Spiritual but not religious? Religious but not spiritual?—On the need to develop a self-conscious, secular, religious minimalism

Reading: From “Truth – Philosophy in Transit” by John D. Caputo, (Penguin, 2013, pp. 22-23) 

Let’s start with fools, which no one wants to be. I said before when discussing Lessing’s thesis that there is no need to actually believe in God in order to get his point. Just think of God as a kind of limit-case . . . . To get an idea of how much things have changed, consider that there was a time, not so long ago, when I would have not got away with talking about God so glibly. The fact that I can gives us an idea of how much our idea of truth has shifted. Life before modern times was nicely summed up by a line in the Scriptures, which runs, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’.” (Psalm I4). They did not speak of atheists – that very word acquires currency only in modernity – but of “foolishness”. To take God so lightly, or to cut yourself off from God altogether, not to seek after God, was to cut yourself off from truth and goodness and beauty, and that was unwise in the extreme. Notice that the psalmist says ‘foolish’, not ‘irrational’. W/hat’s the difference? The opposite of foolishness is ‘wisdom’, Whereas the opposite of irrational is ‘rational’, and the ancients were more concerned with being wise than rational. [. . .]
          But what is wisdom? Wisdom, the Greeks said, is the love of the highest things, all of them, the true, the good and the beautiful. lt includes reason without stopping at reason, it includes truth but it does not reduce truth to that which is established by reason, and it does not exclude the good or the beautiful from the true. The true, the good and the beautiful hang together.  [. . .]
          The person who managed to put all this together, who ‘had it all’ in classical times, who led the good life, who was a model for the rest of us, was said to be ‘wise’, as opposed to ‘rational’ (or rich or famous). It is very important to see that such a person did not pretend to know it all. On the contrary, being wise especially meant having a healthy respect for everything we do not know (a Greek wise man would never have been able to host a TV talk show). So in reality the ancients did not say such people were ‘wise’ so much as that they sought wisdom, or had a love (philia) of wisdom; in short they were philosophers. A philosopher is one who searches for the highest things, of which the true, the good, the beautiful were deemed the very highest. Wisdom means the love of all these things knit together in an integrated form of life, where each thing was cultivated in due proportion. 


Back in  2014, the sociologist and disability rights campaigner, Tom Shakespeare, spoke on BBC Radio 4's "Point of View" on the question:  "Is it better to be religious than spiritual?"

We'll come to his question in a moment but, firstly, it's worth indicating why he came to ask it. It arose because he noticed on a dating website a question about religious belief which included an option that was new to him. As Shakespeare said, "You could tick boxes for the major religions, or for atheist, or for SBNR." SBNR?, I hear you ask. Well, it stands for "Spiritual But Not Religious". Here's the Wikipedia definition of SBNR:

'Spiritual but not religious' . . . is a popular phrase . . . used to self-identify a life stance of spirituality that rejects traditional organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth. [. . .] SBNR is commonly used to describe the demographic also known as unchurched, none of the above, more spiritual than religious, spiritually eclectic, unaffiliated, freethinkers, or spiritual seekers."

One might say many things — critical and supportive — about SBNR, and Tom Shakespeare offers a number of pertinent and mostly critical comments, but today I want to concentrate on just one thing.  Although I, along with others (including the French atheist and philosopher, Andre Comte-Sponville who wrote a book called, "The Book of Atheist Spirituality") think that the word can meaningfully be attached to the word "atheist", the fact remains that most people who use the term SBNR are using it as a contrast to the word "atheist" and this, in a nutshell, indicates why an atheist such as Tom Shakespeare wants to argue for a category called "religious but not spiritual".

Now, as you know, I'm one of those people who thinks there has begun to show up for our own secular age and culture, a post-Christian, secular religious possibility that is beyond the old atheist/theist divide and the stale (and I think, wholly misguided) question of the existence or non-existence of a supernatural, metaphysical God. This relates to my case for developing an explicit religious naturalism and the overall tenor of Tom Shakespeare's opinion piece suggests to me that he, too, allows for this. After all, he reveals that, as an atheist, he attends a Quaker meeting and his BBC piece begins to conclude with him saying:

"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."

He finishes by exhorting his listeners and readers to find in the coming week . . .

". . . 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."

Despite his claim to be 'religious' not 'spiritual', Shakespeare reveals here that he is both 'religious' and 'spiritual'  (in the wider sense of the word used by, say, Comte-Sponville) but, as he does this, he also reveals that he thinks neither of these terms are dependent upon a belief in a metaphysical, supernatural God. Such a belief is, he says, optional.

