Viewpoint: The Limitations of Being ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’

Only organized religion can mobilize communities and lead to real action

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Do you like feeling good without having to act on your feeling? Boosting your self-esteem no matter your competence or behavior? Then I’ve got the religious program for you.

According to the latest Pew report, almost 1 in 5 Americans identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” In other words, they have some feeling, some intuition of something greater, but feel allergic to institutions. Yet as we approach Passover and Easter, it’s important to remember that it is institutions and not abstract feelings that tie a community together and lead to meaningful change.

(MORE: Empty Pews: Everyone Is Misreading the New Numbers of Religiously ‘Unaffiliated’)

All of us can understand institutional disenchantment. Institutions can be slow, plodding, dictatorial; they can both enable and shield wrongdoers. They frustrate our desires by asking us to submit to the will of others.

But institutions are also the only mechanism human beings know to perpetuate ideologies and actions. If books were enough, why have universities? If guns enough, why have a military? If self-governance enough, let’s get rid of Washington. The point is that if you want to do something lasting in this world, you will recall the wise words of French Catholic writer Charles Péguy: “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” Got a vision? Get a blueprint.

Spirituality is an emotion. Religion is an obligation. Spirituality soothes. Religion mobilizes. Spirituality is satisfied with itself. Religion is dissatisfied with the world. Religions create aid organizations; as Nicholas Kristof pointed out in a column in the New York Times two years ago: the largest U.S.-based international relief and development organization is not Save the Children or Care, it’s World Vision, a Seattle-based Christian group.

(MORE: Have We Evolved to Be Religious?)

Aid organizations involve institutions as well, and bureaucracies, and — yes — committee meetings. There is something profoundly, well, spiritual about a committee meeting. It involves individuals trying together to sort out priorities, to listen and learn from one another, to make a difference. I have found too often that when people say, “I stay away from the synagogue — too much politics,” what they mean is that they did not get their way. Institutions enable but they also frustrate, as do families and every other organized sector of human life. If you want frictionless, do it alone.

To be spiritual but not religious confines your devotional life to feeling good. If we have learned one thing about human nature, however, it is that people’s internal sense of goodness does not always match their behavior. To know whether your actions are good, a window is a more effective tool than a mirror. Ask others. Be part of a community. In short, join. Being religious does not mean you have to agree with all the positions and practices of your own group; I don’t even hold with everything done in my own synagogue, and I’m the Rabbi. But it does mean testing yourself in the arena of others.

(MORE: Rabbi Wolpe: Why I’m a One-Issue Voter)

No one expects those without faith to obligate themselves to a religious community. But for one who has an intuition of something greater than ourselves to hold that this is a purely personal truth, that it demands no communal searching and struggle, no organization to realize its potential in this world, straddles the line between narcissistic and solipsistic. If the spirit moves you to goodness, that is wonderful. For too many, though, spirituality is a VIP card allowing them to breeze past all those wretched souls waiting in line or doing the work. Join in; together is harder, but together is better.

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rocket91
rocket91

I think that it does help to have some religious guidance in our lives and to be spiritual.  Regardless of what religion one chooses to practice, no one is going to be in full agreement on what the church teaches.  No church is perfect.  When I was a child we didn't go to church that often.  We belonged to a Methodist church but rarely went.  When we would go, it would be for a few weeks and then we would not go.  I seem to remember going to Sunday School more than church.  Later when I became friends with someone, she invited me to go to her Lutheran Church.  Within the next year, I did get confirmed in the Lutheran Church, and it was okay, at first.  After we were confirmed, we became part of the Youth Group.  It was fun to go to activities, but after about six months, I got tired of it because they were saturated with activities, and we were obligated to attend all of them.  The more I went to these Youth Group activities, the less they had to do with God.  I might as well have been doing something else with another group of people.  The church was always preaching about God and how we are supposed to put God ahead of ourselves and our own needs.  I was drained, exhausted and depressed from being constantly badgered into going to every activity.  To make matters worse, my mom did not take my side on any of it.  Anytime I was asked if I was going to a church activity and I said "NO", someone would be calling my mom to make me go.  They probably sweet talked her with stories about how great their church is (or other mumble jumble).  So, to me, the Lutheran Church did not feed or fulfill me to have a healthy religious life, so I ended up leaving when I was in college.  I attended college at home, but I just had no interest in going to this church anymore because of the havoc, drama and harassment.


