Linda Mercadante is the B. Robert Straker Professor of Historical Theology at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. She is also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Her latest research on the beliefs of the spiritual but not religious (SBNR) earned her the Henry Luce III Fellowship in Theology, and has been published in her latest book, Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual But Not Religious (Oxford University Press, 2014). A recent New York Times article also highlights Linda’s work on this topic.
Linda was a resident scholar at the Collegeville Institute in 1991/92 and again in 1998/99, and she has visited the Collegeville Institute several times as a short-term scholar. Janel Kragt Bakker spoke with Linda by phone about what she has learned from interviews with hundreds of SBNRs.
You asked religious “nones” to explain their own views, beliefs, and experiences. Why did you undertake such a project? Is this project related to your own biography?
I come from a mixed faith, but non-practicing, family. My mother was Jewish and my father was a Roman Catholic Italian immigrant. When they married they chose not to practice their religions, because they felt their religions rejected their love and their marriage. They chose to put religion on the back shelf in the closet, like a wedding gift they had no use for. My home was like a “no religion zone,” where you checked your religion at the door. I, like many children, was naturally spiritual. I was very curious about spiritual and religious things—God, life, death—I was the kind of person who becomes a theologian. To me, it was a great burden not to have any answers to my questions and to have no one to even hear my questions.
As a child I chose to become Roman Catholic, and I gained a lot from this choice. But when I got a little older I shed my childhood religion. Eventually, I made my way to atheism. Yet atheism, for me, turned out to be quite unsatisfactory. I found it quite a burden to be an atheist, to live without purpose or meaning in the universe. (Atheists disagree with me on this score, but that is how I saw it.) So I became a sort of seeker. I started trying all sorts of things: alternative spirituality, Eastern religions—I tried everything. Eventually, I went hitchhiking in Europe on a spiritual journey, frustrated that I wasn’t “landing” anywhere. As I traveled through Europe I came across a community of evangelicals in Switzerland who seemed progressive and radical, yet grounded in their faith. I ended up having a conversion of spirit there and became an evangelical Protestant. I later made my way to mainline Protestantism and became a Presbyterian minister and theologian. While I got a lot out of each leg of my spiritual journey, I needed a center for my life, and I ultimately committed my life to Christ. But I’ve retained an affinity for spiritual seekers and sojourners of all types.
During my sabbatical at the Collegeville Institute in the early 1990s, I began writing a book on addiction and recovery, called Victims and Sinners: Spiritual Roots of Addiction and Recovery. While I was doing research for this book, I began hearing the term “spiritual but not religious,” as people described themselves at addiction recovery meetings. Since the 90s, the SBNR phenomenon has grown exponentially.
I started listening to what people in the church were saying about SBNRs (though no one called them SBNRs at that point). I heard a lot of stereotypes that didn’t fit with my experience of SBNRs I met at retreat centers, addiction recovery meetings, and other places. People in the church were often saying that SBNRs had no belief system, tended toward narcissism, didn’t think logically, and so forth. As a retreat junkie, this perception of SBNRs didn’t seem accurate to me.
I decided to conduct a survey of SBNRs, which I thought would be a small project. But the project grew and grew. And as I researched, I discovered that most of the stereotypes of SBNR people were indeed wrong. I had to write about what I learned so that people would know that these are thoughtful, concerned persons who deserved to be heard.
You mention in your book that the dominant rhetoric of SBNR people is that belief is unimportant. Given this rhetoric, why did you decide to focus specifically on the beliefs of SBNR people in your study?
I know that my approach was counter-intuitive, and I did worry that focusing on beliefs (over practices or other markers of religiosity) would seem like a really Protestant thing to do and would be misunderstood. But as I hung out with SBNR people at retreat centers, yoga classes, and meditation rooms, I was hearing a lot about beliefs. Not only were they interested in belief, but they were hungry to talk about their beliefs and were not finding opportunities to do so. Another reason I chose to focus on beliefs was that there seemed to be widespread agreement that beliefs were a mostly un-researched area for this population. So I knew that from a scholarly perspective, my work could make a contribution to the research on this particular group. Finally, as a theologian and as a religious believer myself, I knew belief is an integral part of making meaning in life, and you can’t get away from it.
Some scholars have argued that SBNR people are retaining traditional beliefs but have shied away from religious belonging. You disagree. Why?
