Contemplation/Signs of the Apocalypse: The Shift from Religious to Spiritual

Recently there have been a number of reports about a societal (and apparently generational) shift from individuals classifying themselves as more “spiritual” than “religious.”  I first was made aware of this from USA today (I actually first read this in the print version, which amazes me because I hardly ever read print newspapers).  Then there is this CNN piece, and the follow-up on Schott’s Vocab highlighting the initials SBNR (for Spiritual but not Religious).  The statistic, repeated throughout the pieces, is that 72% of individuals of the millennial generation (18 to 29 year olds) describe themselves as spiritual instead of religious.  So what does this mean?  Is this a metaphorical end times for Big Religion?

As in the case of many of the the things that I write about I would say that this is really a matter of perspective.  I suspect that if you are on the side of Big Religion (aka any of the world’s major organized religions, in all their variants) such as Father James Martin in the CNN piece, then these numbers are probably pretty alarming and concerning (most religions are in the business of gaining – or at least maintaining – membership).  However, on the flip side, if you are one of the people who state the SBNR then probably this isn’t too big a deal.

So how about me and my perspective (this is my blog afterall)?  Well I have a few thoughts and the first that comes to mind is “what the fuck does it mean to be ‘spiritual’ in the first place?”  Obviously there are some textbook definitions of “spiritual.”  The OED defines it as “Of or pertaining to, affecting or concerning, the spirit or higher moral qualities, esp. as regarded in a religious aspect.”  This seems to me to suggest that being spiritual has a very real tie-in to being religious.  However, what a gather from the various articles discussing the SBNR phenomenon, for those who ascribe themselves in the spiritual category what it means is more of an disregarding of Big Religion and set dogma in favor of, as described in the CNN piece, a “have it your way” relation with a perceived divine. 

In contrast to the CNN piece I really do see it as more of a semantic issue. Sure, certainly it seems that more people are turning away from traditional Big Religions in pursuit of their own style spirituality, but really these individuals are still adhering to general religious tendencies and so for me I see this more as a shift in religion instead of a direct threat to it.  I strongly disagree with Father Martin in his saying that “If it’s just you and God in your room, and a religious community makes no demands on you, why help the poor?” (suggesting that those who turn away from the more traditional are leading an unconcerned and self-centered life in their personal “spirituality”).  Regardless if you are making a mash-up of religious and spiritual views, you would likely still be influenced by specific moral calling, such as helping others less fortunate than yourself.  Furthermore, humans are social animals, and will almost always organize themselves in someway or another.  According to Father Martin’s logic anybody who didn’t attend church or wasn’t a part of a set religious organization would be unlikely to provide any charity to their fellow humans.  This is obviously patently false as there are many non-denominational, non-religious organizations who provide charity, as well as individuals who on their own accord, independent of any greater religious calling pursue these good acts.

I don’t think that the SBNR really spells any certain doom to religions, but instead signifies a shift away from hardline set dogma and religious organization on favor of a more relative and open understanding of religions, spirituality, and the divine.  This may certainly spell doom and gloom for those religious organizations who which to continue to hold on to tradition and set religious practices and “truths,” but ultimately the hardline set ways will likely lose out as the trend continues.

How about myself, am I in the SBNR category?  Again, because I think it is largely semantic in nature, as well as essentially being just a shift in religious tendencies, I would have to say that no, I do not count myself as SBNR.  But admittedly this is probably more due to the fact that I have not considered myself religious at all for years now (and do not feel like I need to substitute “spirituality” for any absence on religious tendencies).  I prefer to describe myself as non-theist.  Now, depending on your understanding of the term, this may either make me an atheist or an agnostic in your eyes.  Personally I’d say I fall a little bit in between the two (bet you didn’t know there could be an in between did you?).  Basically I see no reason (or actual possibility) to confirm or deny the existence of any deity or divine powers, which sides more towards agnosticism, but because I don’t see the reason in this confirmation or denial I have chosen to live my life essentially as if there were not a God and that it really does not affect me to consider one (essentially I live more as an atheist).  I think that hardline atheism tends to be just a problematic as hardline religion and so I tend to distance myself from both.  If I experience anything classifiable as “spiritual” it is probably through my interactions with other people and nature and knowledge in general, but I would hold that there is nothing particularly supernatural or divine about any of these interactions (they are just enjoyable and refreshing).  So simply, again, no I do not count myself as SBNR.

Of course there really could be a God (a nasty and vengeful Old Testament variety I might add) who is also reading all this news and then says “well fuck it” and blows us all into oblivion.  That would be a major so it goes I think.

~ by Nathaniel on June 18, 2010.

2 Responses to “Contemplation/Signs of the Apocalypse: The Shift from Religious to Spiritual”

  1. Speaking from a modern Christian standpoint, it seems many people are shying away from the term “religion” because it is viewed as man-made. So much of religion is comprised of man-made rules and rituals that have no Biblical backing. Basically, trying to fit God into a neat little box, making Him into what one group wants or doesn’t Him to be – whatever makes it convenient.

    In the Chronicles of Narnia C.S. Lewis describes Aslan, the God-figure of the series, as being “wild, not a tame lion.” I tend to agree with this statement as it relates to religion – that people try to “tame” a God that cannot be tamed.

    Just my two cents.

    • I like your perspective on it and assume that it is probably pretty accurate. I think that a lot of people nowadays are turned off by what they see a rigidly constructed and enforced dogma of a traditional religious setting. Interestingly some of the more spiritual approach to modern religious experience seems to almost approach mysticism. Historically practitioners of the more mystic side of major world religions have been persecuted because they are viewed as being contrary and disruptive to established creed and dogma.

      Interesting stuff and thank for the comment. Your two cents are always welcome here.

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