Are You Spiritual But Not Religious?
January 1, 2017
If you identify as “spiritual but not religious,” you are not alone.
Do you know there’s now an acronym for that?
It’s called S.B.N.R., and it’s a new buzzword that signals a growing trend
By Terri Daniel, DMin, CT.
As more and more Americans relinquish specific religious identities in favor of being “Spiritual But Not Religious,” the movement has earned its own acronym… SBNR. Along with the designation of SBNR, two additional categories have emerged known as “none” (no particular religious affiliation) and ”done” (no longer affiliated).
The rise of “Nones, Dones and SBNRs” (N/D/SBNR) in America’s spiritual landscape is a source of heated debate in many theological circles, and as one might expect, opinions are often divided along party lines. Conventional religious communities think it’s unacceptable to “cherry pick” spiritual ideas and cobble together a personal theology. But on the other side of the aisle, progressive thinkers can’t imagine relating to the divine any other way.
As an example of two vastly different views from noted theologians, Harvard Divinity professor Harvey Cox observes that “people are drawn more to the experiential than to the doctrinal elements of religion.” And in stark contrast, UCC minister Rev. Lillian Daniel disdainfully refers to SBNR theology as a “cheap god of self-satisfaction.” 
This paper explores a spectrum of beliefs, assumptions and attitudes about the N/D/SBNR movement, and examines the ways in which diverse congregations and communities engage with this emerging population.
Jesus was a “Done”
In a recent conversation with a group of chaplains in an online chat room, the question was posed, “How do you engage the None, Done and SBNR population?”
The answers included a full range of strategies, beliefs, assumptions and attitudes. On one end of the spectrum, Rev. Maggie Yenoki, a Unitarian minister, explained that she follows Unitarian Universalist principle #4, which upholds the idea of “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” which to Maggie, means respective any and all religious perspectives. On the other end of the spectrum, Rev. Lew Button, an evangelical minister, said, “We try to present the message without some of the things often associated with church.” When I asked him in a later interview what the message was, he replied, “It is all about Jesus”
From my perspective as a card-carrying SBNR, Lew’s response pinpointed the exact reason why so many Americans have moved away from traditional religious systems into the ambiguous zone known as Nones, Dones and SBNRs.
Because it is not all about Jesus for everyone.
As Putnam’s research noted, most of us now choose our religious preferences rather than inheriting them, and Putnam found that “Roughly half of white Americans have departed from their parents’ religious stance, either through switching to a different religious tradition or through lapsing into religious indifference.” If the goal is, as Unitarian principle #4 states, to focus on a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, then the shedding of inherited ideas is a step in the right direction. By contrast, religious models like Lew’s claim to be the exclusive keepers of a unique and absolute truth that should never be questioned.
The ambiguity of a spiritual rather that religious outlook can be uncomfortable for those steeped in creed-bound or bible-based religious views. As Cox points out, spirituality [vs. religiosity] is frequently perceived as dissent, and dissent has traditionally been discouraged by the church. But it’s important to recognize that Jesus himself was a dissenter. Even though he followed the customs of his Jewish heritage, his personal theology — as we understand it — was quite different than the beliefs held by the cult of Yahweh. While the god of the Hebrew scriptures was assumed to favor the nation of Israel and to stand against its enemies, Christianity changed the face of that god to one who accepted everybody, regardless of social status, nationality, religious community or gender.
It may be “all about Jesus” for Lew and his congregation, but Jesus was all about shaking up the popular faith of the day and challenging rules, laws and images of God that no longer served the population. It may even be accurate to say that Jesus was a “Done,” and the shake-up he instigated fed the roots of the faith embraced by the early Christians. The spiritually-spacious view of the N/D/SBNRs does not pose a threat to traditional faith, but instead, creates an opportunity to add meaning to mythology through teachings and practices that have more relevant, more personal application in today’s world. As Cox observes, Christianity is still alive and well, but is moving toward an acceptance of spiritual experience rather than unquestioned allegiance to creeds or hierarchies.
Is Organized Worship Necessary?
In the seminary course for which I originally wrote this paper, the professor asked the students to answer the question, “What are the people in my immediate area doing instead of attending worship?” To me, this question implied that attending worship in the traditional sense (Sunday church services) is somehow expected or normative, and I saw that expectation as a snapshot of life from the 1950s, a period that Putnam calls “the high tide of civic religion.” The idea that doing anything other than Christian worship on Sunday morning is indicative of moral turpitude is no longer sustainable in a world where meditation, multi-cultural exploration, art, social activism, engaging with nature, and various forms of self-care are understood as sacred practices. Many N/D/SBNRs find that the idea of God existing in all expressions of the cosmos and in all aspects of human experience is far more supportive of the whole self than following a prescribed worship routine.
