Sunday, April 14, 2013

Spiritual but not Religious?

You’ve probably heard that the number of people who identify themselves by the phrase "spiritual but not religious" or “SBNR” is growing. In 1998, only 9 percent of American adults said they were spiritual but not religious. A 2009 Newsweek poll revealed that 30 percent of Americans refer to themselves as “spiritual, not religious.” According to a survey referred to in a USA Today article in October of 2012, 72% of millennials (18- to 29-year-olds) say they're "really more spiritual than religious.”

But I’ll be honest with you.  I don’t know what the heck that means.  And my exploration of this topic confirms that it doesn’t have much of a COMMON meaning.  I read several articles, blogs, and a couple of books that approached it from different directions – probably because folks have differing definitions of both spiritual and religious.  

I thought it would be interesting to see the kinds of images used with these two words.  As you probably know, when you put something in your google box and look it up – you can go to the top and click “images” and see images used in the land of googledom with these words --- and sometimes that gives you a “picture” or “pictures” that are helpful.  Here are the top images for “spiritual” on google.   

Ah, lots of nature and blurry lines.

And when I type in the word “religious,” these are some of the top images.”  
You know when you go to the eye doctor, you look through that fancy lens and they change from frame to frame and ask you to pick the one that looks better.   
Let’s do that. This one Or this one.  Again – the 1st one or the 2nd one.

Which one – 1 or 2?  Well folks, there are some people like me who wear bifocals.
In any case, I decided I would get some help figuring out what folks that I CONNECT with mean if they say they are “spiritual but not religious.” 

So I put up a little survey on survey monkey – and shared it with our members and friends and my Facebook friends – asking folks who identified in this manner to complete it.  There were 29 folks who responded.  About 60% of the folks did not regularly attend church or any other faith group.  But about the same number of folks DID have “some” label that they used (like UU) to identify themselves theologically. 
When I asked what they meant by “spiritual but not religious” I got lots of different kinds of answers, but they generally fell into two categories.  About half of them were talking about BELIEF – and why their views did not fit the traditional theistic framework or did not match the religions they knew about.  Here are a couple of representative quotes.

“I do not necessarily believe in a literal God, and I certainly don't fit into any of the organized religions. However, I feel like there is amazing beauty and wonder all around us. I believe in the importance of a moral life and the importance of love. I feel most spiritual when I connect to other people (through meaningful conversation) or to nature.”

“Spiritual is something I am -- the deep place inside of me and the interconnectedness that I feel with every living thing. Spirituality is the god within. It's always there, and I can always call on it. To me, the term religious feels very confining -- like I have to follow rules with which I don't necessarily agree. Traditional religion feels stuffy and inauthentic. I have NO interest in practicing religion.”

Explanations from the other half of the “spiritual but not religious” folks indicate that they were not interested in an “ORGANIZED religion” or coming to church – regardless of their beliefs.  Here are two representative quotes – and these are rather difficult for me to hear:

“As the Indigo Girls lyrics tell it in Closer to Fine: "The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine" Religion to me is a set of disciplines that are supposed to allow one to feel close to their source, it is their way to seek closeness with their source. But I find that the less I seek, or the less I try, the easier it is to just BE close to my source. I don't feel the need for a set of disciplines, the best I've done for myself is to let go of those practices and instead just BE.”

“Spiritual but not religious means you have turned your back on organized religion due to the hypocritical nature of most of those organizations. I have found very few church-goers, primarily Christians, to act in any way Jesus-like, and have found Jesus-like behavior even less frequent among supposed church leaders.”


In the short time I have, I’m going to attempt to provide some response to both of these groups.

To the first group – put off by the dogma of many traditional religions; well join the club.  And actually, it’s an old club.  But it’s not necessarily a club that has rejected the religious term and religious association.  In fact, one of the reasons the Unitarian Universalists opted NOT to have a creed was that our forebearers agreed that you could be religious without a certain belief – especially in the traditional sky god.  A couple of you referred me to an article in the New York Review entitled “Religion without God.” 

The editors indicate that before his death on February 14 of this year, the author, Ronald Dworkin, sent to The New York Review a text of his new book, Religion without God, to be published by Harvard University Press later this year. They published an excerpt from the first chapter.

In this chapter, Dworkin shares some ideas from lots of folks through history who seem to be religious without a belief in God. For example, he quotes Albert Einstein, who said that though an atheist he was a deeply religious man: Here’s what he said:
“To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.”

As you see, it all depends on how one defines religion – and folks like Einstein (and many of us) have a much broader interpretation than religious fundamentalists. 
Although the philosopher and psychologist William James would say that his religion really IS what’s fundamental:  that there are “things in the universe,” as he put it, “that throw the last stone.” Theists have a god for that role, but an atheist can think that the importance of living well throws the last stone, that there is nothing more basic on which that responsibility rests or needs to rest.

The Supreme Court of the United States certainly recognizes that “religion” doesn’t mean a belief in a deity or particular religious practices – and Dworkin cites multiple cases. 

Dworkin contends that the term “religious” doesn’t connote a specific belief, but an attitude – or perhaps a perspective.   Here’s how HE would describe that attitude:
“The religious attitude accepts the full, independent reality of value. It accepts the objective truth of TWO central judgments about value. The first holds that human life has objective meaning or importance….  The second holds that what we call “nature”—the universe as a whole and in all its parts—is not just a matter of fact but is itself sublime: something of intrinsic value and wonder.

“We are part OF nature because we have a physical being and duration: nature is the locus and nutrient of our physical lives. We are apart FROM nature because we are conscious of ourselves as making a life and must make decisions that, taken together, determine what life we have made.”