After not going to church for about ten years, I did on occasion go to mass at the Catholic Church.  I later converted at my own initiative (no one telling me to or when).  I am happy in the Catholic Church, even though there are times when I slip from my faith, but I get back on track.  In the Catholic Church, there are obligations and expectation to uphold, but they don't jump down anyone's throats.  I think that might be because the priests don't know everyone enough, so they don't go out their way to judge anyone.  I like that the church does not bombard anyone into participating or serving when there might not be any available time or interest.  In the Catholic Churches that I have been to there are a lot of people in attendance.  While the parish community is friendly, it makes it difficult when people don't know your name or take the time to connect.  I think one reason is because people do service-oriented things outside church, but don't advertise their deeds.  I haven't always been Catholic, so I don't know what people did before, but when I started going to church, the church groups, both parish and diocesan wide existed but were sparsely attended and later died down.  I had read in a blog that this is common in all Catholic Churches across the U.S.  So, my thought is because people don't want to spend that much time with people that they don't have common outside interests with.  I have heard through word-of-mouth that some groups form from common interests such as choir or volunteering in Youth or soup kitchens, and they don't always want people entering the group without holding the same interests or niche.  Yes, it does sound harsh, but it something to think about.


As long as there is value in what you do, it does not matter whether or not it is in church.  I am not a big fan of doing something just so a group can meet a quota.  I think that some churches are guilty of that.

ArelowoAlao
ArelowoAlao

"Spirituality is an emotion. Religion is an obligation"  This statement by itself shows just how far lost this guy and most "Religious" people are.  When you are born into this world you don't have a religion but you do have spirit.

William_Bloom
William_Bloom

It is fashionable to criticise Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) people for having no community, nor commitment, nor social engagement. But this is based on a misperception and stereotyping.


The misperception is understandable because prominent aspects of the SBNR culture can be seen as quick-fix spirituality, focused on personal gratification and to lack values. Make me healthy, successful and beautiful.


But this glamour is only the showbiz tip of the iceberg. It is an easy and inaccurate target. It is stereotyping similar to damning Christianity because of some abusive clerics.


SBNR people tend to be deeply engaged in action and caring. In his book Blessed Unrest for example Paul Hawken describes a global movement of thousands of non-profit activist organisations many of them fuelled by SBNR people. It would be interesting to research how many of the activists in for example Greenpeace or Occupy are SBNR. Are these not substantial, ethical and activist communities?


When I ran the Alternatives Programme for a decade at St. James’s Church in London I was simultaneously running a drop-in centre for teenagers with special needs and adults returning to learning. My team at the church, all of us SBNR, consisted mainly of professional carers and educators.


There is also this stereotyping of SBNR people as having no discipline or true commitment. How on earth do the critics know this other than from an impression? SBNR people are, I suggest, as disciplined or undisciplined as any other human beings, especially those of traditional faiths.


The reality I suggest is that religious adherents do not like the way in which SBNRs feel free to wander beyond the usual boundaries. SBNR types like to explore the different tools and concepts that can be found in all spiritual traditions. They do not adhere to one single belief. And why should they? This is the modern world. Why on earth would any autonomous adult want to stay within the confines of one knowledge tradition or belief community without assessing and incorporating what is useful in others? 

Caz
Caz

While I disagree with the author this post was better than I expected. However, it is narrow-minded in its view of SBNR.

"For too many, though, spirituality is a VIP card allowing them to breeze past all those wretched souls waiting in line or doing the work."

Really? These are my precise thoughts on organized religion, especially ice-cream-social and politically-minded Christian groups which pay more emphasis to "just getting people to church" or gaining political clout than actually doing the Works. The I-showed-up-in-church-on-Sunday indulgence card is all MOST Christians need to feel they did their part. Admittedly, organized religions do offer aid and help (The Mormon Church was on the ground after Katrina before FEMA was) - but MOST people involved in religions are as indolent and passive as the author would like to paint SBNR people as. I'd hazard that the level of involvement in social issues from people in both groups is about equal.

The church is being left behind and with good reason, I, like a gazillion other people around the world was never happy with the structure of power that churches are. We no longer believe in hell (except the hell people in need are going through), or that homosexuality is a "sin", that only Christianity offers "salvation" or that people who believe of other faiths are wrong or stupid. I thought once I was a good Christian; but looking back I realize that even if I meant well I was arrogant, prejudiced, petty and plain wrong. I am thankful for the good things Christianity taught me but it became obvious at some point that to really be the best man I could be, you may even say the "man Christ wanted me to be" I had to leave that ossified and dysfunctional church behind. 

