Attack of the Spiritual But Not Religious

Alan Miller's Oct. 2 post, "Spiritual But Not Religious: The Worst of All Worlds," returns to an ongoing theme that Lillian Daniel raised in her much talked about piece last year. He asserts that such people -- let's call them SBNRs for short -- adopt what he sees as the worst part of religion, namely superstition, without also adopting what he sees as the best parts: "hard work, diligence and observation." (I'm certain that not all religious people would agree that these are the best parts, but let's just go with it for now.)

Though secular people represent a minority of the 7+ billion people on earth, Miller is absolutely correct that there are some folks in secular societies who view religion with outright hostility. This is especially true of the highly intolerant New Atheism, which gets its fire from being deliberately anti-religious. He is also correct that current scandals in various organized religions, together with the violent histories of those religions, have provided plenty of fuel for this fire. (Though in my long experience with both religion and the academic study of religion, I have found it far more common for non-religious people to look at religion with something between mild disdain and bored apathy.)

But Miller, like everyone else who disapproves of those who self-identify as SBNR, far too quickly dismisses them as lazy, superstitious and too young to know better. Such labels are convenient but they are based on unsubstantiated assumptions, passed down for decades since the label first became trendy, about selfish "me-me-me what-ever" people who won't just join a church already. (Meanwhile, "superstitious" has always been a favorite term of the intolerant; i.e., what I do is religion, what they do is superstition.) Does he know for a fact that people who go to yoga or meditation, but not church or synagogue, don't volunteer in their communities or donate money to charitable organizations? Does he know for a fact that they aren't committed to the non-religious institutions in their lives -- their families, their workplaces, their cities, their school systems? Does he know for a fact that, when/if they pray, they aren't praying to become less angry and more compassionate, so as to be a force for healing in the world rather than suffering? Does he know for a fact that they aren't careful in their consumer habits because they care about leaving a healthy future for other people's children? Does he know for a fact that they aren't affirming life with every one of their mindful, SBNR breaths?

Miller hopes for a humanist culture full of "inspiring alternatives" that "inspire and engage," and in which people's ethics and behaviors are built on, as he puts it, "something beyond themselves." It seems to me that this will require making room for SBNRs. Whether the "something beyond themselves" is God, society, the earth or karma, it is both unskillful and unfruitful to dismiss them outright, simply for not fitting in the boxes we have either inherited or designed. Such boxes generally rest on easy dualisms: true/false, intelligent/stupid, religious/not religious. "Come on, get off the fence! You either are or you aren't!" But which one of us believes our whole being can be summed up by checking one box or the other? The queer community has long since drawn male/female into question; and as one Catholic blogger recently noted, even Democrat/Republican, which seems like an easy choice to many people, does not provide a place for every American to stand. Of course we want people to fit into our boxes, and we are upset when they refuse, but that doesn't make it their problem.

Alan Miller defends the value of religious belief against the New Atheists, but seems to disapprove of all non-religious people who don't therefore embrace his particular alternative. This is perfectly natural -- most of us who care about anything deeply are wont to do the same. Yet Miller also invites us to join in vigorous discussion, debate and even battle! To this invitation I reply: The Spiritual But Not Religious are here to stay. Get used to it.