'HIYW spirituality' (hold the religion)

Via CNN comes news that SBNR has, for many young people, replaced WWJD.

SBNR, of course, refers to "spiritual but not religious." Or, as one Huffington Post blogger interviewed by CNN referred to it, "Burger King spirituality -- have it your own way."

Back in April, I suggested that it was time for the media to get spiritual. My comment concerned the release of a major survey by LifeWay Christian Resources in which 72 percent of 1,200 18- to 29-year-olds interviewed said they're "really more spiritual than religious." At the time, the survey didn't really seem to catch fire in the mainstream media, outside of a front-page USA Today story.

Patience, people -- and yes, I'm talking to myself.

It takes time for reflective reporters to dig into such meaty religious -- er, spiritual -- matters. And just this week, CNN and the Austin American Statesman produced excellent trend stories on this topic, as did the Rapid City Journal. The Tennessean's Godbeat pro Bob Smietana was on the case a few weeks ago. If you know of other MSM coverage, please be sure to share the links in the comments section.

In my original post, I wrote:

"More spiritual than religious" is one of those phrases that makes sense when you hear it. But reflect on it a bit more and you find yourself going, "Huh? What exactly does that mean?"

CNN's John Blake tackles that question head-on and raises the stakes in his story, titled Are there dangers in being 'spiritual but not religious'?:

"I'm spiritual but not religious."

It's a trendy phrase people often use to describe their belief that they don't need organized religion to live a life of faith.

But for Jesuit priest James Martin, the phrase also hints at something else: selfishness.

"Being spiritual but not religious can lead to complacency and self-centeredness," says Martin, an editor at America, a national Catholic magazine based in New York City. "If it's just you and God in your room, and a religious community makes no demands on you, why help the poor?"

Religious debates erupt over everything from doctrine to fashion. Martin has jumped into a running debate over the "I'm spiritual but not religious" phrase.

The "I'm spiritual but not religious" community is growing so much that one pastor compared it to a movement. In a 2009 survey by the research firm LifeWay Christian Resources, 72 percent of millennials (18- to 29-year-olds) said they're "more spiritual than religious." The phrase is now so commonplace that it's spawned its own acronym ("I'm SBNR") and Facebook page: SBNR.org.

But what exactly does being "spiritual but not religious" mean, and could there be hidden dangers in living such a life?

Blake quotes an author whose spirituality blends Buddhism, Judaism and other beliefs. He quotes a former Muslim who now embraces an ancient Chinese religious practice that emphasizes the unity of humanity and the universe. He also quotes experts who find good in "old-time religion" and question the notion of faith without belief in absolute and eternal truths. All in all, it's a fascinating story that helps put a more concrete face on this notion of SBNR.

Likewise, the American Statesman's Joshunda Sanders impressed me with the depth of her story on younger believers in Austin and across the nation blending religious faiths and practices.

Laura Rios grew up Catholic, dancing in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas and a symbol of Mexican identity.

Now, at 32, dancing is still her main expression of the sacred in her life, though now she does it to honor her ancestors.

Rios' Aztec dancing is part of her spiritual life, like the ritual tattoos she has on her arms and the poems she reads by the Sufi mystic Rumi. She's one of an estimated 30 percent of Americans who refer to themselves as "spiritual, not religious" according to a 2009 Newsweek poll -- up from 24 percent in 2005. A Gallup Poll released in May showed that now 16 percent of Americans don't have a religious identity, which is up from about 2 percent in 1968.

As most mainline Protestant churches have continued to report membership declines because of what the Rev. Eileen W. Lindner, editor of the annual Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, has called "an increasing secularization of American postmodern society," there has been increasing attention on what it means to have a spiritual life outside of a church, mosque or synagogue.

What's contributing to the trend? A more mobile society, a plethora of information on the Internet and American self-centeredness are among the potential answers explored by Sanders:

It's been a truism of American life that young people generally leave home, stop going to church once they go to college and then, as they get older, return to the church of their youth. Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University and author of the new book "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World -- and Why Their Differences Matter," says that what has changed is the mobility of the young.

"Spirituality is almost certainly going up among young people," Prothero said. "Things are changing because we can travel more than we used to, and now there's information available (about different religions) on the Internet.

"It's also very American to pick and choose," he added. "Who are these religions to tell us that we have to take the whole thing? We want to have some self-determination when it comes to our religion."

Maybe I'm wrong, but a few of the explanations offered in the Austin story seem a bit simplistic:

"Churches have been notoriously irrelevant for the last 30 years," said Will Davis Jr., 48, who leads the nondenominational church Austin Christian Fellowship, which has about 1,900 members. "As a leader of the church, I've got to own that, though it's starting to change."

Davis said church infighting and many churches' focus on new buildings instead of consistent community outreach through service have moved Americans away from church.

I need a few more facts to back up the "notoriously irrelevant" claim. Plus, did churches not engage in infighting or spend money on buildings 30 years ago? Those explanations just seem overly generic and not too insightful.

Read the CNN story and the American Statesman story and then weigh in with your thoughts. Do these pieces move us closer to a better understanding of SBNR? What questions remain to be answered? What religion ghosts, if any, do you see?

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