For weeks now, I have been composing a post in response to an article written about the “spiritual, but not religious.” Yet, my multiple starts did not have an ending or it read as a ramble about my beliefs. The article that caused me such writing strife, “My Take: ‘I’m spiritual, but not religious’ is a cop-out,” is by Alan Miller and is posted in the CNN Belief Blog.
I attempted to respond to Miller’s call for the “spiritual, but not religious” to make a choice. He sees the “movement,” a term he finds problematic, as reflecting a generation of individualism. Miller writes,“Moreover, the spiritual but not religious reflect the “me” generation of self-obsessed, truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking, where big, historic, demanding institutions that have expectations about behavior, attitudes and observance and rules are jettisoned yet nothing positive is put in replacement.”
I found this statement to be true, but upsetting. I agree that “my” generation is self-obsessed. (This is a generalization of those of us privileged to grow-up/live in a Western country & are between the ages of 18-30) We create our identities via Facebook, Twitter, and even blogs such as this; deleting and blocking at will what we find to be offensive or wrong. We advertise ourselves constantly, marketing our physical, intellectual, and fun qualities to have friends, mates, employers, and strangers “follow” and “like” us. Our lives center around how we “feel” and the world must contort to accommodate our feelings, exploiting the larger good for our personal sensibilities. Of course, I am an active participant in this self-centered phenomena, there is no denying that fact, because who doesn’t enjoy a little ego stroking? I agree with Miller that there is a growing tendency to boldly and loudly state what is wrong with an institution without offering solutions. It is as if we believe that the historical formation of the world should shift in a second because we have a problem, but would rather abandon it for something new than work for change. Yet, Miller’s comment unsettled me, because 1) he’s talking about me and 2) I read it as the culmination of a call for a simple “this-or-that” world.
In an individualistic plea, common to my Western generation, I wanted to shout, “Not me, Miller! That’s not me!” After calming my reactive sensibilities, I realized that I may be the exact person Miller discusses. I have struggled to identify my beliefs since I was in middle school. For many years, I proudly announced I was “spiritual, but not religious.” Then something about that expression did not sit well with me, so I resorted to keeping silent. If questioned, my response was “I don’t know.” I was at such a loss, that even the term agnostic bothered me, because I did not want to viewed as an unintelligent, toss-my-hands-up, take-the-easy-way-out “spiritual” person. Not to say that is how I view agnostics or that the above is a definition of any kind, but this understanding of agnosticism was routinely expressed to me when people would take my lack of response as an opportunity to label my beliefs.
This labeling and categorizing, what I believe to be a human need to understand the world, is where I take issue with Miller’s call for a decision to be made between, “A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action.” (Please note, I am glancing over the obvious Christian slant of his article, because Miller is clearly focused on disaffected Christians.) At Crystal St. Marie Lewis explains in her article, “God in the Gray Areas: A Defense of the Spiritual But Not Religious,” religious belief is not black-and-white. Perhaps Miller should have been more explicit in stating that his interests lie with religious identity than belief, because amidst his cries against the lack of discipline and doctrinal structure among the “spiritual, but not religious,” he appears to be demanding people place themselves into a nicely labelled box — Christian, Humanist, Muslim, Hindu, Atheist, etc. Yet, it is exactly these boxes that have led to an exodus from institutionalized religion in the West.
Miller recognizes the issues adherents are taking with their religious institutions. He writes, “It seems that just being a part of a religious institution is nowadays associated negatively, with everything from the Religious Right to child abuse, back to the Crusades and of course with terrorism today.” St. Marie Lewis even acknowledges that she is a “Christian with caveats.” Yet, Miller still wants people to be “in” or “out,” which I find to be a difficult approach in today’s world. In a society where people seemingly want their church to match their every belief — social, religious, and political — is it possible that the “Christian/Jewish/Muslim, but” expression is one-step from “spiritual, but not religious?” Yes, religious institutions and religious groups provide community and offer a place to “belong,” but the Internet allows people to establish virtual communities and churches that potentially provide the same benefits as the tangible, so why remain categorized in a box which disgusts you because of the views it holds? Do people think that dissociating with a large, encompassing, religious institution will save them from the need to explain their beliefs to strangers so as not to offend or be misconstrued? These are critical questions to ask of those leaving institutionalized religion.
I agree with St. Marie Lewis that Miller writes as if he wants the world to be black-and-white, and I find his call for people to definitively identify as over-looking the institutional problems potentially causing people to be “spiritual, but not religious.” Nonetheless, the “me” generation seems to have forgotten how to belong. If we do not like an idea or a person it’s fine, because we will move on to another, possibly better group. Our consumption habits have entered our personal interactions and we forget that belonging means taking the good with the bad. A community, whatever the common factor of the group, is like a family. There will be people you do not like and times that are rough, but you cannot run-away or escape no matter how hard you try. You may find another “family,” but they will also have their issues and are you going to leave them, too? My use of family as a metaphor is not intended to reiterate Miller’s call for identification, but to point out there is a commitment that comes with joining a community. There will always be a negative or a divergent opinion, but that does not always qualify as a reason to abandon an identity or group.
Despite my beliefs in a monotheistic greater power that I call by a variety of names (God, Fate, Destiny, Sophia – when I want to be nerdy, etc.), I strongly believe that religious affiliation is a commitment and not something that should be made for you. (Of course, this is a very Western and contemporary view of religious identity, but it’s my background.) So I ask, what about those of us who have a fear of commitment? What about those of us who have chosen that the religion we were born into is not the religious identity to which we want to commit? In such cases, Miller’s statement, “being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide,” is completely off-base. We have thought very hard and we have decided. I have thought about what religious community I would like to commit to and have come close to choosing. But I take the commitment seriously and recognize that I am not entirely ready. It would be unfair to the community, the religious institution, and myself to commit to a religion only to pick-and-choose what I want to be. It is not an all or nothing situation, especially when it comes to hierarchical institutions that hand down rulings and views, but committing does require a strong belief in not only the theology, but that the institution is good and has the potential to right its wrongs.
Until I can commit, I accept my place on the outside. Call me “spiritual, but not religious,” agnostic, or a NONE, but do not think that my choice to be unaffiliated is a cop-out. I have spent years struggling with my religious identity and know I am not alone. Perhaps I will never be done wrestling with my beliefs long enough to commit to a religious community, but at least I can proudly say I am not taking the easy way out. I may be a part of the “me” generation, but my religious identity is not my own. It is an identity that belongs to the community with which I affiliate, so until I can commit to the group’s identity I will remain “spiritual” in my unaffiliated way.