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

Readings: Psalm 14:1

From Tom Shakespeare’s Radio 4 “Point of View” piece “Is it better to be religious than spiritual?”

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.

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. 


In the notices last week I drew your attention to what I thought was a helpfully provocative piece by the sociologist and disability rights campaigner, Tom Shakespeare on BBC Radio 4. It was called "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. It is that, generally, the people who adopt it are trying to distinguish themselves, not only from formal religion, but also from atheism.

But before we continue it's important to note that the word 'spiritual' is an exceptionally slippery word. It is sufficient to point here to a couple of uses that reveal its slippery quality.

Firstly, back in 2007, the French atheist and philosopher, Andre Comte-Sponville, wrote an interesting and serious book called, "The Book of Atheist Spirituality" offering one way of doing what it says "on the tin".

 Secondly, as I often point out here (citing Mark Wrathall), 'a loss of belief in a metaphysical god that is the ground of all existence and intelligibility, and even the loss of belief in a creator God who produced the heaven and the earth is not a disaster . . . in fact it can open up access to richer and more relevant ways for us to understand creation and for us to encounter the divine and the sacred.'

The point is simple, namely, that there clearly exists what could be called an atheist 'spirituality' - something related to the sense of wonder that arises when many atheists or naturalists intellectually engage with, or experience first-hand, the natural world (we are talking here particularly of the sublime).

But, even having made these caveats about the word 'spiritual', it remains the case that most people who use the term SBNR *are* using it to indicate that they hold some sort of belief in a transcendent supernatural reality which many of them call 'God' and, in the phrase SBNR the word 'spiritual' is being used as a contrast to the word 'atheist'. In a nutshell, this indicates why an atheist such as Tom Shakespeare argues for a category called "religious but not spiritual".

But, 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.

The overall tenor of Tom Shakespeare's piece suggests to me that, actually, he, too, understands this. After all, he reveals that, as an atheist, he attends a Quaker meeting and his BBC piece begins to conclude his piece 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) 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, yes, and no - for this point raises another problem. Notice that in his conclusion Shakespeare said that religion "offers discipline, teaching us that there is something outside ourselves 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 use the word 'God' as shorthand for this limit.

Understood in such a fashion, belief in a 'God' as a 'limit-case' is not optional for religion, it's 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 made up, etc. etc.).

But, as experience has and continues to teach me, many people continue to argue that 'God' is an actual being - the God of theism - and, though God is clearly a limit-case (the only real limit-case for a theist), all other limit-cases are *not* God and cannot stand for God. Still others will, of course, argue that, although they recognise the need for limit-cases they have absolutely no need to invoke 'God' in doing this and it seems that ne'er the twain shall meet.

It is at this point that I can bring us to earth in this community and reveal to you one of my most difficult but interesting Gordian knot of a problem that I face as your minister.

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

  • Because we are a spiritual community that is clearly critical of formal religion we attract many people who describe themselves as 'spiritual but not religious'.
  • Because we are a religious community that is open-minded and critical about the spiritual we attract many people who would describe themselves as 'religious but not spiritual' - in other words atheists who 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 so believe in a 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 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 formal religion, we still look to them too conventionally religious. 
  • Because we are a spiritual community that is open-minded and critical about the spiritual, we repel many who would describe themselves as 'religious but not spiritual' because 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 prepared to use the word 'God' as standing for a 'limit-case' rather than 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 simply prepared to use the word 'God', we repel those atheists who want us only to use the language of 'limit-case'.

As your minister I can tell you, 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 uncritical, touchy-feely, believe-what-you-like emptiness.

I can see only one way it can be done and, in various implicit ways, I've been trying to encourage this since the end of 2008. It's time to get explicit folks.

I think this aim of holding atheists and theists together in their various guises can only be achieved when we learn again to be 'wise' in the sense of the word as it was used by the Greeks, namely, as Caputo notes, "having a healthy respect for everything we do not know". We need to acknowledge, once and for all, that not only can we know it all, we do not *need* to "pretend to know it all." It's come up a few times here in the past few months but I think we need to develop a positive, constructive and confident, post-modern agnosticism.

This should open up the door for us, in a church such as this, to developing an explicit agreement to hold, together, only to the most minimalistic of definitions about 'God', 'reality', 'spirituality' and 'religion' and such-like.

A major, obvious, consequence of this is that we must 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 cannot be allowed to become central to us as a community.

So, for example, this means we must no longer use the word Unitarian in any of its old senses (which in various ways has been a maximal assertion that God is 'One' and which has often been used to distinguish ourselves from those who make the maximal assertion that God is 'Three'. i.e. Trinitarian, or that God is even more highly pluralistic). Today, if and whenever we chose to use the word 'Unitarian', we must, I think, henceforth, only use 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.

I would suggest that we function best when we have come to some shared agreement to adopt some kind of minimal definition of God - the limit-case - and today I offer you one of our own theologians', Henry Nelson Wieman's definition that I placed before you a few months ago. Words which are clearly capable of being accepted with a clean heart and full belief by an atheist and theist alike:

"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)

I have added at the end of this post an additional couple of definitions by Jerome A. Stone (again, one of our own theologians) particularly to help the atheist end of the spectrum find a way to use the word 'God' so as to aid, as Stone says, 'conversation and common worship'.

But, to conclude, I would like to finish with some more words of Jerome Stone as an encouragement to us to embrace such a minimalist religion:

"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. If belief in God is abandoned, we are not, as Nietzsche claimed, that if the absence of God is recognised we would be as if unhooked from our sun, condemned to plunge aimlessly in a meaningless universe" ("The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence: A Naturalist Philosophy of Religion" (SUNY Press, 1992 p. 10).

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

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


From “Is God Emeritus? The Idea of God Among Religious Naturalists” by Jerome A. Stone 

Normally I prefer to use “sacred” or occasionally “divine” as an adjective or adverb. However, I find that other people (and I myself in the past) have used the term “God.” So I have developed what I call a minimal definition of God for purposes of conversation and common worship, a translation device for communication between various religious voices. “God is the sum total of the ecosystem, community and person empowering and demanding interactions in the  universe.” Another way I have of speaking of God, when I have to, is to say, that God is the world perceived in its value-enhancing and value-attracting aspects.