The landscape of Britain's religious and spiritual life is changing. We all know fewer people are attending worship services, and that young people have lower rates of belief in God. Yet often, the data presents us with really interesting puzzles of how people understand themselves. For example, 11% of British atheists also call themselves Christian and 35% of people who never attend a religious service believe in some sort of 'God or Higher Power'. A growing number of people who don't fit into a religious box are claiming a 'spiritual-but-not-religious' identity, something Tom Shakespeare argues against in this article on the BBC. Instead, his proposal is that people become religious-but-not-spiritual, to benefit from traditions and avoid supernatural beliefs.
"If you're an atheist, I can heartily recommend involvement in religion. It offers a sense of belonging and it offers tradition, which can be reassuring and comforting. It offers discipline, teaching us that there is something outside ourselves to which we should bend our personal will. If we do it right, religion helps us lead better lives, with a commitment to justice and social action. Sociological research shows that involvement in organised religion is good for our health and well being."
This is all good and well, and indeed, at its best, religion can do these things. As a Quaker, Tom has found the right tradition for him - one low on doctrine, and high on social justice work and community. I've attended a small number of Quaker gatherings and the folks there couldn't be nicer. I remember being introduced to three Quakers, the first of whom believed in God, the second who wasn't sure, and the third who was an atheist. I like that comfort with complexity. (This in itself seems to be a growing trend. My colleague Rev. Erik Martinez Resly at The Sanctuaries in DC has written a great piece exploring why the young people he works with are less interested in whether God is 'real' or not, and more interested in why does it matter?)
But I think Tom's offer to us non-religious folks is a weak one. Joining in with religious life as a non-believer doesn't feel integral. Even if I am welcomed with open arms, at some point there is the awkward moment of division between me as a non-believer and much of the community that is bound by faith.
More than that, I think he misinterprets what being spiritual-but-not-religious means to people. He sees it as a new-age category where all SBNR's use crystals and have their palms read.
"It's that [SBNR] often retains the mumbo-jumbo, aspects of religion. People have rejected the shelf with the ready-made religious beliefs, and gone straight around the corner to the pick'n'mix shop to buy a more or less random set of beliefs which are, if anything, even more incredible. Many people who are spiritual but not religious reject the organisation but hang on to the supernatural bit. But I don't want to be required to have faith in a supreme being or miracles or reincarnation, or any entity for which there is no scientific evidence."
My professor Nancy Ammerman at Boston University, has studied what people mean when they claim to be 'spiritual', and it is rather surprising. Religious people use the word to mean a religious spirituality, i.e. - a relationship with God or belief in religious teaching. Both religious and non-religious people use it to mean ethical principles, such as the Golden Rule, but non-religious people use 'spirituality' to mean a sense of something more, something beyond the everyday. There is often no direct definition for what that may be, but there is a strong worldview of experiencing life as more than the sum of its parts.
So why can't there be a place for people like this to come together? The Sunday Assembly has already stepped back from its initial use of atheism, and now embraces all sorts of non-believes, including those who are spiritual-but-not-religious. I think what most 'spiritual' people are doing is rejecting dogmatic, judgmental and backward looking religion and finding meaning elsewhere. Yes, they may be statistically less interested in community - but I think this is largely because they don't see anything that caters to them! We're experiencing an epidemic of loneliness in the West; one-in-four Americans cannot name a single close friend with who they can talk about their personal troubles and triumphs.
I'm really glad Tom has found a place for him, but I think we need to do more than simply invite people into existing communities to meet the needs of those rejecting religion.