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Spiritual But Not Religious: The Worst of All Worlds

10/02/2012 04:57 pm ET | Updated Dec 02, 2012

In the U.S. and internationally, religion is seen in increasingly hostile terms by many. From the YouTube video that resulted in widespread rioting, to the outrage at Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy's comments about gay marriage, it seems we are continuously drawn in to a debate where religion and contentious international affairs and life style choices are thrown in to complex considerations.

Consequently perhaps, the increasingly popular "I'm Spiritual Not Religious" has significant purchase with younger people in the U.S. and Europe. The wider associations of "organized religion" to historic atrocities and contemporary outrages, from the crusades to pedophilia and associations with extremism of the Religious Right in the US and terrorism internationally seems to have coalesced with the broader disdain for institutions in society generally and a commitment to a set of principles or ideas in particular.

Of course the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others have made an enormous aim of exposing believers as somehow being "duped" by faith. We can all see the cheeky smile of Bill Maher in Religulous and many go along with the idea that President Obama articulated of gun-wielding Bible-toting Americans being ignorant. Being a secular admirer of the Enlightenment, I find it strange today that I should feel compelled to defend the increasingly bizarre and outlandish attacks on those that believe.

However, in the weird world we find ourselves in today, it strikes me that often people who have some kind of relationship to a belief system, a value system of faith usually have a healthier attitude toward the autonomy of the individual than many others who profess to be progressive.

The lack of tolerance in the outlook of the so-called New Atheists betrays their horror that anybody would have the temerity to believe in something beyond themselves.

Sadly, however, it's not quite that simple. As Stephen Prothero explains in his book "Religious Illiteracy," the majority of Americans can only name four of the Ten Commandments and very little else. Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their study "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us" show an evacuation of the church space and religious knowledge and study generally. Many have commented on the decline in recent years yet an astonishing 58 percent of Americans still say they pray once a week. Many in Europe point at this as a demonstration of backwardness. What none of them offer however, is a more positive and inspiring alternative, a humanist outlook that proposes to enjoin and inspire and engage.

Back to the Spiritual But Not Religious-ers, they seem to have appropriated the worst of all worlds. They have retained the superstitious outlook and yet do not want to engage or present anything more broadly life affirming. Selecting a superficial mixture of "nice-feeling" items from Yoga to a slice of Zen and a moment of Tao is hardly progressive as far as options for humanity is concerned. They have jettisoned the hard work, diligence and observation of organized religion for a me-me-me what-ever kind of lifestyle. It is transparent too however that the religious organizations themselves cannot motivate a vision that is compelling to young people. Super-churches are much discussed, but more like social centers than places of doctrine and diligent religious observation.

America as a social experiment has been enormously successful in incorporating the developments from the Reformation and the expansion of literacy that accompanied the masses learning to read the Bible, to the creation of a Republic dedicated to ensure the pursuit of happiness and non-interference with religion by the government. These days, many have tried to demonstrate an evolutionary psychological explanation for the folly of faith or the gene that is "responsible" for it in an attempt to rationalize faith somehow. These are complex questions that are not susceptible to soundbites -- although they will be debated at The New School this Monday, Oct. 1 as part of The NY Salon and The Battle of Ideas Satellite Festival that runs internationally through October and November.

Harold Bloom points out that without knowledge of the Bible little in western civilization, from Bach to Shakespeare, Michelangelo to Hemingway would be possible. Further, the attack on belief itself is a retrograde and anti-human moment, where convictions and commitment to something beyond oneself is seen as the problem, rather than the content of what is believed. This is a subject that needs to be discussed and debated and intellectually battled over. Come join!