Recent surveys have shown that the number of Americans who describe themselves as having no religion has grown in recent years. To the secular community, this would appear to be welcome news; however, we shouldn’t necessarily interpret it as a rush to the secular exits by religious Americans. Many of those who profess to be “not religious” must still be counted in the transcendental believers’ camp, albeit more on the outskirts than before.
One common elaboration of the “not religious” designation is: “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.” I’ll abbreviate this as NRBS and those who assert it as NRBSers. In what follows I’ll explain what I take NRBS to mean, conjecture why it has been embraced by a fair number of people, and develop a number of criticisms of it. I hope thereby to enhance understanding of the growing NRBS phenomenon.
Obviously, one of the keys to understanding NRBS is to understand its component term spiritual. Sometimes my NRBS college students will tell me that neither atheism nor agnosticism is an option for them because, as they put it, “Everyone has to believe in something.”
“Well, I believe that Austin is the capital of Texas,” I somewhat mischievously reply. “Does that count?”
“No. That’s not what I meant. Being spiritual means you have to believe in, uh, . . . well, like—a higher power.”
So I reply, “Like gravity or nuclear energy?”
“No,” they respond with some exasperation. They then begin giving a hazy description of their higher power. Although for some the higher power is an impersonal force like karma, the Tao, or Hinduism’s Brahman, more commonly it is thought to be some sort of benign supernal being with significant capabilities and moral stature who can communicate with, and has some interest in, humans. The higher power is associated with two simple moral directives: Do good things, and don’t do bad things.
Finally, many NRBSers believe that the higher power probably rewards those who make a decent effort to live up to the moral directives. Less is said about the fate of those who fail to do so. Beyond this, NRBS involves very few, if any, other beliefs or commitments. The relationship between NRBSers and their higher power can be described as a theological version of “friends with benefits.” Or think of it as “big-tent spirituality begets theology ‘lite.’”
NRBS and Deism
NRBSers may be compared to eighteenth-century deists. Like deists, NRBSers are not yet ready for prime-time unfaith. Instead, again like deists, NRBSers have constructed a theologically thin conception of a higher power. It has been surmised that for some, eighteenth-century deism eventually became a barely disguised beard for their nonbelief, a gentleman’s atheism if you will. Seculars can only hope that NRBSers will eventually trace a similar trajectory.
NRBS and Relativism
Many people today, including many NRBSers, accept a relativistic view of belief claims. What might be called the “Who’s to say?” mentality is quite popular, especially among younger people (from whose ranks NRBS draws numerous adherents). Relativism serves as a valued silent partner of NRBS. To turn an old saw on its head: From that (NRBS) to which not much has been given (in terms of higher-power description), not much is expected (in terms of higher-power belief). For NRBSers, there is no one “right” conception of the higher power. Each person is entitled to describe it as she or he sees fit. This gives each NRBSer the latitude to develop his or her own individual sense of the divine; that, in turn, serves to inoculate the NRBS population against the unseemly bickering and divisiveness that so often plagues organized religion (henceforth, just “religion”).
Why Some Find NRBS Attractive
The major motivator for embracing NRBS seems to be the NRBSers’ desire to distance themselves from religion while still maintaining their bona fides as non-nontheists. Let me explain the distancing part further.
Religious history. Many NRBSers know enough religious history to realize that it has the messy fingerprints of imperfect human beings all over it. Bloody crusades, internecine religious wars, inquisitions, and pogroms—as well as recent revelations about pedophile priests and hypocritical evangelical lechers—have contributed to putting NRBSers off religion. At the same time, for those reluctant to throw out the baby of supernaturalism with the bathwater of religion, NRBS leaves adherents ample space to cling to reassuring transcendental beliefs and hopes, including the possibility of a pleasant postmortem existence.
Scriptures and doctrines. NRBS has no scriptures or formal doctrines, lending it a seeming simplicity and tolerance that stand in sharp contrast to the turbidity and raw judgmentalism on display in religious scriptures and doctrines authored by mere human beings (“Men wrote the Bible, didn’t they?”). For example, most NRBSers feel that religious condemnation of homosexuality and relegation of females to second-class status are unfair, archaic, and spiteful actions. Along similar lines, NRBSers also realize that disagreements over scriptures and doctrines have far too often become a casus belli for religions.
Religious leaders and bureaucracies. NRBSers believe that the spirituality religions claim to foster is dulled by their attendant bureaucracies and further dulled because at times these bureaucracies may be presided over by persons of questionable virtue.
Religious observances and communities. As mentioned above, NRBSers believe that religions are infected with flawed scriptures and doctrines. So, it’s not at all surprising that they hold religious observances to be for the most part unavailing and religious communities as unnecessary for “true” spirituality—which, they feel, is more a matter of individual beliefs and actions.
Shortcomings of NRBS
In what follows, I argue that the cogency of NRBS is compromised by a number of serious deficiencies regarding the existence and description of the higher power.
Existence of the higher power. NRBSers neither make, nor seem to feel that they need to make, any serious effort to show that the higher power actually exists. This isn’t unexpected because, as noted earlier, NRBS is not what you’d call heavy-duty theology. In fact, it’s not heavy-duty anything. The question of probative evidence for the existence of the higher power appears on no NRBS FAQ list. For NRBSers, worrying about “proving stuff” is the province of the spiritually challenged. Nevertheless, NRBSers’ inability or unwillingness to defend the existence of their higher power must be judged a serious liability.
Description of the higher power. There are at least four important questions regarding the higher power that go largely unanswered by NRBSers.
- If the existence and the moral message of the higher power are so important, why did it take so long in history for it to reveal itself and its message clearly? NRBS is, after all, a relatively recent phenomenon.
- Why has the higher power permitted spiritually defective religions to impose their brands so successfully, for so long, on so many people?
- Why are the higher power’s moral directives so vague? NRBSers have diverse views on important ethical issues such as abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, sexual practices, and the like. Shouldn’t a sufficiently good and knowledgeable higher
power know the correct positions on such issues and possess the power and desire to transmit that knowledge clearly to humans?
- How can the higher power be held to be maximally (or nearly maximally) powerful, knowledgeable, and good while it tolerates the great amount and intensity of human and animal suffering that exists in the world? This is, of course, the classic problem of evil, which has always been the most effective recruiting tool for atheism—and for good reason.
NRBSers’ inability to answer the foregoing questions adequately tells heavily against the reasonableness of their view.
I have tried to show that when it comes to NRBS, to borrow from Gertrude Stein, there is very little there there. It is cotton-candy theology. Nevertheless, as recent polls have shown, it is a growing presence on the social scene. Does it pose a significant threat to that “old-time religion,” perhaps as harbinger of a relatively rapid phase change to European levels of secularity? Or, is it rather more a hiccup at the buffet of American religiosity? I think only time will tell. Stay tuned.
- Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “Religion Among the Millennials.” February 17, 2010. Available online at http://pewforum.org/Age/Religion-Among-the-Millennials.aspx.