Spiritual but not religious? Leading Buddhist magazine takes a hard look at what that means

The other day here at GetReligion my colleague Bobby Ross Jr. parsed whether atheism can be considered a "religious" movement. I'd say sometimes yes and sometimes no. But that's neither here or there. Maybe.

Am I clear?

Probably not. So let's try this.

Dictionary definitions sometimes fall short because living languages evolve constantly. That leaves the meaning of some words negotiable -- particularly when trying to convey elastic concepts.

Religion is one such concept. Of course, these days, so is journalism. And so is the term "spiritual but not religious," henceforth SBNR.

It's a handy shorthand we assume is equally understood by all because we -- meaning those of us in the religion journalism trade -- use the term so often. But is it? (Cue the sinister organ music!)

For example: American and other Western journalists who generally grew up in one of the Abrahamic traditions tend to lump their fellow westerners attracted to Buddhist concepts and practices among the SBNR if they don't also declare themselves practicing whatevers. (Did I just coin a new term, the "Whatevers"?)

But it seems many of those Western Christian, Jewish and (to a lesser extant) Muslim non-ethnic Buddhist fellow travelers -- the Whatevers -- have their own questions about the term SBNR.

So much so, it appears, that Tricycle, arguably the best chronicler of the Western Buddhist experience around, felt compelled to take a shot at explaining it. And in a big way.

In its latest edition, the print and online publication saw fit to do a special section consisting of no less than six essays on the subject curated by an outside editor. Here's a link, but Tricycle does employ a pay wall.

Interestingly, just as more tradition-minded religionists often criticize the statistically growing SBNR movement as too unmoored to constitute serious searching, which I take issue with as a blanket criticism, Tricycle also raises that point. (Tricycle takes the Buddhist worldview very seriously, as you might expect.)

Williams B. Parsons, a Rice University religious studies professor, wrote:

... (S)cholarship does not all line up on the side of spirituality over religion. With regard to the SBNR movement, there is plenty of debate. One problem, for example, is the accusation of spiritual narcissism. Once freed from tradition and doctrine, those invested in the consumer approach to religion, the critique goes, are just navel-gazing. So what happens to social activism?
Another critique is social. Some point out that there is no “there” there for the SBNR movement, no community. In response, others point to the reality of the American cultural soil. There is a kind of spiritual community, but one that is suitable for the culture in which we all live. The Rothko Chapels and the Esalen Institutes are the new cathedrals and churches; the raves and retreats—whether at Spirit Rock or a Benedictine monastery -- are the new ecstatic or ascetic social spaces; and the multiple, varied forms of social media are the textual glue.
And on it goes. Whither the SBNR movement? Perhaps it is like a train without tracks, whose path we will be able to discern only in retrospect. In the meantime, the pilgrimage continues.

Another contributor, Kaya Oakes, a writing teacher at the University of California at Berkeley, and the author of "The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Seekers, Believers, and Those in Between (Orbis Books, 2015), approached the SBNR question anecdotally.

She also prefers another term much in use today, the religious "nones," to SBNR. Judging by the four individuals she profiled in her contribution, however, I'd say she's using "nones" similarly to how I'd use SBNR. In her lead in to the profiles, she wrote:

I am a Gen Xer who lives and works in San Francisco’s heavily secular Bay Area, and my social circle includes lapsed Jews and mainline Protestants, former Evangelicals, ex-Muslims, kids raised Quaker, and even a former Buddhist monk turned punk rock singer turned filmmaker. I may be running in a group of creative types who are more likely to reject institutionalized thinking, but my students at UC Berkeley also reflect these statistics. They are overwhelmingly uninterested in traditional notions of what it means to have faith. Instead of cleaving to one particular way of believing, many younger people engage in a kind of spiritual mix-and-match, blending several traditions and adhering strictly to none.
Many of these so-called nones are looking for something. But it might not be something permanent.
When I spent a year conducting in-depth interviews with dozens of young adults who choose no single religious practice, I learned that nearly half of them had discovered Buddhism at some point, via books, meditation, apps, or retreats. But there is not much statistical evidence that such seekers subsequently commit to a practice or community. Instead, many will mix Buddhist teachings or practices with those of other religious traditions. They often hesitate to call themselves Buddhists because they don’t belong to a sangha, because they have concerns about cultural appropriation, or because they don’t want to abandon the religions in which they were raised. 

I like Tricycle's broad approach to the issue. Some writers are supportive of the SBNR, others are more critical. Just as some members of the SBNR are ungrounded flakes, some, I have found in my wanderings, are intellectually and emotionally solid and just have not as yet found their particular niche.

Or maybe they have and it just looks so different from the historic mainstream that we have difficulty recognizing it?

As Parson of Rice University said above, "Perhaps it is like a train without tracks, whose path we will be able to discern only in retrospect. In the meantime, the pilgrimage continues."

Let me add that Tricycle's contribution is a welcome addition to the continuing religious, academic and journalistic conversation about the SBNR and the changing nature of religion, and religious practice, in the West.

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