Well, hmmm, mostly yes but with a touch of no — for his claim raises another problem. Notice that in his conclusion Shakespeare said that religion "offers discipline, teaching us that there is something outside ourselves  [i.e. some kind of conception of "transcendence"] to which we should bend our personal will." Now recall the extract we heard from John D. Caputo who says this about God:

". . . there is no need to actually believe in God in order to get [the] point. Just think of God as a kind of limit-case."

Tom Shakespeare's "something outside ourselves to which we should bend our personal will" sounds very much like a limit-case to me and Caputo is suggesting that we can legitimately use the word "God" as shorthand for this limit. It seems true that belief in "God as a being" is most certainly optional, but belief in a "limit-case" which can legitimately (if only occasionally) be called "God" isn't.  Such a limit-case is actually necessary to the leading of a good life. A good life requires us to recognise and creatively live with all kinds of important limits (limits of knowledge, strength, control over the kinds of beings humans are, where they are born and how they are brought up, etc. etc.).

But, as experience has and continues to teach me, many people I meet do still want to continue to argue that God is an actual being — the God of theism — and, although for them God is clearly a limit-case (the only real limit-case for a theist), for a theist all other limit-cases are not God and, therefore, cannot stand in for God. Still others will, of course, argue that, although they recognise the need for limit-cases they absolutely refuse to use the word God in doing this and it seems that ne'er the twain will ever meet.

It is at this point that I can bring us to earth in this community and reveal to you the central, Gordian knot of a problem I regularly face as your minister.

Firstly, here are the key positive aspects of the problem:

  • Because we are a spiritual community that is critical of religion we attract many people who describe themselves as 'spiritual but not religious'.
  • Because we are a religious community that is critical about the spiritual we attract many people who would describe themselves as 'religious but not spiritual' — in other words atheists who continue to value religion.
  • Because as a community we are prepared to use the word God in a way that doesn't dogmatically rule out theism, we attract people through our door who describe themselves as spiritual — i.e. people who do still believe in some kind of transcendent, supernatural God.
  • Because as a community we are clear that as we use the word God we are always allowing it simultaneously to stand simply for a limit-case, rather than as only a supernatural being, we attract those who describe themselves as atheists.

Now, here are the key negative aspects of the problem. You will notice that, to some extent, they mirror the positive aspects:

  • Because we are a religious community, we repel many who describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious" because, despite being appropriately and rigorously critical of religion, we still look to them too conventionally religious. 
  • Because we are a spiritual community we repel many who would describe themselves as "religious but not spiritual" because, despite being appropriately critical about the spiritual, we are prepared to give consideration to conventional religious language and practice and this makes us look too spiritual.
  • Because as a community we are openly prepared to use the word God as standing for a "limit-case" rather than as a supernatural being, we repel people who call themselves spiritual because we are not firmly committed enough to the existence of a transcendental, supernatural being called God.
  • Because as a community we are prepared to use the word God at all, we repel those atheists who want us dogmatically to use only the language of "limit-case".

I can assure you that, as your minister, it is sometimes a complete nightmare to negotiate this complex contemporary liberal religious/spiritual terrain and to hold this church together in a fashion that gifts us with a strong (enough), and coherent (enough), liberal, secular religion that doesn't simply dissolve into a mass of unhelpfully conflicting theologies and philosophies.

Now I gave this address for the the first time in 2014 and, two years later, I can still only see one meaningful way to hold us together religiously. I think it can only be achieved when we learn again to be wise in the sense of the word as it was used by the Greeks which, as Caputo notes, was "having a healthy respect for everything we do not know". We need to acknowledge, once and for all, that not only can we not know it all but, again to follow Caputo, we do not need to "pretend to know it all."

This should open up a gate for us (an admittedly narrow gate) to be develop an explicit agreement only to hold collectively the most minimalistic of definitions about "God", "reality", "spirituality" and 'religion' and such-like.

A major, obvious, consequence of this is that we simply have to keep from our religious community's centre all maximal definitions that cannot be backed-up without good, shareable, empirical evidence. As individuals each of us may have various more maximal ways of talking about faith, religion and 'God' but they simply cannot be allowed to become central to us as a liberal, free-religious community.

So, for example, this means we mustn't use the word Unitarian in any of its old senses (which in various ways has been a maximal assertion that God is a unitary being (God is 'One') which has often been used to distinguish ourselves from those who make another maximal assertion that God is 'Three'. i.e. Trinitarian, or those who claim God is even more highly pluralistic, i.e. polytheists). So, today, if and whenever we chose to use the word 'Unitarian', we must, I think, henceforth, only be using it to help make the very minimal assertion that, despite the obvious plurality of our human world and the natural universe, somehow everything hangs together in some fashion and so may be said to form a "uni-verse." Anything more than this is way, way, way too maximal and should be avoided.