Mercadante points out that SBNR thinking “relocates authority from external to internal.” Instead of being separate from the energetic force known as God, we are actually part of it, and can take it with us wherever we go. Instead of God directing us from afar, it is a two-way conversation in which energy flows to us from a divine source, but also emanates from us back to that source, which makes every experience an act of co-creation and personal responsibility. Instead of fearful deference to an all-powerful ruler, the N/D/SBNR population is looking for something more life-affirming and more nurturing than what Matthew Fox describes as “a barbaric god and a world full of humans who are little more than guilt-filled creatures.”
As Drescher observes, N/D/SBNRs do not want to be “captured” by church communities. They are more interested in being than in believing, and do not require a statement of faith or a lifelong commitment to something that by its very nature is dynamic and mutable. In regard to how established churches should interact with N/D/SBNRs, Drescher suggests, “We have to think hard about how we can sustain relationships with people who are stopping in, not seeing them as potential members, but as whole human beings.”
What does “stopping in” look like for churches trying to reach out to N/D/SBNRs?
One Presbyterian church in my progressive California neighborhood added yoga and meditation classes to its weekly calendar, hung Buddhist prayer flags in the tree outside the church, and started serving cookies and coffee to passers-by on Saturday mornings. While this program brought people in to the yoga classes and created opportunities for conversation on the front lawn, the church pastor lamented that nobody actually came into the church. From my perspective as an SBNR, the issue is not about whether a church offers yoga classes, welcomes the GLBTQ community or serves organic fair trade coffee. It’s more about the need to renovate a stale old theology that is no longer workable for critical thinkers. Passers-by may enjoy chatting with their neighbors over coffee and yoga, but they don’t want to be proselytized. They want to be respected for the path they are on, rather than being told that their path is the wrong one.
Putnam observed that the majority of the non-religious in America were raised in religious homes, and more than half had some sort of religious education as children. While a basic religious education and familiarity with cultural norms and traditions contributes to a well-rounded perspective, some forms of religious inculcation can be severely wounding, causing someone to run in terror from anything resembling a religious system. One example is Nate Phelps, who is the son of noted evangelical extremist Fred Phelps, founder of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church and the “God Hates Fags” movement. Nate fled the cult on his 18th birthday in 1976, and went on to form a group called Recovering From Religion, which offers a comprehensive set of resources and support tools for those questioning or leaving their faith.
While leaving spirituality (vs. religion) behind may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, Nate Phelps and others who recognize the dangers of bad theology are in good company. Episcopal priest Matthew Fox proposed a “new reformation” in 2005 when he published his 95 Theses or Articles of Faith for a Christianity for the Third Millennium and tacked it to the door of the Wittenberg church where Martin Luther displayed his original 95 Theses in the 16th century. Fox rejected concepts like original sin, eternal punishment and a humanoid god who has an opinion about how we behave, and replaced them with a god that is more spiritual than religious. A sampling from Fox’s theses includes: 
. The notion of a punitive, all-male God is contrary to the full nature of the Godhead who is as much female and motherly as it is masculine and fatherly.
. Religion is not necessary, but spirituality is.
. Ideology is not theology, and ideology endangers the faith because it replaces thinking with obedience, and distracts from the responsibility of theology to adapt the wisdom of the past to today’s needs. Instead of theology it demands loyalty oaths to the past.
. God speaks today as in the past through all religions and all cultures and all faith traditions, none of which is perfect and an exclusive avenue to truth, but all of which can learn from each other.
Fox’s views exemplify what the N/D/SBNRs are striving for… a new definition of the divine based on inclusion, ethics and love (both brotherly and universal). In a Christian context, that would include everything that Jesus taught, but does not necessarily include dysfunctional doctrines created by the church.
A 2010 survey by the Barna Group estimates that “by the end of the next decade, 40% of all church-attending Christians will be worshipping God outside the parameters of a traditional congregational context.” Spirituality is an expression of our relationship with unseen forces in the non-physical world, and as humanity evolves, that relationship evolves too. It is not possible for that relationship to be stagnant, because nothing in the universe is stagnant.
As someone who chooses to respect the innate wisdom of the soul over the doctrines of men, I prefer to think that we are all guided by an inner compass that directs our spiritual leanings, and each of us is on a unique spiritual growth trajectory. This is true for individuals and their spiritual paths, but also true for communities, organizations, cultures and nations. Spiritual awareness and our understanding of the divine is a dynamic process, constantly changing and constantly subject to review and adjustment.
