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A Point of View: Is it better to be religious than spiritual?

Man at prayer by the banks of the River Ganges

More and more people are rejecting religion but embracing spirituality. But have they got things the wrong way around, asks Tom Shakespeare.

After a relationship break up a few years ago, I signed on to a dating website. Filling in my online profile, I was interested to discover that the question on religious belief included an option that was new to me. You could tick boxes for the major religions, or for atheist, or for SBNR, which I discovered stands for "Spiritual But Not Religious".

Whereas the word "religion" generally refers to organised forms of worship and a wider faith community, "spiritual" often describes people's private individual beliefs.

A few minutes on Google revealed that SBNR is more than just an acronym. One in three Americans defined themselves as spiritual but not religious. Millions of people now think of themselves as on their own personal spiritual path, but not affiliated to any specific religion. American sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell talk about "Nones" - people who belong to no religion but still believe in God. Others have used the term "moralistic therapeutic deism" to refer to how young people are turning towards a vague belief that God exists and the point of life is to be happy. You could also call it "pseudo-religion".

The people who tick the SBNR box are distinguishing themselves from atheism. They would probably believe in some supreme being or higher power. Perhaps they're interested in Eastern spirituality or some eclectic mixture of ideas.

SBNR reflects a rejection of the dogmas of organised religion, even repugnance at the abuses committed in the name of Christianity and Islam and Judaism and Hinduism and Buddhism. I think it connects to the explosion of so-called personal growth movements in the West since the 1960s, such as yoga or transcendental meditation, as well as to new religious movements like paganism and Scientology.

The rise of SBNR comes in the context of declining organised religion, at least in the UK. Fewer of us are calling ourselves Christians. According to the Census, numbers fell from just over 70% in 2001 to less than 60% in 2011. That's still a majority of the population - and other religions make up another 5% or so - but only one million of us will attend church this week. More than a quarter of Britons do not identify with any particular religion,

But few members of this group are fully paid-up followers of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or other humanist prophets. People might say, "I am not interested in organized religion, but I do have room in my life for spirituality." They have a sense that there is something "above and beyond" the everyday. They have beliefs, a faith in some transcendental force, or whatever, however inchoate it may be. It reminds me of the quotation from Carl Jung: "You can take away a man's gods, but only to give him others in return."

I want to challenge this approach, and explain why I was unwilling to tick the SBNR box on that dating website. I worry that SBNR can just be vague, lacking the rigour which comes from centuries of refinement and debate. And unlike traditional religions, it doesn't have much to say about charity and justice.

Perhaps this is because it is a reflection of the individualism that seems to be such a problem in western societies. People want a reassuring set of beliefs that makes them feel better about their own life, rather than being challenged to help others or make the world a better place.

For all these reasons, I agree with the writer James Martin when he says that "spirituality without religion can become a self-centered complacency divorced from the wisdom of a community". But then Martin is a Jesuit, and so of course he wants those wishy-washy spiritual believers to sign up to his organised faith.

Whereas my biggest problem with SBNR is the opposite. It's that it 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.

So, that makes me a humanist then? Not at all. Because don't we have four options?

  • We can be religious and spiritual - which is the traditional faith approach
  • We can be spiritual but not religious - which is the new age pick and mix approach
  • We can be humanist - which is neither religious nor spiritual
  • Or, perhaps, we can be religious but not spiritual

This last choice works best for me.

The word "religion" is thought to derive from Latin "religare", to bind or connect. I think that sense of a connection is the key point. Religion offers a bond between individuals and it helps them form a connection to the wider universe. The great French sociologist Emile Durkheim differentiated between belief, which was private, and religion, which was social.

I think what we need today is more connection with each other, and with our damaged world. I don't think humanists offer us much help with that. Humanism is not positive but negative - it centres on rejecting religion. I think traditional religions do offer connections, but at the cost of demanding that we believe improbable things. So that's why I'd advocate being religious in a non-traditional way.

Without religion, the danger is that an individual thinks that he or she is the centre of the universe. Religion asks more of you than just to look after yourself. Because religion is a collective practice, it enables us to learn from others around us, and from a history of sincere and disciplined examination of the problems of life - a history which is sometimes called the Wisdom Traditions. Through reflection and discussion in the context of religion, we can achieve discernment, which means seeing reality more clearly.

I think that many people who identify as religious are not spiritual, at least in the sense of having a belief in a god or supernatural force. They may have a non-realist view of religion, which means that they consider religions to be human and pragmatic, not supernatural and god-given.

In my case, I am a Quaker, so I sit in silence for an hour a week with like-minded people, and I try to live according to Christian principles. But a few years ago, I stayed with a colleague's family in upstate New York. They were Jewish, and around the house there were mezuzot, a menorah and the newsletter from their local synagogue. But as we talked, I realised that although they attended services regularly, they did not have any particular belief in God. In fact, they had pretty much exactly the same outlook on the world as I did. And I suspect many people who sit in Anglican pews on Sundays are similar. They're going through certain rituals, and value membership in a community of folk trying to lead more meaningful lives, but their belief in a supernatural being is minimal or non-existent.

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.

So this week, why not find a time to sit in silence with your fellows, or sing with them, or read a holy book with them, or commune with them. Take a moment to reflect on your place in the universe and your obligations towards others. Belief in God is strictly optional.

A Point of View is broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 BST. Catch up on BBC iPlayer

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