June 6, 2014 § 1 Comment
The landscape of Britain’s religious and spiritual life is changing. We all know fewer people are attending worship services, and that young people have lower rates of belief in God. Yet often, the data presents us with really interesting puzzles of how people understand themselves. For example, 11% of British atheists also call themselves Christian and 35% of people who never attend a religious service believe in some sort of ‘God or Higher Power’. A growing number of people who don’t fit into a religious box are claiming a ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ identity, something Tom Shakespeare argues against in this article on the BBC. Instead, his proposal is that people become religious-but-not-spiritual, to benefit from traditions and avoid supernatural beliefs.
“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.”
This is all good and well, and indeed, at its best, religion can do these things. As a Quaker, Tom has found the right tradition for him – one low on doctrine, and high on social justice work and community. I’ve attended a small number of Quaker gatherings and the folks there couldn’t be nicer. I remember being introduced to three Quakers, the first of whom believed in God, the second who wasn’t sure, and the third who was an atheist. I like that comfort with complexity. (This in itself seems to be a growing trend. My colleague Rev. Erik Martinez Resly at The Sanctuaries in DC has written a great piece exploring why the young people he works with are less interested in whether God is ‘real’ or not, and more interested in why does it matter?)
But I think Tom’s offer to us non-religious folks is a weak one. Joining in with religious life as a non-believer doesn’t feel integral. Even if I am welcomed with open arms, at some point there is the awkward moment of division between me as a non-believer and much of the community that is bound by faith.
More than that, I think he misinterprets what being spiritual-but-not-religious means to people. He sees it as a new-age category where all SBNR’s use crystals and have their palms read.
“It’s that [SBNR] 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.”
My professor Nancy Ammerman at Boston University, has studied what people mean when they claim to be ‘spiritual’, and it is rather surprising. Religious people use the word to mean a religious spirituality, i.e. – a relationship with God or belief in religious teaching. Both religious and non-religious people use it to mean ethical principles, such as the Golden Rule, but non-religious people use ‘spirituality’ to mean a sense of something more, something beyond the everyday. There is often no direct definition for what that may be, but there is a strong worldview of experiencing life as more than the sum of its parts.
So why can’t there be a place for people like this to come together? The Sunday Assembly has already stepped back from its initial use of atheism, and now embraces all sorts of non-believes, including those who are spiritual-but-not-religious. I think what most ‘spiritual’ people are doing is rejecting dogmatic, judgmental and backward looking religion and finding meaning elsewhere. Yes, they may be statistically less interested in community – but I think this is largely because they don’t see anything that caters to them! We’re experiencing an epidemic of loneliness in the West; one-in-four Americans cannot name a single close friend with who they can talk about their personal troubles and triumphs.
I’m really glad Tom has found a place for him, but I think we need to do more than simply invite people into existing communities to meet the needs of those rejecting religion.
June 6, 2014 § Leave a comment
A big thanks to those of you who helped complete and shared the survey I put together exploring what a community for non-religious people might look like. Nearly 800 people responded, which was fantastic!
This pdf shares the results of the survey and gives you a sense of what I’ve been learning this year in my studies at the Harvard Divinity School. I’m excited about training to become a minister of non-religious people, so if you’d like to talk more – please let me know, I love exploring these questions.
Download the survey results here. (pdf)
March 30, 2014 § 1 Comment
We have a call to live, and oh
A common call to die.
I watched you and my father go
To bid a friend goodbye.
I watched you hold my father’s hand,
How could it not be so?
The gentleness of holding on
Helps in the letting go.
For when we feel our frailty
How can we not respond?
And reach to hold another’s hand
And feel a common bond?
For when we touch the heights above
And every depth below,
We touch the very quick of love;
Holding and letting go.
March 18, 2014 § Leave a comment
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on—on—and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
Siegfried Sassoon, 1920
March 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.
On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.”
David Foster Wallace
January 18, 2014 § Leave a comment
“Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice seduced).”
–J.R.R. Tolkien, Mythopoeia