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Spiritual But Secular

The God-in-the-sunsets crowd is often the object of ridicule. What’s so wrong with sunsets?

By Anne Bokma

Pity the poor spiritual but not religious. They’re the one group everyone from respected religious leaders to diehard atheists likes to kick around. They represent a major shift in the religious landscape — an estimated 20 percent of the population, and growing. But while their numbers are on the rise, there’s no shortage of people eager to put them down.

Take Lillian Daniel, for starters. She’s the Chicago United Church of Christ minister credited with launching the SBNR backlash four years ago with her Huffington Post article “Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” The piece went viral, so she turned it into a book. (She’s been on the speaking circuit ever since.)

“On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is ‘spiritual but not religious,’” wrote Daniel. “Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo. Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets.”

She accuses the SBNR of self-centredness and casts them with “the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating.”

Rabbi David Wolpe echoed her sentiments in Time magazine when he called these spiritual seekers “narcissistic and solipsistic.” Being SBNR “demands no communal searching and struggle,” wrote the Los Angeles rabbi, named one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by the Jerusalem Post.

Researchers are even calling the SBNR’s sanity into question — a recent study in the British Journal of Psychiatry suggests the SBNR have more mental health problems than others. “People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder,” concluded the study’s authors.

But Scott Paeth, an associate professor of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago, says church leaders should be careful about criticizing those who have turned their backs on mainstream religion due in part to “hidebound conservatism,” homophobia and sexual abuse cover-ups. “To blame those who are motivated by a basically religious instinct but fail to find the communities designated as the arbiters of religious value to be worthwhile is to miss the fact that the real failure belongs to religious institutions themselves,” he writes.

Siobhan Chandler, a leading scholar on the SBNR and an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, notes that some of the criticism of the SBNR stems from the contempt many have for anything that smacks of “New Age.” But she says that in this case, the label is often wrongly applied. “If I had a toonie for every spiritual but not religious person I met who has told me ‘I’m not New Age,’ I’d have enough money to take an Eat Pray Love tour of Bali,” she writes in her blog, It’s All God. “More sophisticated people don’t want to be linked to [New Age]. In many cases it doesn’t accurately reflect their beliefs.”

Joan Reisman-Brill, a New Yorker who writes a weekly column for TheHumanist.com, says she’s been maligned by atheist readers who have taken issue with her SBNR status. “They accuse you of being weak-minded and not being a true atheist if you say you are spiritual,” she says. This attitude “infuriates” Reisman-Brill, who urges the SBNR not to be cowed by their attackers.

“Everyone who’s alive and sentient is probably spiritual to some degree . . . so don’t let any thought or vocabulary police — be they religious fanatics or fanatic atheists — keep you from embracing your spirituality.” And yes, she says, this holds true even if your spirituality involves swooning over sunsets, something Reisman-Brill does regularly at her beach house in the Hamptons.

“Frankly, I never get tired of them.” 

Anne Bokma is a journalist in Hamilton.

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