Community was and is a big draw into religious communities, but as it turns out, you don't need religion to come together in a meaningful way.  

bhinkson41
bhinkson41

The point of SBNR is not anti-establisment or anti-institution. It revolves around the idea that all religions have a common moral code and are based on living a moral, positive life. SBNR deals with the fact that the different names of religions really just divide people into separate groups. Spirituality and morality bind humans everywhere together. It its just the different customs of each religion that divide people. The difference between a muslim, a catholic, any other religious person and a SBNR is really just specific customs, holidays and traditions, not what is being taught or advocated in each sect.

CarlosMiguelAlbuquerque
CarlosMiguelAlbuquerque

Oh, imagine that, a conservative abrahamic theologist being a pretentious, ignorant sociopath who does not comprehend empathy, divinity or human psychology, period.

PaulWebster
PaulWebster

For the SBNR crowd: If you are going to trumpet your apparent lazy inability to commit to the rigors of one religious doctrine or another as reason enough to title yourself SBNR, then let's consider some more facts about the religious institutions you all seem to hold in such utter contempt.


The truly Spiritual But Not Religious Sino-Siberian tribes of people populating pre-Columbian America slaughtered thousands upon thousands of their blood relatives with impunity for many centuries long before the arrival of a single Christian in the New World. The same is true of the African continent's tribal populations and the people of every other land mass around the globe. So, the argument that somehow only organized religion is to be held accountable for bloody wars waged in the name of some -ism, Christianity usually being the given culprit, is historically shortsighted, extremely bigoted, and simply not true.


Equally alarming is the usual total indifference that the SBNR souls give to the "institutional" out-pouring of charity to the tune of billions of dollars annually for the betterment of mankind, for the benefit of others around the world. And let me point out

the equally overlooked fact that this is because of Christian institutions and Christian charity. No other religion or secular group can even come close to the amount of benevolence in capital and man-hours as that funded by Christian institutions. 


Before you cast such a broad net to disparage traditional churches keep in mind that many colleges and universities including all of the Ivy League universities were organized and started by Christian churches. Today all across America many parents vie to get their children into highly sought after K-12 educational programs which are funded, housed and staffed by Christian churches. Many of the largest and best hospitals and medical clinics in America are here because of one Christian denomination or another. Many freely available urban social welfare programs that provide daily sustenance and a clean, safe place to sleep are here because of Christian institutions.


In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, my tiny church, a very small Presbyterian church in the Texas Hill Country, where but a dozen faith-filled souls may attend services on any given Sunday, quickly raised among ourselves over $12,000 to buy groceries, water and household items and then we drove that 600 miles into rural Louisiana to deliver it to a community of some very surprised and very grateful storm victims. Our church governance, the Presbyterian Church of the USA, and many other Christian denominations donated multiple millions of dollars more in relief aid to Katrina victims. 


So your insipid arguments against and thoughtless comments about the nature of traditional churches and religious organizations as being hypocritical, self-serving and inherently evil and no place for them in today's society is truly specious at best, and for many of you SBNR-types, probably a better description of many of your own personal shortcomings. 

KevinRose
KevinRose

I disagree with the author.


1. The author says "Yet as we approach Passover and Easter, it’s important to remember that it is institutions and not abstract feelings that tie a community together and lead to meaningful change."

This is false. People have feelings and choice. And it is those feelings and choices that tie an institution together. Institutions are an abstract creation; institutions have no feelings and no choice. Hence institutions are a tool - nothing more - for people to achieve their objectives.


2. The author says "But institutions are also the only mechanism human beings know to perpetuate ideologies and actions."

This is false. Ideas and actions are also made by individuals, families, ad-hoc groups and other non-institutional entities.

As a spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) person, my morals and values derive from within. I study external sources, meditate and ponder my spirituality and then choose the best I can in my life. All individuals have this same right and responsibility. 

By definition, all institutions have agendas and motivations that individual members disagree with; institutions require compromise. And institutions have zero legitimacy outside their constituency. As such, I associate with non-religious groups to serve, and take action based on my beliefs. This is not laziness; it's human behavior. It's doing what works in practical and effective ways.

