An Atheist’s take on “spiritual but not religious”

Tom Shakespeare has an interesting article on the BBC, where as the atheist that he is, he proposes a critique of “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) and humanism. For Tom, the informal beliefs and creeds of SBNR are even more impossible to embrace than those of organized religion. Humanism (no organized religion nor belief in anything) is even more empty. Since Tom’s self acknowledged scientism (“But I don’t 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”) does not permit him to believe in God, he proposes being religious but not spiritual. Religion offers community and connection, something deeply missed in modern life. Tom would like to have the benefits of religion but not really believe what unites everyone there in the first place.

While intellectually honest, this proposal does seem quite disingenuous at a deeper existential level. At the end of the day, can you truly build deep relationships with people who actually congregate there because of their belief in God? 
Belief in God will probably urge the flock to embrace such a person, but disbelief simply prevents the deepest unity. When we consider a key principle that guides the liturgy for example, that it is for God before anything else, a non-believers participation for other motives seems to be missing the point. Of course there is a social characters, but this derives from the fundamental character which is the belief in God – were it not for God, no one else would be there.
Here is a quote from Ratzinger:

“The Church is not born as a simple federation of communities. Her birth begins with the one bread, with the one Lord and from him from the beginning and everywhere, the one body which derives from the one bread. She becomes one not through a centralized government but through a common centre open to all, because it constantly draws its origin from a single Lord, who forms her by means of the one bread into one body. Because of this, her unity has a greater depth than that which any other human union could ever achieve. Precisely when the Eucharist is understood in the intimacy of the union of each person with the Lord, it becomes also a social sacrament to the highest degree.” The greatest human union comes from the reality of God. Perhaps the most genuine procedure for Tom, and others like him, would be to challenge their scientism in order to be both spiritual and religious.

This synthesis of both, is as Tom himself acknowledges, the Catholic position. And while RBNS is novel, probably SBNR will continue to be much more popular among the masses. SBNR has several problems attached to it, as this other article illustrates:

In the US, a Newsweek survey in 2005 put the figure at a quarter. Asurvey in October by the Pew Research Center suggested a lower figure with a fifth of people religiously unaffiliated and 37% of those regarding themselves as spiritual but not religious.

King’s research suggested that in the UK the “spiritual” group are more likely to have mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression.

The comedian David Mitchell mocked the tendency, writing a columnimagining a spiritual summer camp. “From reflexology to astrology, from ghosts to homeopathy, from wheat intolerance to ‘having a bad feeling about this’, we’ll be celebrating all the wild and wonderful sets of conclusions to which people the world over are jumping to fill the gap left by the retreat of organised religion.”

Alan Miller, director of the thinkers’ forum NY Salon, wrote that “‘spiritual but not religious’ offers no positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind”.

Another group of people likely to be dismissive towards the “spiritual but not religious” mindset might come from organised religion.

“People have wanted to see how they fit into the big picture, which is really fantastic,” says Brian Draper, associate member of faculty at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. But there’s a smorgasbord-like array of beliefs and many are built on “pseudo-science”, he argues.

“I don’t just choose spirituality as a lifestyle choice to enhance what’s there, there’s an element of self sacrifice to Christianity. The danger is you use spirituality as a pick and mix from consumer culture.”

And for SBNR, we my think how important it is what Pope Francis is doing, putting a more human face on organized religion and showing its positive side.


One thought on “An Atheist’s take on “spiritual but not religious”

  1. Interesting discussion. When I hear the term being spiritual but not religious two things come to mind. The first is that one who says they are spiritual but not religious may still be searching for he or she has not found a religion that can serve as a foundation for belief. Secondly is that when I hear someone talk of being spiritual but not religious their sense of spirituality seems highly self centered. In terms of Christianity, it is a “we” religion not a “me” religion. We come to faith or “spirituality” in community just as it was for the Apostles. Christianity is not a spiritual philosophy or academic belief system – it is a way of life and in fact in the early years it was called “the Way”. I view spirituality as “relationship” – a relationship with Christ and with others.
    I believe a formal religion is necessary for true spirituality by answering three “spiritual” questions: 1) What are we to believe? Religion provides answers with doctrine and instruction to know about God and creation. 2) How are we to act? Religion offers moral responsibilities that follow from belief. 3) How can we experience God and the infinite? Religion provides rituals and especially the sacraments all within a communal context.

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