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.

heartsutra-siddham
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.”

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