Friday, May 25, 2018
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‘Spiritual but not religious’

I am picking up a phrase from Randy David’s column “Is the Catholic Church in crisis?” (Opinion, 4/14/13): “the transformation of religious practice from one that is Church-oriented to one that is solitary and private.” One such “transformation” is going on.

It’s a current trend, especially among the young, expressed in the statement “I am spiritual but not religious.” Adherents to that manifesto go by the acronym SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious). That statement may be disturbing for the elders and unsettling for the establishment Church for it reveals a crisis of institutional religion, a discrediting of “religion,” such that not a few people, especially the young, are not flattered when described as “religious.” They much prefer “spiritual.”

Let’s compare the two. Both the “religious” and the “spiritual” seek and claim connectedness to God, with the latter open to calling God the “Source,” “Energy,” “Force,” or “Spirit.”


The “religious” are rooted in a religion through membership in a church or sect whose beliefs, rules, traditions, rituals and practices they adhere to and religiously follow. They tend to institutionalize or maintain a certain permanence in their beliefs and worship. They are also communitarian, participating in a “public realm of membership” in an organization. And even if everyone surely has private prayer and private worlds, pretty much is “standard practice” in creed and cult. They generally look upon life on earth as bounded by heaven and hell. Take a look at the fervent church worker and see all that crystallized.

The “spirituals” are rooted in the individual and give little importance to traditional, religious, structured organizations and institutional beliefs. They reason out more. They are inclined to plumb their “center,” “core,” or “deepest self,” which “emerges,” “changes,” in an evolving life of “behavior.” Their spiritual lives are personal and private, seeking authenticity and interiority. As such they are quite attuned to “eastern” modes of “emptying” or “centering” or meditation. They are more aware of nature as alive (no nonliving thing) from torrents to raindrop, from giant narra to the lowly weed, with which, moreover, they feel connected. They are cosmic in outlook: Planet Earth is a speck; there’s a multiverse out there! Take a look at a son or daughter who has broken free or drifted away and see all that crystallized.

Many are partly within the matrix of their childhood religion, prizing its valued deposits, but also partly outside, having discovered rich lodes lately uncovered.

In the United States, the “unaffiliated with any religion” and the SBNRs in general have reportedly ranged from 20 to 40 percent in recent years. This atheist, agnostic, nothing-in-particular wave has reached our shores and flowed into young groups.

Do we rue or rejoice over this kind of de-facto “de-churchification” which we behold with mixed emotions? Which is patina that is put on and off? Which is permeation that seeps into one’s being and living? Or are they variations of the same theme?

Labels or names have cropped up for the multidimensional variations of this trend: adapters, avoiders, freethinkers, spiritual seekers, spiritual eclectics, agnostics, atheists, the “spirituals,” the “nones” or nothing-in-particular, begetting seeming oxymorons like spiritual atheists, atheistic mysticism, or Christian atheists.

Note that the spectrum ranges from nonbelief moving up to the tips of mysticism. The “low” end of the pendulum has been criticized as plain laziness with no concern for community. Judge not, for seeming nonbelievers are not “lost.” Einstein has been described as “a deeply religious nonbeliever.” There is such a thing as the “faith of the faithless.” Graham Greene, the great English novelist, has said that “faith increases as beliefs decrease.”

The “high” end of the pendulum where seekers go “to one’s center and from that point [to] pass unto God” and “connect to the Source” has invited the observation that “mystics don’t really have much need of a Church.”


Hopefully, some understanding and awareness of the SBNR phenomenon may help explain the decline in “church-going” and church affiliation. The exodus may indicate that the “old religion” in which many of us were brought up no longer satisfies, and that the next generation has looked elsewhere and forged its own spiritualities.

To recover lost ground, the Church must find some way to reach and respond to both the day-to-day needs of rectitude and the deepest yearnings for meaning, vitality and depth. The inability to do so is a serious reason closer to the root cause of Church decline; it is more credible than the knee-jerk cry “The churches are full every Sunday!” (unreliable as effect not so much of conviction as of culture in Michael Tan’s column, Opinion, 4/12/13, and with Solita Monsod’s computation, Opinion, 4/13/13). And reminiscent of the cry “The Church shall prevail!” back in 2002, when the clerical sex scandals first broke out. In both cases, the Church missed the point.

Our Church can ill afford to miss more points.

Asuncion David Maramba is a retired professor, a book editor and an occasional journalist. Comments to marda_ph, fax 8284454

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TAGS: Asuncion David Maramba, Catholic Church, Commentary, opinion, Randy David, Religion
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