If you think you've heard it before, it's because it's everywhere.
“I’m not a religious person anymore, but I’ve learned that spiritual energy transcends religion, and that’s something I’ve attempted to incorporate into my music.”
As I read this personal confession from folk singer Noah Gundersen, something dawned on me: I’d heard these words before. Almost verbatim. But where?
Then I realized the startling answer: everywhere. I’d been hearing this testimony to the arias of spiritual open-mindedness precisely everywhere. The “spiritual but not religious” (or SBNR) movement – which emphasizes love, emotion, and belief in a “higher power” over churches, dogmas, and any specific religious conception of God – went and became the new normal before we even knew what to call it.
Just listen to these quotes from a dozen of the biggest names in music:
– Lady Gaga:
– Demi Lavato:
– Jay Z:
– Katy Perry:
– Mac Miller:
I would almost count it a breath of fresh air to hear some godless existentialism thrown in the mix: “I’m not really a religious person, but I do believe God is a delusion, free will is an illusion, and this universe we’ve been thrown into is an absurd carnival of waste, horror, and death.” (O, speak again, bright atheist!)
But SBNR increasingly seems to be the worldview that singers, rappers, and other artists are supposed to hold. It avoids the perceived hegemony of dogmatism and the callousness of materialism; it can’t say what’s true exactly, but won’t cede the notion of transcendence altogether – that something “out there” that grounds my “in here.” In short, it looks a lot like the dignified “middle way” between the new atheism and old-time religion.
Apparently, Millennials are in agreement, and art is only reflecting life. USA Today reported in 2010 that 72 percent of Millennials identify themselves as “more spiritual than religious,” and the Pew Research Center reported last year that the “nones” – people who do not subscribe to any particular religion, but also do not self-identify as an atheist or agnostic – continue to skyrocket in America.
But could it be that this “middle way” is a bill of goods?
In his book Bad Religion, NY Times columnist Ross Douthat cogently argues that an “Oprah-Chopra” spirituality of the “God Within” is nothing more than a quasi-Gnostic heresy, and that “nondenominational ministries, ‘spiritual but not religious’ pieties, and ancient heresies reinvented as self-help” are a mess of pottage the religious middle has gobbled up in exchange for its birthright. “God Within religion tends to be parasitic on more dogmatic forms of faith,” Douthat writes, “which create and sustain the practices that the spiritual-but-not-religious seeker picks and chooses from… The breadth of the God Within religion can represent a kind of shallowness, since real spiritual breakthroughs generally require a narrowing – the decision to pick a path and stick with it, rather than hopscotching around in search of a synthesis that ‘works for me.’”
Other cultural commentators from diverse backgrounds have made similar observations. Lillian Daniel at the Huffington Post calls SBNR a “bore,” arguing that true spiritual growth and awareness has to occur in the context of a community. Alan Miller – himself a secular humanist – goes further, arguing that SBNR is the “worst of all possible worlds” and a “cop-out.” “There is little of transformation here and nothing that points to any kind of project that can inspire or transform us,” Miller writes. Rabbi David Wolpe agrees: “Spirituality is an emotion; religion is an obligation. Spirituality soothes; religion mobilizes.”
Worse still, SBNR may be one big barrel of snake oil: one study shows that people professing to be spiritual but not religious are more likely to suffer from a mental illness.
But whether or not SBNR is harmful or helpful, the primary problem – and the heart of these critiques – is that SBNR is ultimately a self-directed philosophy, one that lacks the healthy checks and balances of community and tradition. As Fr. James Martin puts it: “Religion can provide a check against my tendency to think that I am the center of the universe, that I have all the answers, that I know better than anyone about God, and that God speaks most clearly through me.”
The most devastating critique of the apparent egocentrism of SBNR comes from David Bentley Hart in his essay, “Christ and Nothing,” which traces nebulous spiritualities to a broader historical current of the will to power:
Of course, none of this is to suggest that religion without spirituality, seeking, or doubt is the answer, or that any old religion will do. As Fr. Martin notes, “Religion without spirituality becomes a dry list of dogmatic statements divorced from the life of the spirit. This is what Jesus warned against. Spirituality without religion can become a self-centered complacency divorced from the wisdom of a community.”
In other words, religion without spirituality is just as much of a dead-end as spirituality without religion. Religion comes from the Latin for “binding,” spirituality from the Latin for “breath” – and don’t we need both to live?
But regardless of whether or not SBNR is tenable, one thing seems clear: if current trends continue, and the testimony of our cultural shapers continues to tilt away from traditional faiths, SBNR will soon be – or maybe already is – the boring new normal.
As for more rebellious Millennials, a millennia-old religion might just be the way to go.
Matthew Becklo is a husband and father-to-be, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.