Tom Shakespeare

After a relationship break up a few years ago, I signed on to a dating website.  Filling in my online profile, I was interested to discover that the question on religious belief included an option that was new to me.  You could tick boxes for the major religions, or for atheist, or for SBNR, which I discovered stands for “Spiritual But Not Religious”.

Whereas the word ‘religion’ generally refers to organized forms of worship and a wider faith community, spiritual often describes people’s private, often idiosyncratic, beliefs.

A few minutes on Google revealed that SBNR is more than just an acronym.  One in three Americans defined themselves as spiritual but not religious, according to Gallup.  Millions of people now think of themselves as on their own personal spiritual path, but not affiliated to any specific religion.   American sociologists Robert Putnum and David Campbell talk about Nones – people who belong to no religion but still believe in God.   Other commentators have used the term Moralistic Therapeutic Deism to refer to how young people are turning towards a vague belief that God exists and the point of life is to be happy.  You could also call it “pseudo-religion”.

The person who ticks the SBNR box is distinguishing herself from atheism;  she would probably believe in some supreme being or higher power.  Perhaps she’s interested in Eastern spirituality or some eclectic mixture of ideas.  SBNR reflects a rejection of the dogmas of organized religion, perhaps even repugnance at the abuses committed in the name of Christianity and Islam and Judaism and Hinduism and Buddhism.  I think it connects to the explosion of so-called ‘personal growth movements’ since the 1960s – such as yoga and transcendental meditation – as well as new religious movements such as paganism and Scientology.

The rise of SBNR comes in the context of declining organized religion, at least in the UK.    Fewer and fewer of us are calling ourselves Christians.  Numbers fell from just over 70% of the UK at the 2001 Census to less than 60%, according to the 2011 census.    That’s still a majority of the population – and other religions make up another 5% or so – but only one million of us will attend church this week.   More than a quarter of Britons do not identify with any particular religion,

But few members of this group are fully paid-up followers of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or other humanist prophets.  A person might say:  I am not interested in organized religion, but I do have room in my life for spirituality.  He has a sense that there is something “above and beyond” the everyday.  He has beliefs, a belief in some transcendental force, or whatever, however inchoate they may be.   It reminds me of the quotation from Carl Jung: “You can take away a man’s gods, but only to give him others in return.”

I want to challenge this approach, and explain why I was unwilling to tick the SBNR box on that dating website.    I worry that SBNR can just be vague, lacking the rigour which comes from centuries of refinement and debate.  And unlike traditional religions, it doesn’t have much to say about charity and justice.  Perhaps  this is because it is a reflection of the individualism that seems to be such a problem in western societies.   People want a reassuring set of beliefs that make them feel better about their own life, rather than being challenged to help others or make the world a better place.

For all these reasons, I agree with the writer James Martin when he says that “Spirituality without religion can become a self-centered complacency divorced from the wisdom of a community.”   But then Martin is a Jesuit, and so of course he wants those wishy-washy spiritual believers to sign up to his organized faith.

Whereas my biggest problem with SBNR is the opposite.  It’s that it retains the mumbo-jumbo supernatural aspects of religion.  People have rejected the shelf with the ready-made religious beliefs, and promptly gone round the corner to the pick and mix shop to buy a more or less random set of beliefs which are, if anything, even more incredible.   People who are Spiritual But Not Religious often still believe in something supernatural, they just don’t want to be part of an organized group.   I do not want to be required to have faith in a supreme being or miracles or reincarnation, or any entity for which there is no scientific evidence.

So, that make me a humanist then?  Not at all.   Because don’t  we have four options?

  • We can be religious and spiritual – which is the traditional faith approach;
  • We can be spiritual but not religious – which is the new age pick and mix approach;
  • We can be humanist – which is neither religious nor spiritual;
  • Or maybe we can be religious but not spiritual.

Let me spend the next few minutes explaining why this last option works best for me.

The word “religion” seems to derive from Latin religare, to bind or connect.   I think that sense of a connection is the key point.  Religion offers a bond between individuals and it helps individuals form a connection to the wider universe.   The great French sociologist Emile Durkheim differentiated between belief, which was private, and religion, which was social.

I think what we need today is more connection with each other, and with our damaged world.   From what I have seen, I don’t think humanists offers us much help with that.  Humanism is not positive but negative, because it centers on rejecting religion.  I think traditional religions do offer connections, but at the cost of demanding that we believe improbable things.  So that’s why I’d advocate being religious in a non-traditional way.

Without religion, the danger is that an individual thinks that he is the centre of the universe.   Religion asks more of you than just to look after yourself.  Because religion is a collective practice, it enables us to learn from others around us, and from a history of sincere and disciplined examination of the problems of life, which are sometimes called the Wisdom Traditions.   As a result, religion offers us humility and perspective.   Through reflection and discussion in the context of religion, we can achieve discernment, which means seeing reality more clearly.

I think that many people who identify as religious are not spiritual, at least in the sense of having a belief in a God or supernatural force.   Like Don Cupitt and his Sea of Faith network, they may have a non-realist view of religion, which means that they consider religions to be human and pragmatic, not supernatural and God-given.  In my case, I am a Quaker, which means I sit in silence for an hour a week with like-minded people, and I try to live according to Christian principles.   A few years ago, I stayed with a colleague’s family in upstate New York.  They were Jewish, and around the house I noticed a menorah and the newsletter from their local synagogue.  But as we talked, I realized that although they attended services regularly, they did not have any particular belief in God.   In fact, they had pretty much exactly the same outlook on the world as I did.  And I suspect many people who sit in Anglican pews this Sunday are similar.  People like us are going through certain regular rituals, and value belonging to a community of folk trying to lead more meaningful lives, but have no, or very weak belief in a supernatural being.

If you’re an atheist, I can heartily recommend involvement in religion.  It offers community and it offers tradition, which can be reassuring and comforting.  It offers discipline, teaching us that there is something outside ourselves to which we should bend our personal will.   If we do it right, religion helps us lead better lives, with a commitment to justice and social action.  Social research shows that involvement in organized religion is good for our health and well being.

So this week, why not find a time to sit in silence with your fellows, or sing with them, or read a holy book with them, or commune with them.   Take a moment to reflect on your place in the universe and your obligations towards others.  Belief in god is strictly optional.