Thursday, September 26, 2013

"Spiritual but not religious" lets people off the hook

Many people who are a lot more articulate than I am have made observations about what might be meant when people describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious" and about the rise of those who claim to be "religiously unaffiliated." I hear these terms fairly often, as well, although I can't say whether or not I hear them more or less often than I used to. And, to be fair, I don't actually hear all that many people claim these things with my own ears (maybe because 95% of the people I regularly come into contact with, by virtue of my day job, are so-called "religiously affiliated"? I probably need to work on changing that somehow). Nevertheless, I do read a fair amount about it and pay attention to various discussions on-line, so I thought I'd offer a brief explanation of what I hear when people say they are "spiritual, but not religious":

When people say they are "spiritual, but not religious" what they really mean is, "I'm spiritual, but I am not church-going." Or, perhaps to broaden it a bit, they mean, "I'm spiritual, but I eschew consciously worshiping the same things with other groups of people."

Likewise, when someone describes themselves on a form (or somewhere else) as "religiously unaffiliated," what they really mean is they do not affiliate with an organized, named religious community.

To say it another way, everyone is religious. Everyone has a religion...or, as is often the case (even with church-going folk) more than one. There is no such thing as "not religious" or "religiously unaffiliated." As humans, we do not have a choice about that. It comes with the territory of being a species that, by nature, asks questions, seeks meaning, creates value structures and makes sacrifices of time, energy, and often health, to maintain them. No living, sentient human can avoid this, and to try to deny one's religiosity is to be ignorant about the formalized systems of meaning and values one has already constructed. It is to be ignorant that each person already pins their hopes for a "good life" or the future on something, even if it is only themselves and their own abilities. That, in an of itself, is religious.

Nope. It doesn't really work like this.
I do not believe this is just semantics. Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, offers a definition of a god. He says, "A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in times of need." A few sentences later he is even more confrontational: "that to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is really your God." I know I have not yet met every single person in the world, but I'm pretty sure that applies to everyone. Everyone, after all, pins their hopes for the future on something by virtue of the fact that they probably expect to be breathing into the future. Note that, in Luke's gospel, when Jesus gives warning about the dangers of worldly affluence, he describes wealth as a master, a god. He does not speak as if there is one God and we should serve Him because God is good or that it is right. He says, rather, "No one can serve two masters." He acknowledges that for many people mammon assumes that role of future-holder. Sundry other things may be substituted in that place, especially in our era. One can easily say, then, that having any one of these gods necessitates having some type of religion, some way of structuring these hopes for the future.

However, thanks to a multitude of cultural influences, the term religion has come to be synonymous with "organized religion," be it Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Scientology, or what have you. But Luther's definition, I believe, is far more descriptive and helpful in pinning down everyone--not just the self-proclaimed religious--when it comes to examining everyone's value systems. In short, to be able to describe one's self as "not religious" is basically to be let off the hook. Besides narrowing the meaning of "religion" to mean only organized and named religious groups or patterns of thought, such a category ("not religious," "religiously unaffiliated") does not focus the same level or depth of critique on everyone's inherent value system. As Luther, and Aquinas before him, observed long ago, everyone is "doing it." Everyone places their heart in something. Everyone, if they know what's good for them, should take the opportunity to examine that with equal emphasis.

Where this thinking takes me, I'm not sure. I know that, on a personal level, when I hear someone describe themselves in those terms I reach a different conclusion about them than they probably want me to reach. The conclusion I reach is that, sure, they have values and are probably very religious and structured about them. They most certainly give worth (read: worship) to something. They just don't want to be identified with a particular sect or denomination or group-think. And that's OK. But I know they're religious. The two of us actually have more in common than they realize. I often wish they could sit down and admit it and really give some deeper thought about those things in which they "find refuge in times of need"...the things they really do worship. Maybe they do give deeper thought to it, but I still don't want either of us to feel that they've been allowed a free pass, as if my step, for example, towards identification with the church is qualitatively different than their step away from it.

But I also think it might open the door for a new kind of evangelism in this post-Christendom age we are encountering in the West. With such a definition in-hand, it allows practitioners of an organized religion to throw the question back to those whom they may be trying to convince of the validity of their faith with an equal challenge, equal footing. No longer should the "religiously-affiliated" feel put in the place to argue the merits of having religion versus not: You say you're not religious? Really? Are you breathing? Tell me, then, about the places you entrust your heart and your future. And I'd love to tell you about mine. Now, let's talk.


Aaron Fuller said...

I think you raise a good point. But I wonder if we need to pay attention to the power of language here. As you mention, "religious" comes with it's own assumptions. I think the new word today is "belief." What do you believe? There is no such thing as neutral belief; we all believe in something, something guides and shapes our lives.

Yes, Luther's view is more expansive, but I wonder if we have to capture that spirit in our dialogue and witness and expand our terms further. Telling people they have a "god" and "religion" that isn't the God revealed I. Christ sounds like, "so you do have a god....just not the right one." And in our world today, whether right or wrong, JUDGMENT, whether real or perceived, is the one thing turning people away from the church, and honestly, is a business the church needs to get out of.

Phillip said...

Yes, Aaron, and that is a good point. I had thought about putting the line in, "So you do have a god...a different god than I do." To tell someone they don't have the right god sounds too confrontational and off-putting.

At the same time, however, there is some judgment already present in the response "SBNR," and I would like to push back against that a little. The term "religious" has almost taken on a negative connotation (as evidenced by the fact some are already trying to reclaim it in a defiant type way: "I'm RELIGIOUS, but not spiritual.").

I do realize that many people who would describe themselves that way probably do so because they've been hurt in some way by organized religion. They, perhaps, should get a "free pass." :)