Anyone who has filled out an online profile in the last decade is no doubt familiar with the little box under the category “Religion” that allows readers to identify themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” It is a trendy way to say, “I care, but not in a dogmatic, legalistic way.” It’s the ultimate in PoMo chic. (That’s “postmodern,” for any of you aging hipsters still trying to catch up with the lingo.)
An entire generation is growing up with the perception that somehow “spirituality” is good, but “religion” is bad. (Cue the popular—but incredibly inaccurate—argument that most of the wars in history have been fought over religion.) Spirituality takes on an amorphous quality, finding its definition solely in the mind of the one identifying themselves as such. Who can object to being somehow “spiritually aware”? It’s not like you’re imposing your beliefs on someone else like those nasty religious types.
But is there a danger to being “SBNR”? Jesuit priest James Martin says “yes.” Quoted in an article on CNN’s website, Father Martin claims that is a manifestation of a self-centeredness that is pervasive in Western culture. "Being spiritual but not religious can lead to complacency and self-centeredness. If it's just you and God in your room, and a religious community makes no demands on you, why help the poor?"
As if to prove his point, the article quotes a young professional and former Buddhist, who says, "I had this revelation that I bow to no one, and I've been spiritually a much happier person." The statement itself is a remarkable display of self-absorption, and identifies the ultimate belief of many SBNRers—that spiritual independence will lead to personal happiness. Somewhat ironically, this person claims to be a Taoist, belonging to a system that the article describes as “a religious practice from ancient China that emphasizes the unity of humanity and the universe.”
Another professional, a writer at the Huffington Post (no, not Pat Nolan), speaks—approvingly—about adopting a “Burger King spirituality—have it your way.” She points to twelve-step programs as a model community that “avoids all the pitfalls of organized religion.”
But what are the pitfalls of a society full of unorganized spirituality? Are there any, and how do they compare to those of our religious ancestors? Let the discussion begin.