that's not true and there are a lot of children who are not baptised in both traditions and ANY administration who said that would seem eerily xenophobic to me and I'd want to stay 1000 feet away from them!

  3. Now for a proper response and not side tracking! I think the truth of the 'spiritual not religious' is like with any group it includes serious people and less serious people. I agree, I find extraordinary connections between my faith and other faiths when I study even a little about them. So those who claim to be 'spiritual not religious' I do agree are often people who have studied, reflected and explored different religions and do not necessarily feel drawn to one over others because they see common strands and they think deeply.

    However, saying you are spiritual not religious is also a way for some of avoiding difficulty, of believing things which suit you at the time and dispensing with other things which might help you grow but which involve struggle or make you look at parts of yourself you don't want to. An interesting thing to think about is spiritual bypassing - how you can use religion and /or spirituality to avoid difficult emotions for example, to avoid looking at yourself. This can potentially happen to many, whether you see yourself as religious, spiritual or both! It means trying to jump over the emotional and psychological and focus solely on the spiritual. An example would be - you feel envious of a friend. Now contentment is the cure for envy. So psychologically speaking you need to feel the envy. What are you envious of? This helps you acknowledge your own desires and mourn what you don't have or perhaps see you already have it, whatever. However, as a Christian, for example, you might feel it is WRONG to envy so you try to repress the feeling. Then it comes back later when you start envying someone else. Do you see?

  4. Here's the link again

  5. Well, I think Alan Miller doesn't get out much.
    I went to Mennonite school(Christian) as a teen & found that Christianity didn't have all the answers to my questions. I took several courses at university on Islam, ancient Christianity, Judaism, Kabbalah, -still no answers to my questions about how the human mind works & why the human mind works the way it does. Buddhism & Sufism HAVE answered my questions about the human mind though!
    Glad I remained 'spiritual but not religious' in my quest!

    1. There's a quote that's been attributed to Gandhi, Madeleine L'Engle, and others, that "no one has the whole truth; everyone has a piece of the truth." I think that being able to accept that we are not completely right and we can look beyond ourselves for a deeper answer than we can come up with on our own is a necessary part of a full life!

  6. "At the heart of the spiritual but not religious attitude is an unwillingness to take a real position."

    I didn't read the CNN article, I'm tired and lazy so I appreciate the quotes of the finer points lol. This statement sticks out quite a bit. One thing I noticed since I've been home is that Americans have become extremely non-committal. Not just in religion but in many other aspects. They won't commit to answering simple questions or becoming loyal customers, etc. It's definitely a widespread silent chaos going on.

    As for the spiritual but not religious. My thoughts, and maybe only my thoughts, are that the rules of the church are becoming very unnatural. I believe that's why so many have difficulty following them and after years (my childhood timeframe and yours) of being told you had to "repent and be baptized for all have fell short of the glory of The Lord" I'm sure many find it unreachable.

    In the church I was raised in, you had to strive for this perfection. I was raised in a very strict church. I committed early on but later felt exhausted trying to keep up with the rules I had been taught all my life when I saw others around me (my family and the preacher included) breaking them and telling me it was okay sometimes.

    Even in the bible there is a line that talks about turning the natural into unnatural and a lot of people use that verse to refer to why they don't believe in gay marriage. I think it serves a much different purpose. I think it is also a good indication of how religion can be perverted. These religions who try and teach you that their way is the only way and that you must do exactly what they say have perverted things. There is supposed to be love - not dominance - in God centered religions.

    People just don't preach love anymore. In fact, we got so rules based here in the US that love is fading out. That's why the divorce rate is rising, Christian organizations are not reaching long-term converts (as in they convert but don't stay) and church attendance is down. (For that I mean butts in the pew and not the people who mark 'Christian' as their religion on paperwork but never go to church.)

    Even here in the bible belt there is a noticeable gap in the ages of church attendees. I saw this in every state I lived in. The 30-45 year old group just wasn't as prevalent as the elders. Mostly those who came had small kids that they put in the programs so they could get a break and church became more social than God centered.

    I think I'm swaying off topic but hopefully you get my point. Most people don't know the difference between religious and spiritual anymore it would seem. Religious denotes more of a 'set in your ways' approach to anything - including religious. You can be spiritual at home and if any Christian tells you that you can't, then they have not read their bible. (Where 2 are gathered in my name, I am there. - Matthew 18:20. --- the typical American family size is 4.)

    1. Even in Christian circles the term "religious" has a bad connotation these days. It's like the Pharisees. They were "religious." Most Christians I know say things like "it isn't a religion, it's a relationship" or "I'm not religious, I just love Jesus." But it's still a religion! There are rules, written and unwritten, shared values, shared beliefs, and if you fall outside those lines, then one of two approaches is taken - either ostracism ("It's time you found another church home") or "being loved ANYWAY." As if it were distasteful that you think the way you do, but *shudder* we gotta keep you in the fold because I guess that's what we're supposed to do.

      And at some point, if your ideas deviate too far from the ideal of the religion, then really, what is the point of staying? For instance, if you go to church every Sunday for the company and the great singing, but stay silent when they say the creed, because, well, you don't really believe any of that stuff - is that permissible? Why are you continuing to go if you don't believe that stuff happened or that it is globally relevant? Such was my dilemma.

      BTW - "Widespread silent chaos" is such a great term. You have got to blog on this idea :)

    2. Oh I have a big blog post coming on this silent chaos. It's about to really irk my nerves seeing this kind of attitude daily. I know I'm often blunt but I see life as it is. If it looks like a rat and smells like a rat, it must be a rat. I can't find reason to dance around the truth and go ask 3 people to confirm it's a rat. It's like the whole freaking country is trying to dodge ever being accountable for anything unless it gets them a pay raise.


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