Well, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? 
I see our Unitarian Universalist principles all over that!  
For me, religion is all about connection.  That’s what being religious is – connecting with what we hold as sacred, or ultimate, or life-giving.  Re- ligion means Re connecting.  The root word that “ligion” comes from is the same root word that ligament comes from.  It’s connection.  So in the reading we had earlier, Sarah Moores Campbell tells her gardener neighbor, “Yes, you are religious.”

And yes, I certainly agree with Campbell and Dworkin that you CAN be religious without God.   A majority of Unitarian Universalists would probably fit into that category, though many have redefined God and still use that term. And the reason is because we allowed our religion to EVOLVE and become more inclusive! 
Now what about that 2nd group from my survey, the folks that have rejected organized religion and religious institutions?  I don’t know if there are any of you sitting HERE who feel that way who may have come to this service just to see what I had to say.  I’m probably preaching to the choir on this point.  But my sermons are also made available online and passed on to many folks – so I’m going to try to respond to those folks who feel that way.

First of all, I hear you.  I have been rejected by many in my efforts to fit into some churches; till it almost feels like – why bother.  But I was blessed to find Unitarian Universalism, a place where I did not have to check my brain, my heart, or my identities at the door.  Unitarian Universalism has truly been my salvation – to use a heavily loaded religious term.  But it’s true for me.  I have found a religious faith tradition where I CAN connect. And YES, I did use the word FAITH.  Because faith is about trust.  When one is faithful, that one is trustworthy.  And although we all have to cautious, you can’t go through life without some trust – some faith in something you can connect with.

And that indeed is why we need to come to worship services, for connection to that nourishing community, through music, listening and learning together, participating in connecting rituals, planning ways to serve together, and of course, sharing some good coffee.  Folks sometimes share what their spiritual practices are; perhaps yoga or meditation or gardening.  I always include worship services.  If our connection here is not spiritual, I don’t know what is.  It’s all connection that provides us with the nourishment we need to move forward in this world.  I asked this group on our listserv to share why you came to church and got several responses – but I’m going to share just one which seems to incorporate what many others said.  You may be able to guess who this is. 

“I love UU.  I am a UU.  I like being part of a church where I am reminded of our intention to love one another- to honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  I like that children are understood to have inherent worth and dignity -- that we are a village, caring for one another.  I am proud to be part of the church where we stand on the side of love, at every opportunity.   I value that I am known and loved here -- that I am expected and appreciated every Sunday.”

We come for many different reasons   But come we do as we sing, “Come, come whoever you are – wanderers, worshippers, lovers of leaving; ours is no Caravan of despair, Come, yet again Come.”

Ours IS no caravan of despair.  Yet we welcome the despair that many bring with them.  This is a place for healing.  And for me, at least, it’s a holy place. Just as holy as that place we heard about in our children's story built by Thomas Potter so that the message of Universal Love could be shared.   Of course, it’s not a holy place because of this building, and indeed, this congregation will be leaving this building.  But because of these people within it. 

There are CERTAINLY holy places in nature – we churchgoers too see the divine in a beautiful sunset. But we need more than that – and it’s not just about what WE need – but about what we can do for others working together.  We need this religious community, THIS holy place. 

There is a song that feels like it’s about this holy place in “Singing the Journey” and I’ve asked our fellowship singers to sing “When Our Heart is in a Holy Place” for the offertory.  Because the words are so meaningful, I’ve included them on my PowerPoint so you can follow along.  And if you feel like joining in, please do. 

But before they sing, here is my altar call of sorts.  If Unitarian Universalism sounds like something you want to explore more, I invite you to stay after the service on April 28 for our UU 101 session that I’ll lead.  You’ll find out about that “free church tradition” that James Luther Adams encourages.  And if this congregation feels like HOME to you, we’ll invite you to our UU 102.  Just let me or our VP for membership Teresa Winn know.

We’d love to have you join us, here – Standing on the side of Love - in this spiritual AND religious community.

Amen and blessed be!


  1. Excellent, Jane! As always. I do wonder, however, when I read this: "We are apart FROM nature because we are conscious of ourselves as making a life and must make decisions that, taken together, determine what life we have made.”

    For me, the more we learn about our brains and human self-awareness, the more we see how that too is a part of nature; everything from our DNA to our environment influences the chemistry of our self-conscious brains, which have evolved (and continue to evolve) as beautifully as any long-beaked finch.

    I get the point. I just don't think "apartness" is the right description. But then, I am both religious and spiritual. Blessed be to you too!

  2. Yes, -- and of course I was quoting Dworkin then -- but I do see what he means, that we can observe, study, analyze, etc. nature (and to do that I suppose we take a step back) -- but we certainly are a part of it. It's interesting how MUCH DNA we actually share with that finch!

  3. I classified myself as spiritual but not religious for years. I think it was the easiest classification to choose as I have no use for organized religion. Over the last 13 years my anti religious feelings have grown. I have come to find peace in accepting that I am an Atheist and no longer need the more politically correct term Spiritual but not Religious. As an Atheist I find I have more joy in living this one life that I have now. I do not worry about an afterlife or seeing loved ones again, I'm confident that I have had and lived a good life and would not be sorry if it were to end today. I'm sure that if I wanted a church UU would be as close to perfect.... But I do not want to sit in church and listen to a Serman or sing songs of praise. I am very happy to have found the Statesboro Atheist meetup group because they are a group that I can say freely what I think without worrying about political correctness or hurting someone's feelings. I don't come to as many meetings anymore because I end up beading on the 3rd Sunday a lot, but I know they are there as a source of friendship for me. On the other hand each year you have a solstice party and I would really like to come to that sometime and I understand there is a labyrinth somewhere that I would like to walk!