The reason SBNR's have left traditional religious institutions is not because SBNR's are lazy and don't take action. It is because the institutions you refer to do not serve their needs; these institutions do not represent their values, their perspective nor the way SBNR's choose to serve our fellow beings and the greater community. Like obsolete institutions of monarchy, and dictatorship, religious institutions simply no longer serve the community-at-large nor the membership within the institution. 

Hence, SBNR's leave traditional religious institutions to associate with communities, groups, and organizations and that do represent their needs, and associate with like-minded people to meet their spiritual needs, perspectives, and objectives.

EtanB
EtanB

Firstly, he is a Rabbi, so I am not surprised he espouses a tendentious attitude toward blasé spirituality. But I also disagree with him. He says that only through religion can communal action occur. Even if that is true, it is a facile analysis…. what type of communal action? The history of religion is riddled with communal action towards ends that were horrific, to say the least. The reason action en masse is possible with organized religion is exactly due to its unquestionable tenets, when the mystical intuitions of “personal spirituality” take a backseat to dogma. 


Additionally, a religious community may work together towards some end, but that end is typically in the interest of that religious community. Seldom do religious individuals care about the interests of other religious groups, or those of the world at large…they primarily seek to further promulgate their own values (all too often ones of intolerance and self-righteousness). Universal inclusivity and open-mindedness, even if associated with New-Agey-Crystal-Worshipping nonsense, IMHO, is better than affiliating oneself with a group that downplays these ideals in favor of those that isolate people. 
His second point, that spirituality without religion makes you complacent with good feelings, is preferable to the alternative: being religious and miserable. I agree that if your belief system does not make you a better person, then it is useless, but that does not mean religion is necessary. It just means you need to take your own sense of spirituality seriously, and be mindful of yourself in the world. He apparently is not familiar with Eastern philosophy, since all the great Indian saints have said that we cannot help the world without first understanding ourselves…and no religion can show you who you are. The fact of the matter is that when you look at the world, the major problems caused by religion undoubtedly exceed those caused by the contented individuals who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” And I rest my case there.

AinPa
AinPa

Please don't imagine that you know what I feel! 

I don't feel "allergic to institutions". 

I base my opinion on religion on facts. 

The fact is that religions have been proven to be emotionally manipulative, exploitive and abusive. They are corrupt orgnizations telling old lies about God, salvation an sin in order to gain power and influence over the people and communities in which they reside. They are profitable business that are selling salvation, for a price.


There may be good caring people associated with religions but that does not make the foundational lies true.

SamuelClemens
SamuelClemens

Asking a member of the clergy about organized religion is like asking a beggar about the merits of giving and taking handouts. Sorry guy, you aren't need for morality or spiritual life. Follow your own path, but ti is not the only one, or even the best one.

nomorelyz
nomorelyz

Actually, I respect the Rabbi, but I find this article a stellar example of why I'm spiritual & no longer religious.  In fact, humans tie a community together & it's historically evident that when they form "institutions" that the wars & oppression are crystallized into horrors.  

When we face each other & band together without undue concern over labels, we accomplish much greater things, IMO.  However, I understand why zealous representatives of institutions spend so much time chastising us for "feeling good" about God & each other while rejecting their choices.

AV
AV

@PaulWebster  Shame to the widow at the temple for only giving a dime !  Twice foolish woman, for giving away her last in private...  


And if we don't care to give our last as she did, then the congregation will be sure to ask.... to test its moral perfection against representative temptation... 

But again, I don't think that the entirety of the Church is of this world. And demonstrative charity is always a kind of ball... today not unlike it was at the beginning of the church, as it cares to remind itself every year.

AV
AV

@nomorelyz  further on... 


Free association - young hordes whether of religious or other persuasions - does seem to produce horrors of its own...  


I am not saying this out of respect for old, enshrined hordes. Their tradition and history such as it is, says allot of what human beliefs look like as an indiscriminate, indispensable binder of choice. I do mean any belief ! [lets say, perhaps less of the kind that 'it is a good idea to wear shoes in summer' - all due respect to shoemakers; more of the kind of political beliefs with which religion finds historic affinities by its own accord... ]. Declarations of faith tend to universally tenable abstraction [like numbers]... and yet, their acceptance, administered by some form of dis-organization or another does what it does. I kept mine.