SBNR: Spiritual But Not Religious

MP2391“Spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) has become a popular expression. According to Wikipedia, it’s “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.”

Not everyone is taken with the idea. Some time back, I was encouraged to read Dispirited: How contemporary spirituality makes us stupid, selfish, and unhappy by David Webster. Here are his opening words: “When someone tells me that they are not really religious, but that they are a very spiritual person, I want to punch their face. Hard.”

When someone starts a book off with something like that; I want to throw the book down. Hard. Which is not easy to do when you’re reading an excerpt online. Suffice to say, I didn’t purchase it.

The book description on Amazon says, “Dave Webster’s book is a counter-blast against the culturally accepted norm that spirituality is a vital and important factor in human life. Rejecting the idea of human wellbeing as predicated on the spiritual, the book seeks to identify the toxic impact of spiritual discourses on our lives. Spirituality makes us confused, apolitical and miserable . . . “ Regardless of what kind of spirituality it may be, I gather. Evidently, the author suggests we replace “spirituality” with “atheistic existentialism, Theravada Buddhism and political engagement.” That sounds fine, but I have reservations about his overall premise.

Now, according to a recent study done in the United Kingdom, SBNR people are not necessarily stupid, selfish, and unhappy but they are likely to develop a “mental disorder,” “be dependent on drugs” or “have abnormal eating attitudes,” like bulimia and anorexia. So says a paper published in the January edition of the British Journal of Psychiatry. Michael King, a professor at University College London and the head researcher on the project says, “People who have spiritual beliefs outside of the context of any organized religion are more likely to suffer from these maladies.”

I’m not buying this guy’s line either. All SBNR really amounts to is a rejection of organized religion as the “sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth,” as we read above. What’s the problem with that? Additionally, the study separates the “spiritual” from the agnostic or atheist, but as we all know, not every person who is agnostic or atheist belongs to an organized group. Few do, as a matter of fact.

I think what is happening here is a subtle change in the meaning of a word. Words are often the name for several different referents, and consequently, have different meanings. In some cases, over a period of time, there is a change in the words used to represent a referent, and conversely, a change in the meaning of a word and its referents. I think “spiritual, but not religious” simply represents a change in the meaning of the word “spirituality”. The problem is we don’t have new words for the referents to go with it.

That, however, is a secondary problem, the real crux of the matter is that we are hung up on self and group identity and designations. I’m spiritual. I’m religious. I’m Zen. I’m not. Who cares?

Haggling over the meaning of words and clinging to designations are two activities that are considered impediments to the Buddhist path, because words and designations are ultimately sunya, empty. The preferred method of action would be to open our minds and enlarge our understanding of these things.

With that in mind, here is an interesting take on the word “spititual” by the great teacher, Hsuan-Hua, a Chinese Ch’an monk and founder of the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association. It’s from his explanation of the Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra. The Chinese character shen means “God, unusual, mysterious, soul, spirit, divine essence, lively, spiritual being.” Interesting, a word like this does not appear in the Sanskrit version of the sutra. The phrase in question simply reads “maha-mantra” or great mantra. The Chinese character miao or a Sanskrit equivalent is not found in either version.

Heart Sutra in Siddham script with the seed syllable “dhih” in the center.

What is the meaning of spiritual? “Spiritual” is inconceivable. The meaning is just about the same as “wonderful;” nonetheless, “wonderful” (miao) has the meaning of “unmoving,” while “spiritual” (shen) has the meaning of “moving;” there is a kind of movement. The wonderful is unmoving, yet moves everything totally and comprehends everything totally. It doesn’t function through movement. However, if the spiritual doesn’t move, then it is not the spiritual. The spiritual must move. The same word appears in the compound shen tong, which means psychic power; the Chinese literally is “spiritual penetration.” The “penetration” means a going through; there is movement. But in the wonderful there is knowledge without movement.