Consider the way we receive religious teachings as children, and how, as we mature, our critical thinking skills help us discern what makes sense and what does not. Children raised in the Abrahamic tradition are told biblical stories and given images of God that usually translate, in the mind of a five-year old, as an invisible but all-powerful parent figure that watches over humanity and uses magical powers to make things happen. According to Fowler’s research, as a child moves through the developmental stages during its lifespan, these images may change from an immature depiction of the spiritual world to one in which there is a more universal awareness of divine presence and cultural influences beyond family, church and community. I suggest that this developmental progression applies to communities and cultures as well as individuals.
Bass points out that spiritual awakening “is the work of learning to see differently.”  The N/D/SBNRs are doing that work, and their new way of seeing is paving the way to new ways of knowing God and understanding our place in the universe.
Bass, D.B. Christianity after Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. New York: HarperOne, 2012.
Button, Lew. “Engaging Nones, Dones and SBNRs.” Email interview, January 19, 2017.
Cox, H. The Future of Faith. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2009.
Daniel, L. When “Spiritual but Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church. New York, NY: Jericho: Books, 2013.
Daniel, T. How Does Your Congregation Reach out to These Groups, 2017.
Darling, Laura. “Listening to the Nones.” Listening to the Nones, May 23, 2013. Accessed January 13, 2017. http://www.confirmnotconform.com/blog/listening-nones-interview-elizabeth-drescher.
Fowler, J.W. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. San: Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981.
Fox, M. “ARTICLES OF FAITH FOR A CHRISTIANITY FOR THE THIRD MILLENNIUM.” Welcome from Matthew Fox. Accessed August 26, 2018. http://www.matthewfox.org/95-theses/.
Fox, M. A New Reformation: Creation Spirituality and the Transformation of Christianity. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2006.
Fox, M. “Progressing Spirit.” Responding to Bishop Spong’s 12 Principles and the Future of Religion, October 6, 2016. https://progressingspirit.com/2016/10/06/responding-to-bishop-spongs-12-principles-and-the-future-of-religion/.
Mercadante, L.A. Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but Not Religious. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Putnam, R.D., and D.E. Campbell. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.
“Recovering from Religion.” https://www.recoveringfromreligion.org/resources/.
Spong, J.S. Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. San Francisco, CA: Harper San: Francisco, 1998.
Tickle, P. Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters. Grand Rapids. MI: Baker Books, 2012.
“Unitarian Universalism’s Seven Principles.” UUA.Org. Last modified November 24, 2014. https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles.
Yenoki, Maggie. “Unitarian Principles.” Telephone interview, January 14, 2017.
 H. Cox, The Future of Faith (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2009).13.
 L. Daniel, When “Spiritual but Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church (New York, NY: Jericho: Books, 2013). 10
 “Unitarian Universalism’s Seven Principles,” UUA.Org, last modified November 24, 2014, https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles.
 Button, Lew, “Engaging Nones, Dones and SBNRs,” Email interview, January 19, 2017
 R.D. Putnam and D.E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010). 159.
 H. Cox, The Future of Faith (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2009). 23.
 J.S. Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile (San Francisco, CA: Harper San: Francisco, 1998). 47
 Gal. 3:28, Revised Standard Version.
 H. Cox, The Future of Faith (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2009). 8
 R.D. Putnam and D.E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010). 82.
 L.A. Mercadante, Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but Not Religious (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). 192.
 Matthew Fox, “Progressing Spirit,” Responding to Bishop Spong’s 12 Principles and the Future of Religion, October 6, 2016, https://progressingspirit.com/2016/10/06/responding-to-bishop-spongs-12-principles-and-the-future-of-religion/.
 Darling, Laura, “Listening to the Nones,” Listening to the Nones, May 23, 2013, accessed January 13, 2017, http://www.confirmnotconform.com/blog/listening-nones-interview-elizabeth-drescher;
 R.D. Putnam and D.E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010). 147
 Matthew 28:19
 Button, Lew, “Engaging Nones, Dones and SBNRs,” Email interview, January 19, 2017;
 Maggie Yenoki. “Unitarian Principles.” Telephone interview, January 14, 2017.
 L.A. Mercadante, Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but Not Religious (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). 206.
 P. Tickle, Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters. Grand Rapids (MI: Baker Books, 2012). 183.
 J.W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (San: Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981);
 D.B. Bass, Christianity after Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (New York: HarperOne, 2012). 220.