27 May 2014

It is fashionable to criticise Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) people for having no community, nor commitment, nor social engagement. But this is based on a misperception and stereotyping.

The current spate of criticism derives from the findings of the Pew Forum that a substantial percentage of US citizens now designate themselves as SBNR. www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/

The criticisms are exemplified recently in articles by Rabbi David Wolpe in Time Magazine ideas.time.com/2013/03/21/viewpoint-the-problem-with-being-spiritual-but-not-religious/ and on the BBC website by Quaker Tom Shakespeare www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-27554640

The misperception is understandable because prominent aspects of the SBNR culture can be seen as quick-fix spirituality, focused on personal gratification and to lack values. Make me healthy, successful and beautiful.

But this glamour is only the showbiz tip of the iceberg. It is an easy and inaccurate target. It is stereotyping similar to damning Christianity because of some abusive clerics.

SBNR people tend to be deeply engaged in action and caring. In his book Blessed Unrest for example Paul Hawken describes a global movement of thousands of non-profit activist organisations many of them fuelled by SBNR people. It would be interesting to research how many of the activists in for example Greenpeace or Occupy are SBNR. Are these not substantial, ethical and activist communities?

When I ran the Alternatives Programme for a decade at St. James’s Church in London I was simultaneously running a drop-in centre for teenagers with special needs and adults returning to learning. My team at the church, all of us SBNR, consisted mainly of professional carers and educators.

There is also this stereotyping of SBNR people as having no discipline or true commitment. How on earth do the critics know this other than from an impression? SBNR people are, I suggest, as disciplined or undisciplined as any other human beings, especially those of traditional faiths.

The reality I suggest is that religious adherents do not like the way in which SBNRs feel free to wander beyond the usual boundaries. SBNR types like to explore the different tools and concepts that can be found in all spiritual traditions. They do not adhere to one single belief. And why should they? This is the modern world. Why on earth would any autonomous adult want to stay within the confines of one knowledge tradition or belief community without assessing and incorporating what is useful in others?