I was intrigued when CNN recently ran a piece about spiritual-but-not-religious folks on their Belief Blog. In spite of the survey data that affirms that up to a third of the U.S. population self-identifies as such, we are all but invisible in the media and popular culture. Yet the fact that the article generated over 9,000 comments demonstrates that there’s clearly an appetite for dialogue on the topic.
As I read, I was immediately disappointed by the author’s tone of judgment and annoyance. I had hoped for better, but the essay was one of those shallow straw man dismemberings that pass for thought pieces in the mainstream media.
Written by Alan Miller, a film director and cultural commentator, the piece characterized the spiritual-but-not-religious as representing “some of the most retrogressive aspects of contemporary society”. Wow. For Miller, such people are relativist flakes who are too undisciplined and narcissistic to commit to either a religious tradition, or atheism predicated on the primacy of science and reason. In his world there are only two options.
The caricature of spiritual-but-not-religious approaches as a “cop-out” appears to be based purely on the author’s personal impressions. Yet there is an emerging scholarship around the questions of what motivates the spiritual-but-not-religious, who they are, and how they fit into the broader landscape of spiritual/religious expression. I had hoped that there’d be some mention of this because I’m quite interested in the findings. Sadly, Miller only bemoaned “the implosion of belief” that he assumes is behind the growth of this group of people.
The reality obvious to anyone paying attention is that there is a lot of diversity within the spiritual-but-not-religious. The move away from mainstream religion is far too complex and widespread to simply dismiss as a “cop-out”. Instead, I think the trend reflects larger patterns in the story of human development, where spirituality is one domain of many.
Spiral dynamics is a useful framework for understanding human complexities and social change, and I think it has something to offer to this discussion. Based on the work of Clare Graves and Don Beck, spiral dynamics is basically a typology of “memes” that humans evolve through. Here are the memes, in the order that we move through them:
Beige – the central value is survival; this meme is characterized by instinct and limited self-awareness (e.g. toddlers)
Purple – safety; tribal, kinship structures, group identity (e.g. fundamentalism)
Red – power; self-interest, conflict, domination, zero-sum game (e.g. Tea Party)
Blue – order; authority, convention, rule of law, stability, tradition, absolutes (e.g. mainstream religions, GOP)
Orange – achievement; reason, science, technology, humanism, the Enlightenment (e.g. academia, atheism, secularism)
Green – community; egalitarianism, post-modernism, relativism, consensus (e.g. peace and civil rights movements)
Yellow – synergy; integration, flexibility, change, flux, interdependence, big picture (e.g. spiral dynamics)
Turquoise – holism; compassion, dependent co-arising, cooperation, unity consciousness (? emerging…)
This is way oversimplified, but it gives you a general idea. Researchers have used quantitative methods (e.g. survey data) to describe profiles of different societies. For example, in northern Europe there’s a larger percentage of the population in orange and beyond, as compared to other places. In the U.S., the center of gravity hovers around blue-orange (ergo our tediously polarized politics – meh). In short, the idea is that as we evolve, individually and collectively, we shift towards the turquoise end of the spectrum (though many of us may never even get to orange). It’s by no means a neat, simple progression. The shifts are uneven and messy, but I’m just trying to give you the gist of it here.
Given this framework, I would argue that spiritual-but-not-religious people start to show up mostly in the orange meme and beyond. As we evolve, many of the structures of the preceding memes stop working for us, and the religions that go along with purple-red-blue are either adapted or left behind. We may still draw on some practices and core beliefs of those religions, but we are no longer willing or able to embrace all of the institutions and dogma.
Because we cut across quite a few memes, there’s a good deal of topography in the territory of the spiritual-but-not-religious. From orange-meme scientist yogis who sense the presence of spirit in unified field theory, to green-meme feminists rekindling relationships with the goddess, to the teenagers of today who seem to intuitively know that all the rules are changing, and yet I AM. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s very much in progress.
From Miller’s orangish standpoint, atheism and big religion are the only options. Folks like him are impatient with all our untidy improvising, experimenting, and synthesizing. They always will be. Unfortunately, they are so busy being right that they don’t see that the path continues on ahead… that there’s more to this journey… more to be revealed and co-created. Yet the soul calls us to adventure. And so we unfold.