LM: Grace Davie, a British sociologist, uses the term “believing without belonging” to describe the posture of many religiously unaffiliated people. But the SBNR people I interviewed were quite the opposite. I found that they were specifically rejecting certain beliefs that they associated with Christianity. So rather than maintaining traditional beliefs but keeping them at home, so to speak, they were actively rejecting Christian beliefs. Of course there are still echoes and residues of a Christian heritage among SBNR people, but I found that almost all the people I interviewed rejected certain views that are central to Christianity. Unfortunately, surveys that put belief in God in the U.S. around the 90th percentile fail to reflect these theological nuances.
So what common beliefs did you find among SBNR people, and how do these beliefs differ from Christian beliefs?
First of all, SBNRs view the universe in immanent terms. Meaning and purpose do not come from some transcendent source separate from or beyond the universe; instead, people must create their own meaning and purpose. Along these lines, SBNR people tend to conceive of transcendence horizontally rather than vertically. Instead of reaching out toward God or some other notion of ontological reality beyond the material world, SBNR people tend to seek transcendence through others, the world, community, nature, and so on. While SBNRs generally agree that the universe is closed, they long for more. So they try to allow for this “more” within an immanent reality.
SBNRs are not traditionally theistic. They dislike even the word “God’ and almost never use it. While SBNRs typically reject any sort of notion of an interventionist God who is outside the universe, they make up for that loss of vertical transcendence by embracing forces and energies. These forces and energies are impersonal, but are benevolent in that they exist and can be used for one’s benefit. The SBNRs I interviewed were very American in that they highly valued freedom, progress, and self-determination. In some ways, SBNRs have replaced one authority with another authority rather than overthrowing all authority. They really aren’t nihilists or atheists. They have just replaced the authority associated with traditional religion with the authority of humanism and other forms of horizontal transcendence.
You hone in on four themes in the worldviews of SBNR people: the sacred, human nature, community, and the afterlife. Why these four themes?
These themes seem to get at the main questions that trouble humans and require answers. Is there anything beyond myself? Is anything sacred? Who am I as a human, and what are my potentialities and limitations? How determined are my choices—do I have free will? Am I on this journey in life alone? How much am I a self-enclosed being, and how much am I open to others? What happens after death? Is there anything afterward? These are the kinds of questions human beings ask even if they don’t consider themselves religious.
You found more commonality among SBNR people than some might expect. What did your interviewees have in common with regard to their beliefs?
Part of what they have in common was what they’ve decided to reject: institutional religion, an interventionist God (and in particular a male interventionist God), traditional ideas of heaven and hell, certainty, human nature as fallen, and even the notion of sin. Rejecting these theological ideas was almost universal among my interviewees. It was amazing how much they shared when it came to their rejection of traditional religious ideas.
But not only did they tend to agree on what they rejected; they also agreed on much of what they affirmed. Almost all of the interviewees had a therapeutic understanding of spirituality—that the purpose of spirituality is self-healing. They agreed that de-traditioning is the right path for spiritual growth, and they mostly agreed that nature is the source of spirituality. Most were perennialists in that they felt that all religions either get things partly right and partly wrong, or all religions essentially teach the same thing. My interviewees were quite happy to mix and match their beliefs and practices. In fact, many were rather proud of not committing to any one group—I call it the “righteousness of not belonging.” All my interviewees immediately agreed that humans are inherently good, and while many rejected the notion of sin, they embraced something like karma to maintain a sense of justice. Their beliefs on the afterlife diverged, but many believed in reincarnation. Some thought people who die get recycled into the earth, but many hoped for something more.
Many beliefs of SBNRs haven’t yet been fully conceptualized or articulated, but it’s a work in progress. This work is often done by people in small groups or alone, so I don’t think we are going to see anything like confessions or doctrinal statements among this group. There are certain books and teachers that are popular among the SBNR, but no common canon or authority. A lot of the beliefs of SBNR people are “in the air,” being distilled by popular writers and passed around orally.
How are spiritual but not religious people misunderstood by church people?
