A recent op-ed piece on CNN by Alan Miller critiques the trend of people identifying themselves as spiritual, rather than of a specific denomination. It’s an interesting position:
The increasingly common refrain that “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” represents some of the most retrogressive aspects of contemporary society. The spiritual but not religious “movement” – an inappropriate term as that would suggest some collective, organizational aspect – highlights the implosion of belief that has struck at the heart of Western society.
Spiritual but not religious people are especially prevalent in the younger population in the United States, although a recent study has argued that it is not so much that people have stopped believing in God, but rather have drifted from formal institutions.
It seems that just being a part of a religious institution is nowadays associated negatively, with everything from the Religious Right to child abuse, back to the Crusades and of course with terrorism today.
Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling the notion that by being independent – by choosing an “individual relationship” to some concept of “higher power”, energy, oneness or something-or-other – they are in a deeper, more profound relationship than one that is coerced via a large institution like a church.
That attitude fits with the message we are receiving more and more that “feeling” something somehow is more pure and perhaps, more “true” than having to fit in with the doctrine, practices, rules and observations of a formal institution that are handed down to us. The trouble is 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.
Miller doesn’t pull punches. To call anyone’s beliefs retrogressive in a first sentence is not a invitation from an open mind. I don’t know what an implosion of belief would be like, but I assume he’s trying to say fewer people believe in what he believes, and that’s bad.
Yet the spiritual-but-not-religious outlook sees the human as one that simply wants to experience “nice things” and “feel better.” There is little of transformation here and nothing that points to any kind of project that can inspire or transform us.
At the heart of the spiritual but not religious attitude is an unwillingness to take a real position…
Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either. Take a stand, I say. Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action? Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide.
I agree with Miller than having conviction is good. Until you are fully committed to an idea or belief you can’t fully understand it. However beliefs shouldn’t be formed merely because someone in authority told you to believe something. I don’t think it is a real position for someone to be told their beliefs from the day they are born, with intense social and familial pressure not to question that belief. To take a real position means you have made a real, free choice. But we don’t chose our parents and few of us chose our religions. I’m happy to critique the “I am spiritual crowd” for their lack of conviction if the same critique applies to everyone who didn’t choose their religion or belief system.
My fantasy is everyone should learn about every major belief. At least a handful of different ones. Each belief can even be taught by a leader from that denomination. The ‘student’ learns about them all and is free to make comparisons and ask questions on their own terms. No matter what they decided, they’d actually be making a choice, even if it was to believe what their parents do. Few religions would agree to this as it raises too many questions they are afraid to answer.
Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I agree at least that examination can help figure out what worth means. If we critique the unexamined spiritualists, we must critique the unexamined faithful, and faithless, too.