The Buddha teaches and transforms living beings in other Buddha-countries to realize the Way and to enter nirvana. He knows everything. The wonderful is right here; without using movement, he knows. But with the spiritual you must go to the place to know about it. The spiritual gets to wherever it is going like a rocket going to the moon. When you arrive on the moon, you know what the moon is made of and you know what the creation of the moon was about.”


8 thoughts on “SBNR: Spiritual But Not Religious

  1. Master Hsuan Hua and others are very fond of these taoist saying about the ultimate as they perceive it.
    Master Naong (1320-1376) subsumed the taoist phrase as follows:
    “If you release it, it pervades the whole universe,
    But if you retract it, it transforms into a tiny particle.” (thanks to the Zennist)

    “It” always being “shen”, or in other words “mind”.

    1. The same saying even appears in one of Master Hua’s verse’s on the Heart Sutra:

      Avalokiteshvara shines within, returns the light;
      A Bodhisattva brings all beings to Enlightenment;
      His mind is thus, unmoving, a superior one at peace,
      His mastery and total understanding always bright.
      To him, six psychic powers are a commonplace event,
      Much less could winds and rains of eight directions cause a fright.
      He rolls it up and keeps it hidden secretly away;
      He lets it go to fill the world, increasing its extent.

  2. This excerpt is from the Master’s commentary in the same group of verses, so it’s possible that “miao” might also be in reference to his own verse about the mantra:

    This secret mantra’s every sound defies the thinking mind,
    Just like the orders of a king, obeyed throughout the land,
    And as within his armies, secret passwords unrevealed,
    Requested and misspoken, execute every command,
    This wondrous Mahayana truth transcends analysis,
    Yet ordinary people see the false and think it real,
    The finger pointing to the moon, the moon they cannot find,
    While this mantra, shining brightly, is itself that very mind.

    In any case, I find these verses beautiful, even *wondrous.* (these are my personal translations, not DRBA’s)

  3. Interesting post, David. In the UK, SBNR describes an awful of people who have been swept up by the influx of new-age “chaff” following the collapse of the christian church’s grip on our society. Dolphins, atlantis, crystal healing, wicca (in it’s many modern forms) etc. is widespread and I think attracts many people who are in receipt of mental health care. I think this is where superstition and spirituality become confused and blurred.

    1. Steve – I think one has to be careful here to the extent that mental illness needs to be seen in the relative context of a deviation from cultural norms and mores that is maladaptive in said context, but not always as something absolute or independent of that relationship. To be sure, there are many new age ideas that are, colloquially speaking, “flaky.” On close inspection, however, they really aren’t any more flaky than many far less controversial ideas held by those who follow orthodox religion. The difference, I think, is that the conventionally religious are permitted by the larger dynamics that surround them to integrate their beliefs into their lives, their families and communities so that holding the beliefs is not an impedance to daily living. Indeed, the community rates the beliefs as an asset. For someone with less conventional spiritual beliefs, this integration, while not impossible, is much more difficult to pull off. Without finding that niche where they are able to fit in and can be successful, or just accepted, be it in the arts, alternative medicine, or even a community of drop-outs, what have you, these folks usually either must abandon their ideas or wind up really alienated and lost.

  4. Dave – putting aside the buddhist predilection for eschewing words to get to a deeper truth, while a worthwhile endeavor to be sure, I see the problem in terms of two things. Organized religions that have convinced believers and unbelievers alike that organized religion owns the word relgious, on the one hand, and folks who are disillusioned with organized religion eschewing the word religion and replacing it with the word spiritual which they find less offensive, on the other. The latter group, I think, should instead reclaim the word religion from orthodoxy. That is, one does not have to subscribe to an orthodox faith or any faith at all to identify themselves as religious. Put another way, I would say that the SBNR folks are in fact religious.

    Refreshing blog, btw

    1. Thanks for the refreshing comment. You make a good point, but since religion owns the words religious, as you point out, it’s not going to be easy to wrestle it from their tight fists and reclaim it. I think many feel it is easier to give new meanings to less “owned” words or just create new terms. Ultimately, I guess it’s a personal preference what you want to call yourself – religious, spiritual – it’s all meat on the same bone.

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