I mentioned earlier that some church people are quick to stereotype SBNRs as unsophisticated or self-indulgent. And if we want to have a dialogue—maintaining that we each have something to contribute to the conversation—we can’t stay on the sidelines and stereotype each other. In addition to misrepresenting what SBNR people believe, church people can also fall into a mea culpa attitude toward the SBNR. They ask: What did we do to hurt them? What did we do to drive them away? Most of the time, especially among the younger contingent, SBNRs have had so little religious experience that even if we were trying to hurt them, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity because they never darkened the door of a church.
We really can’t afford that paralyzing guilt now. We Protestants and Catholics are good at blaming ourselves—while often being defensive at the same time—but this is unproductive. It is better to try to really listen to them. Stereotyping them as spiritual lightweights or narcissists is disrespectful, and usually unfair. It’s also important for religious people to understand that many SBNRs are not seekers and do not fit this traditional category. We may think that all humans are seeking something. Even if that is true, most SBNRs are not looking for a religious home.
What do SBNR people have in common with church people?
Interestingly, I think we have a lot in common. In some ways we all live in a disenchanted world. We are never going back to the Medieval period where unbelief was unthinkable. None of us believe in what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls an enchanted universe. Belief is now a choice for all of us. Another commonality is that we all tend to take a therapeutic approach to faith. Most of us see ourselves on a path of self-improvement. We think that spiritual life is really more about us than it is about God; it’s about God helping us get better and better more than it’s about God’s larger plan. And then all of us emphasize freedom, choice, and voluntary association. So Christians are not exactly like SBNRs, but there are lots of shared assumptions and beliefs.
You contend that we are witnessing the emergence of a potential theology, or even a metanarrative among the SBNR. Will the SBNR form a new religion?
On one hand, there is a lot of agreement among the SBNR in terms of belief—not 100 percent agreement, but of course theological convictions are diverse among any religious group. From that perspective, it’s possible that something along the lines of a religion could form among the SBNR. On the other hand, because of the anti-institutional bent of the SBNR, I don’t think that’s likely. While they aren’t opposed to all institutions in that they pay their taxes and sign up for health insurance, SBNR people generally say that religious institutions are not necessary for spiritual growth. And in practice, I find them to be “revolving door” sort of people when it comes to spirituality. They may connect to spiritual or religious groups intermittently for specific purposes, but they are not interested in long-term commitment to particular religious institutions. They are not against community, but they see community as adjunct to spiritual growth—useful on an as-needed basis—rather than essential. Because of their attitudes toward religious organizations, I think it will be unlikely that they will create a new religion. They would have the theological building blocks to do so, but their ethical and spiritual objections to organized religion would get in the way.
How is the spiritual but not religious ethos changing our country?
I predict that we are going to continue to see a proliferation of spiritual options, and revolving door spirituality will remain common. Multiple religious belonging will also become more and more prevalent. People will identify as spiritually or religiously hybrid: Christian Buddhist, Jewish Christian, etc. What some people call inter-spirituality, which means trying to take on the best of everything, will also increase.
What concerns me most about the cultural shift toward a spiritual but not religious ethos is lack of attention to the common good. What will replace the church and other religious groups in terms of the responsibility they have assumed in society? Think about all the universities, institutes, soup kitchens, hospitals, and other entities that have been inspired by religious motivations and organized by religious groups. Religious institutions have played a major supporting role in American society. What are we going to do if we don’t have the resources or personnel to keep those activities going? These questions worry me.
Now of course something else could come up to take the place of organized religion in American society. In Europe, socialism has performed this role. But the United States does not have a socialist bent, so we would likely need something else to protect the common good. We are never going back to the enchanted universe of the Medieval period, and we are never going back to the 1950s, which some people perceive as the gold standard for American religion. So we need to look forward. As Christians we can either continue on the hyper-individualistic path that we are on, or we can find new ways to be community, and new ways for the church to be the body of Christ. We may find new ways to be Christian—ways in which our faith is more integrated into everyday life, as it was in the first century. We might even see a religious revival. It’s possible! It’s happened before and it could happen again. The church will and must change. But that’s the way it has always been.
In order to respond well to this new religious climate, the church might have to focus on belonging before believing. Rather than saying, “Do you believe what we believe? If so, sign on the dotted line,” we will have to integrate people in a fuller way, welcoming them into the community before we expect them to understand and articulate our beliefs. Along these lines, it’s my hope that we can return to a more sacramental and holistic view of religious life.