Spiritual but not religious


By David Joel Miller

What exactly does “Spiritual but not religious” mean?

Spirituality

Spirituality.
Photo courtesy of Flickr (Bill David Brooks)

A very large number of people here in America are describing themselves as “Spiritual not religious.” There is a growing disconnect between religion and people’s day-to-day life.

As a result of this disconnect we are gaining some things, I hope, such as a wider appreciation of our differences, but we are also losing some things.

In secular programs, those run by government agencies, we try to accommodate people of all faiths and those with no faith. Sometimes this is a challenge. We have to ask people what their religious or spiritual belief is without implying that they need to have one or that the belief they have is not acceptable to the agency.

An example of accommodating faiths and other spiritual beliefs

There are a whole lot of people who are vegetarians, do not eat meat variety vegetarians, not because of religious or health reasons but because they view the killing animals for human food as morally wrong.

Our society seems to be doing a better job of accommodating this particular moral belief. More events are offering vegetarian meals.

It gets harder when we take into account that some faiths do not eat pork, some decline beef and some require particular diets as in kosher.

Beyond dietary restrictions it gets progressively more difficult to accommodate other spiritual beliefs within our increasingly multicultural society.

During intake processes we are supposed to ask about client’s race or ethnicity. An increasing number of clients are finding it difficult to answer that question. Some people are reporting 5 or more different ethnicities in their background.

When talking with clients I try to make it a practice to ask about their spiritual or religious beliefs.

Say the client reports that they are African-American. This tells me nothing about their spiritual beliefs. We need to try to stay open to all manner of possibilities.

More and more people are finding it impossible to answer questions about their faith. We have to tread lightly here. I do not want to imply that they need to have a faith or that any particular faith is preferred, but I do not want to completely disregard their spiritual practices in designing their treatment.

Those few who do answer are resorting to one of two responses. I am a Christian or Spiritual But Not Religious. Most who say Christian do not self-identify with any particular denomination. They are not Catholic; they are not Protestant and so on. Some few report attending Non-denominational churches.

Most who self-describe as Christians are reporting, at least in my experience that they do not attend any particular church.

A very large number are reporting as Spiritual but not religious.

So why does all this matter? From a practical standpoint those who self-identify as believing something do better in treatment than those who have no faith. This benefit includes those who self-identify as Atheists if they also report some particular higher law or principle, say right and wrong, that helps them guide their life and is reassuring in times of stress.

One of the gains from this spirituality moment has been sets of values that people take with them day by day in all areas of their lives. I am suspicious of any faith that requires you to be a believer for a couple of hours each week, while in a particular building, but you are free to spend the rest of the week on raping, pillaging and burning.

One of the things we are losing as a result of this increased emphasis on spirituality and the disconnect from religion, is the loss of meaningful shared rituals.

Rituals give meaning to things which would otherwise be everyday actions.

Rituals are not solely the providence of the religious world. Court proceeding, with that robe, the bailiff and the ritualized language make the whole process seem more meaningful and as a result are intended to increase respect for the law and the workings of the court. The ritual gives the process meaning. Occasionally the system debases the meaning when they do not follow the principles of justice these rituals imply.

Graduation ceremonies are a ritual we can all share to make the transition to another life stage. Marriages used to be a way to make the transition from being two separate dating people; to one committed couple. We still have the ritual despite the loss of meaning that a wedding has after having the parties have several children.

Funerals are also a ritual we all share that helps us negotiate the loss of a person who had some meaning in our life.

In places where there is one dominant faith, rituals are shared by virtue of people’s participation in that faith. With the decline of active participation in a particular religion and an increase in self-identified Spiritual But Not Religious, what has been missing are the rituals that used to accompany life events.

Creating new rituals.

People in recovery have resorted to creating new rituals that may help them to share the emotions and resolve the changes in status without invoking a particular religion.

Addicts may write a “Goodbye Letter” to their drug of choice. There are traditions of sponsorship that may replace the “rite” of confession in certain religions. People celebrate the anniversary of their embarking on the road of recovery.

One remaining challenges has been how to create meaningful shared rituals that do not impinge on people’s particular religious faith and allow full participation in the ritual.

Whatever your spiritual or religious tradition, here is wishing you the best possible life.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books

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One thought on “Spiritual but not religious

  1. More and more whenever I see the question of ethnicity on a form I’m filling out, I simply want to put the answer, “Human” because I worry that differentiating ourselves into different groups of people may be contributing to the lack of connection some might feel with others of another group. For me, religion is also like that. I’m spiritual rather than religious because I *want* that connection, not the separation.

    Like

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