What does it mean?
Could be a few things. The easiest answer is that the person who claims this all too trendy idea has rejected organized religion but still believes there is some sort of higher power in the universe. Or some say spiritual in the same way I would describe my sense of wonderment when I observe Hubble telescope photographs, watch documentaries about exotic fish in the deepest parts of the ocean, or sit at Steamworks and drink beer while Shane explains the Higgs Boson to me.
This article in the BBC takes a slightly different angle:
To summarize, researchers have found that those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” are much more likely than theists or non-theists to suffer from mental disorders such as depression or chronic anxiety. This is an interesting idea, but not an altogether surprising one.
The are a lot of ways we could slice this onion…here are a few:
- It is the disjointedness of belief that there is something non-material in the universe that gave rise to life, but that the true nature of this spirit is unknowable, or at least unknown, to the individual, giving rise to sense of confusion or disconnectedness with the universe.
- Many who fall into this category used to be religious but can’t completely sever themselves from the idea of a creator or divine being. The strong earlier association with dogmatic religion creates a tension between the certainty that one might associate with the former self’s beliefs and the newer realization that these beliefs cannot possibly be true. Thus leaving the person merely spiritual, but living in the grip of fear and anxiety.
- The person has discarded their faith, leaving them to a degree either ostracized or at least shut out from what may have been an important part of their family and social life. Religion is out of the question, but the spirituality calms them and fills some of the void now created from being excluded from the community they once had with religion.
- This person has sought out a worldview that is based on reason and science, discarding religion. However, their emotional insecurities and lack of fortitude prevent them from making a strong pronouncement that there either is no god or that their worldview incorporates no deities or supernatural beings. Their lack of outright atheism does not make them unhappy…rather, their lack of emotional stability precludes them from such a definite position.
I personally prefer the last one, although I’m sure the effect is explained by a combination of all these as well as some that I didn’t think of. Whatever the case, while we often find the idea of “SBNR” to be a little bit silly, we should remind ourselves that in general we can be allies with people who think this way. After all, when someone claims to be SBNR we can in general deduce that they believe in science (and that science should be taught in the classroom), they advocate secular government, and they value the welfare of human beings on this earth (as opposed to looking past this world to a fictitious heavenly realm). They most likely distrust religious charlatans and most likely have no problem with gay people. This puts them pretty close to where I’m at on the spectrum of theists to non-theists.
While I don’t normally advocate intellectual or moral equivocation, there is a time to be diplomatic and seek common ground where it can be found. Let’s remember what we are for, what we are against, and what is most important out of all those things. Embrace the ideas of your SBNR friend while planting the seeds of logic and reason. Maybe you can be a friend and provide them with the emotional security they so desperately seek anyway.
And in the meantime, suggest that they replace their spirituality with a healthy dose of something that flows from a well that for the freethinker never runs dry – Wonderment.