Monday, January 14, 2013

Spiritual but not religious pt 2. Why do spiritual people avoid religion?

The research into the mental health of those who are 'spiritual but not religious' produced a flurry of comments a few days ago. Ht to Thinking Anglicans for a link to this Guardian piece. Here are a couple of choice quotes:

In the US, religion tends to carry associations of freedom. I remember an American priest once saying to me, when I expressed amazement at the prevalence of religiosity in the US, that Americans came from Europe fleeing religious persecution. The two words "religion" and "freedom" naturally go together in the American psyche.
In Britain, though, it appears that many individuals view religion as an impingement upon their spiritual searching. Christianity, say, is felt to constrain life – perhaps because of the negative attitudes it projects about gay people and women; or because it presents belief as more important than growth; or because it looks more interested in sin than enlightenment. If that is so, the new research is a striking indictment of the failure of British churches to meet spiritual needs: individuals are not just not coming to church, some are becoming mentally ill as a result of religious failure.

Only in the lives of others can we make something rich of our own life. To be spiritual but not religious might be said to be like embarking on an extreme sport while refusing the support of safety procedures and the wisdom of experts who have made the jump before. Spirituality is like love: more risky than you can countenance when you're falling for it


  1. One problem (speaking from personal experience) is - what do you do when you can't accept (believe, trust) any of the spiritual frameworks on offer? I think that this is the situation that many "spiritual but not religious" people are in.

    To clumsily adapt this to the extreme sport metaphor: maybe I'm left-handed but all the one-hand-hangliding experts in the world are right-handed. I've tried their techniques but they didn't seem to work for me.

    (In sincere advance response to any kind suggestions you might make to me: I think my personal situation is beyond the scope of blog comments. I'm interested to see what you think about the general point though.)

    1. I suspect Big Dan is right that many SBNR are in that position.

      ISTM that what religion provides, in terms of "framework" is two things: (1) a channel for the desire for spiritual experiences and moral impulses (2) a plausible explanation and/or justification for the desire for spiritual experience and the moral impulse.

      It's possible that one could create one's own outlet for one's natural spirituality and morality, outside of religion. "Owning" a plausible explanation or justification for them is more difficult. There are religions invented from whole cloth, of course, but most people tend to find them even less plausible than traditional religions. And the assumed implausibility of the traditional religions is significant in our culture.

      The solution is to work out what one really thinks the most plausible explanation and justification is for spirituality. I find (personally) that a framework that no-one had ever thought of before is inherently more implausible than one already thought of, even if imperfectly realised. Others may have more faith in the mind of modernity!

      An interesting, if polemical, discussion of similar issues can be found in Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, where he discusses, in very broad terms, the religious impulses of (ancient) pagan religion and their effective realisation in Christianity.

  2. Big Dan - that's a fair point. Christianity in the UK is partly responsible for its own reputation as the inhibitor of spiritual growth. 'Religious failure' is part of the problem.

    To take your metaphor to ridiculous lengths, most of the one-hand hangliders talk as though they're experts, but a worrying number of their followers seem to end up falling off or crashing into one another. You wouldn't buy a used prayer book from these people.

    I was struck by this when reading a book called 'God of Surprises' a few months ago. The author is a Jesuit, and was trained in the 'spiritual exercises', an ancient and well-trodden Catholic school of prayer. The book is partly about his rediscovery of these, rescuing them from being an obsessional nit-picking over sin, and getting back to the original intention of a form of prayer which uses and trusts the imagination. The church is slowly redeeming and rediscovering a lot of spiritual treasure which has been buried under bad practice, systems of control and misunderstanding. But yes, we've failed, and failed badly.