Among the shifting religious affiliations in our culture, one category is gaining attention: the Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNRs).
According to a 2012 survey by the Pew Religion and Public Life Project, "nearly a fifth of those polled said that they were not religiously affiliated — and nearly 37 percent of that group said they were 'spiritual' but not 'religious.' It was seven percent of all Americans, a bigger group than atheists, and way bigger than Jews, Muslims or Episcopalians.”
SBNR means that one is interested in — even pursuing — knowledge and experiences beyond the physical, but adamant about engaging those pursuits outside of organized religion. One Huffington Post article described it like this:
A spiritual person is one who seeks to elevate himself, to connect with a higher power, or simply his higher self. He believes there is more to the world than what is easily seen, than what is merely physical. He will have certain guidelines of behavior and diet that he will go by, but all in the name of properly attuning with the infinite and entering some higher state of consciousness.
Spirituality is all about knowing and loving yourself directly, believing that you do deserve forgiveness and better things in Life. It takes out the middleman of believing in another that in turn believes in you, and just goes straight for the believe in yourself part.
This is a dangerous game. SBNR is a pursuit of truth without truth’s source. It's like praying to find a light switch but refusing to look anywhere but the floor. SBNR smacks of the worst kind of fuzzy-headed self-worship — the kind of humanist ideas that make for good Oprah segments, but bad theodicy. For spirituality to be meaningful, it needs religion. Religion, for all its abuses and shortcomings, adds mass to spirituality — gives it weight and context — puts flesh on.
But, of course, there is an opposite danger that is more common among church folks: religion without spirituality. And while it hasn’t showed up in any Pew Research studies, RBNS is rampant among church-goers. RBNS is the purview of self-righteous Pharisees and diddling priests. It is the form of faith without the meaning. Heartless, dutiful and dour. It is the heart condition that allows us to check one of the boxes above “None” on the survey, then exhibit none of the virtues Jesus praised. It is empty religion; hypocrisy.
The rise of SBNR is, no doubt, a backlash against the prevalence of RBNS. But the way forward is not to abandon either religion or spirituality. The most healthy approach to abuse is not an opposite kind of abuse. It is balance: faith and form together, devotion and ritual, church and piety so that both blossom into their full meaning.
As the SBNR segment grows, the best approach for believers may be simply to patiently watch them swing away from center, and then receive them when they swing back through.