"I'm spiritual, but not religious."
It's not a new sentiment, but these days it certainly seems to be a widespread one. Depending on whom you believe, anywhere from 10 percent to 33 percent of Americans describe themselves as SBNR -- persons for whom a self-directed spirituality matters, but engagement with an institutional religious community does not.
Clearly, this rankles some folks in the religion business. Jesuit author James Martin dismissed SBNR as tending toward "complacency and self-centeredness," while UCC minister Lillian Daniel bluntly ordered SBNRs to "please stop boring me."
For critics, the idea of being spiritual but not religious sounds like cheating -- taking advantage of the resources that emerge from religion, including sacred writings, wisdom teachings, established practices, and even religiously affiliated retreat centers and monasteries -- while bypassing the financial, temporal and emotional demands of community involvement. It's just one more example, so the reasoning goes, of the widespread narcissism inherent in our society.
Such overt disapproval may be understandable, but it achieves nothing. Attacking the SBNRs may temporarily make their critics feel better, but it is unlikely to win many converts back to the old religious way of doing things. Perhaps if advocates of religion took the time to listen to the SBNRs, there might be some enlightening insights to be had (and yes, we can assume that some SBNRs really are just narcissistic; but we should likewise assume that many others are thoughtful, reasonable and responsible, and those are the ones I think need to be heard).
In my adult life I've had an on-again, off-again relationship with religion, even while I have pretty much nurtured a meaningful spiritual identity on an ongoing basis. While I cannot speak for everyone who has identified as SBNR, I suspect my experience is hardly unique. For me, the tension between spirituality and religion always boiled down to one basic struggle: my desire to learn from multiple wisdom traditions. I grew up in the Lutheran Church, but as a teenager I began reading books by non-Christian thinkers like Paramahansa Yogananda or unorthodox Christians like Alan Watts. Later I became an Episcopalian, while studying Neopagan authors like Starhawk or Margot Adler. I eventually left the church to become a Neopagan, but even then I never abandoned my interest in Christian (or other non-Neopagan) spiritual teachers. When I decided to resume participation in the Christian faith community, I recognized that I could only do so in what I called an "interfaith-friendly" manner: I accepted the church as my home base, but I sought to deepen and enrich my practice of Christianity by learning about (and engaging with) the spiritual teachings and practices of other faiths.
This isn't always an easy position to hold. Although the priests and other elders to whom I turn for guidance and support have always accepted my expansive approach to spirituality, I know plenty of persons who find it scandalous. Recently a devout acquaintance told me I should be ashamed of myself, simply because of the interfaith work I do. Is it any wonder that those who feel called to such interfaith exploration often decide they must abandon the religion of their upbringing?
Interfaith dialogue often happens on the institutional level, as leaders of different religious bodies (like the Pope or the Dalai Lama) reach out to one another. But such reaching out is also happening among laypersons. Wayne Teasdale coined the word "interspirituality" to describe this from-the-ground-up movement of laypersons seeking the wisdom of religions other than their own.
If religious leaders are unhappy about how many people identify as SBNR, perhaps a new category of religious/spiritual experience is necessary. I'd like to propose that churches and other faith groups should encourage people to be "interspiritual but not irreligious." To be IBNI means remaining rooted in one particular faith, usually (but not necessarily) the faith of one's upbringing. But such roots need not impede the creative exploration of multiple wisdom traditions, which can take many forms: reading about different faiths; forging authentic, non-proselytizing friendships with those who practice a different religion; or even engaging in interfaith-friendly practices such as meditation or yoga. Religions that can offer hospitality to persons who feel called to interspirituality may find they will lose fewer members to the SBNR path.
I realize that many believers (of all faiths) will dismiss this idea as unthinkable. Like my aforementioned acquaintance, they will say I should be ashamed of myself for even thinking like this. But interspirituality is not going to go away. As faith communities face declining membership levels, perhaps acknowledging a broader vision for what it means to be spiritual and religious is worth exploring.