When it comes to the word God it strikes me that there are two, ready-to-hand, minimal definitions available to our tradition. The first is that offered up by one of our own important theologians', Henry Nelson Wieman's:

"Whatever else the word God may mean, it is a term used to designate that Something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare and increasing abundance. That there is such a Something cannot be doubted. The mere fact that human life happens , and continues to happen, proves that this Something, however unknown, does certainly exist" (Religious Experience and Scientific Method, Macmillan Company, 1926, p. 9).

The second minimal definition is that offered by John Dewey in his book A Common Faith:

We are in the presence neither of ideals completely embodied in existence nor yet of ideals that are merely rootless ideals, fantasies or utopias. For there are forces in nature and society that generate and support the ideals. They are further unified by the action that gives them coherence and solidarity. It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name 'God'. I would not insist that the name must be given (A Common Faith, 2nd ed., Yale University Press, 2013, p. 47).

I think Jerome A. Stone, another important Unitarian thinker, is right to encourage to us to embrace such a minimalist form of religion and, as he observes:

"In between [bold assertions and great skepticism] there is room for an affirmation of a minimal degree of transcendence. If a strong assertion is hard to defend, then perhaps a more cautious and more restrained model will be better able to answer the doubts of our age while providing the support and prophetic criticism which the [generally monotheistic] traditions have offered. Perhaps a minimal model of transcendence can provide a genuine alternative to the choice between a doubtful maximal model and total secular humanism." ("The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence: A Naturalist Philosophy of Religion" (SUNY Press, 1992 p. 10).

Such a minimal, secular, religious model suits well, I think, both the needs and knowledge of our own liberal, free-religious community and also our own age and post-modern culture. 

More than ever if we are to play an effective, full and creative religious role in the world, we need to articulate a minimal, secular, religious alternative to the increasing number of exclusivist, maximal religious approaches that are, alas, gaining ground in so many communities around the world.

The project of articulating this is, modestly but undoubtedly, underway here. I invite your continued support.


Steve Caldwell said…
Atheist writer Greta Christina wrote about the "spiritual but not religious" (SBNR) label a few years ago where she observes that the community support aspects of religious communities are discarded by the SBNR stance.

Here's a short passage from her along with the link to the full article:

As a blogger or commenter somewhere whose name I can’t remember once wrote: The “I’m spiritual but not religious” trope is trying to have the best of both worlds… but it’s actually getting the worst. It’s keeping the part of religion that’s the indefensible, unsupported- by- a- scrap- of- evidence belief in invisible beings; indeed, the part of religion that sees those invisible beings as more real, and more important, than the real physical world we live in. It’s keeping the part of religion that devalues reason and evidence and careful thinking, in favor of hanging onto any cockamamie idea that appeals to your wishful thinking. It’s keeping the part of religion that equates morality and value with believing in invisible friends. It’s keeping the part of religion that involves conferring a sense of superiority onto yourself, solely on the basis of your purported connection with an invisible world.

It’s keeping all that… and abandoning the part of religion that is community, and shared ritual, and charitable works, and a sense of belonging. It’s throwing out the baby, and keeping the bathwater — and then patting yourself on the back and saying, “Look at all this wonderful bathwater I have!”

Dear Steve,

Thanks for the link. I neither knew the piece nor the writer. I'm broadly in agreement with what she says.

She notes that those using the acronym SBNR is like trying "to have the best of both worlds" but actually "getting the worst". Yes again, but it put me in mind of something said by my friend and philosophical mentor, Jonathan Harrison, -- "the trouble with wanting to have one’s cake and eat it is not so much that it is wrong as that it looks impossible. If a way could be found of having both, what sensible man would refuse to take it?"

I suppose the cake I want both to have and to eat is a genuinely a-theistic religion (a religious naturalism really) and Greta Christina, and many like her, don't (at least not yet) seem to have found a way of offering their atheism up in an open-hearted religious way, i.e. as an available collective, liberal religious way to be in the world. I guess this is the project I'm trying to work on in Cambridge. It's destined to fail I'm sure but, a la Samuel Beckett, I keep reminding myself of the question: "Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."

Thanks for writing. Much appreciated.
Anonymous said…
I recall your first address on this topic. I think you've built on it well here. Despite the complexities you outline it remains (for me at least) one of the most important and interesting areas of exploration.
Many thanks
Will P.