What Do The “Spiritual But Not Religious” Really Believe?

In her new book, Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious, Linda A. Mercadante attempts to find out. Kristin Aune runs down the essentials of “SBNRs”:

[Mercadante] explores their thoughts on transcendence, human nature, community and afterlife and finds that they don’t believe in an interventionist or personal God (if “God” exists, they think God is part of creation, not separate from it). As for human nature, they don’t see themselves as sinners needing salvation, but as “inherently good” selves needing freedom and choice so that their “purity, even divinity” can shine.

This focus on the self affects their view of community. “Many interviewees did much more than just ‘question authority’,” Mercadante says. “Instead, they relocated it within, relativized it to each person, and detached it from any particular spirituality community.” Some belonged to recovery groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, but none had a longstanding affiliation with a spiritual community. This makes it hard for them to sustain shared group beliefs or behaviour, and Mercadante thinks it impedes their ability to benefit society.

On life after death, SBNRs share ground with Hindu beliefs, reflecting what Colin Campbell calls “the Easternization of the West”. Most believe in reincarnation and “karma, endless opportunities, inevitable progress, expanding consciousness, and the very American ideal of free will and personal choice”. Their optimism is clear: reincarnations will be better, not worse, than their previous life. Actions have consequences, but only positive ones.

In a recent column on the subject, Mark Oppenheimer depicts Mercadante as pushing back against claims that SBNR thinking leans shallow and unserious, noting that “she makes the case that spiritual people can be quite deep theologically” (NYT):

An ordained Presbyterian minister whose father was Catholic and whose mother was Jewish, Dr. Mercadante went through a spiritual but not religious period of her own — although she now attends a Mennonite church. For her project, she … found that these spiritual people also thought about death, the afterlife and other profound subjects.

For example, “they reject heaven and hell, but they do believe in an afterlife,” Dr. Mercadante said recently. “In some ways, they would fit O.K. in a progressive Christian context.” Because they dislike institutions, the spiritual but not religious also recoil from the deities such institutions are built around. “They may like Jesus, he might be their guru, he might be one of their many bodhisattvas, but Jesus as God is not on their radar screen,” Dr. Mercadante said.

While she was writing the book in 2012, Mercadante gave an interview in which she addressed the role of stereotypes involved in these discussions:

I think it does come, in part, from portrayals of conservative Christianity in the media, as some kind of hegemonic, monolithic authority. This whole thing is fraught with stereotypes. Most people don’t take the time to listen to each other, to ask questions. There are terrible misconceptions on both sides, as to what Christians are, and what SBNRs are. SBNRs see “religion” as the external structure and the dogma, whereas “spirituality” is the individual’s personal experiences of transcendence. That definition really is not an accurate portrayal of religion or of spirituality. Nevertheless, the majority of my interviewees insist that spirituality is the personal center and quest for an individual, whereas religion is something external, rule-ridden and institutional. In their thinking, religion is nothing more than a dispensable shell.