The Elephant Bar may not be the most appropriate place to delve into deeply complicated issues of religious identity, but my father and I always seem to end up broaching that very subject over our macadamia-encrusted chicken breast. And I, inevitably, challenge the reasoning behind his self-identification as “spiritual” rather than religious.
This rhetoric is becoming commonplace throughout religious discourse in America, as UC Berkeley sociology professor Claude Fischer discusses in a recent post on the Berkeley Blog. Think about it: How many times have you heard someone proclaim some variation of “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual”? Every time this expression is used, I wonder to myself what it even means. This cliche has extended far beyond my Elephant Bar debates, and it is becoming an important subject of academic scrutiny.
My initial, uninformed opinion was that spiritual people — like my father — were more or less using the term “spiritual” as a cop-out. Being spiritual was, in my mind, an easy way to avoid limiting oneself to a single set of beliefs or sometimes even as an alternative to the more difficult admission of being an out-and-out atheist.
But, after reading Fischer’s blog post and talking to him in person last Tuesday, I came to a more balanced realization: A spiritualist is not so much contesting religion in and of itself but rather the way that organized religion negatively interacts with our modern society.
Perhaps that is not so revolutionary, but it was surprising to learn that faith is not really what is on the chopping block. Fischer’s post notes that “9 percent of adult Americans in 1998 and 16 percent of them in 2010 described themselves as spiritual-but-not-religious.” I believe the structure of their answer — spiritual-but-not-religious — is intimately intertwined with the mentality behind it, and its mounting popularity.
As Fischer explained to me, people are interested in “putting distance between the individual and the label” while still genuinely maintaining a belief that there is “something greater than mundane, biological existence.” It seems that the essential quest for the meaning of life, among other ponderings, has not really faded into the background. In other words, the primordial substance of religion is still relevant. This phenomenon reflects the opinion of a growing minority that organized religion has overstepped its role.
In my own life, it was this very sense of alienation — particularly of the political kind — that led, in part, to my conversion to atheism. I struggled to align my own feelings toward gay rights, abortion and the role of women with those of my Protestant Church. My rejection of faith is arguably another response to the same problem that spiritual people are addressing. Fischer argues in the blog that conservative political activism within American Protestant denominations has turned away some moderates and liberals. While I opted to exit the scene entirely, the spiritual folk seem like they are compartmentalizing their religious and political convictions in order to reserve the ability to choose.
Of course, politics is just one part of the equation. Globalization has strongly influenced religious belief as well — there is a “build-your-own” component to the expanding religious marketplace. Fischer said in the blog that “Americans’ growing interest in spiritual ideas … (and) growing exposure to eastern ideas such as karma yoga, and reincarnation has stimulated discussions of spirituality.” This interplay is creating a veritable American cultural melting pot of religious practices and beliefs. And the end product is much more than a “cop-out” — it’s an inspiring fusion of traditions that allow individuals to follow their own path.
Following true free-market style, some Americans have deemed unacceptable the product that religions are offering, and they have opted to search out their own. College students are particularly engaged in this exploration because our beliefs are “in flux.” During our conversation, Fischer mentioned this very “disconnect(ed)” period of students’ lives, where we are between the settled life with our parents and settling down on our own. And because the college years are defined by experimentation in a range of spheres, this “spiritual-but-not-religious” identity lends itself beautifully to our state of being.
Upon closer inspection, the response that infinitely frustrated me during conversations with my father now emerges as a carefully crafted social, cultural and political critique of our modern era. Spiritual people are not the lazy, closet atheists that I first branded them as. They are reinventing a religious space that caters to their personal beliefs. Does this mean that organized religion could potentially be on the decline? I wouldn’t wager on that quite yet, but the shift toward “spiritual-but-not-religious” may pressure organized religion to reconsider its rigid and often outdated doctrines.
Contact Hannah Brady at [email protected]