Sunday morning’s Parade Magazine (October 4, 2009) published the results of a Parade survey on American spirituality. While all such surveys have their limits, I enjoy reading the findings. Here are some brief comments on the more intriguing findings.
1. While 69% of Americans say they believe in God, 77% of Americans pray to him. That means more people pray to God than believe in God. To whom are these 8% of Americans praying?
2. Religious Americans comprise 45% of the population, while 50% rarely bother with religious services at all. A little over half of these people (27%) don’t practice any kind of religion, which leaves 24% of the respondents who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” (Plus the 1% left over who didn’t really understand the question.) This SBNR thing is really taking off, but there are still millions of Americans who don’t fit this label. Maybe someone should start a support group for them: Religious but not spiritual.
3. While I am often told that the reason people belong to a religion is for community, it turns out that this is true of only 8% of Americans. I get this totally. The older I get the less inclined I am to join something or to seek out a community. Most of the I want to be left alone. But not all of the time. What we SBNR types need is a “once in a while” community where we gather maybe once or twice a year to share our spiritual lives and struggles.
4. Here is a number that I found surprising: only 14% of Americans feel their religion makes them safe and secure. Does this mean that the other 36% of the religious but not spiritual crowd join a religion to feel more anxious and fearful? Or does it mean that religious is scaring the shit out of most of the people who profess to belong to one? If your religion is all about hell and damnation, or blowing yourself up to get a date in heaven (which probably doesn’t allow dating anyway), or about why God keeps kicking you when you are down, then I can see why you don’t find religion all that comforting. Personally, I think comforting religions are a scam. I want a religion that discomforts me; that challenges me to see through the egoic bullshit that passes for spirituality and theology in this country, and helps me to live justly, kindly, and humbly with the fact that I don’t know jack.
5. The survey wasn’t very kind to clergy. Only 12% of Americans believe their religion is the one true religion, while 59% believe that all religions are valid. Cleary we clergy are failing at our stated mission: getting people to join our brand and shun the competition. In the real world, Macy’s doesn’t send it shoppers to Gimble’s (which is why there is no longer any Gimble’s). We clergy aren’t supposed to help you find the religion that best suits you, we are supposed to sell you our suit no matter how unsuited you are to it. If 88% of Americans think that other religions are equally effective as their own they might consider shopping for salvation elsewhere. This does not bode well for our job security.
6. And it gets worse: only 17% of respondents say they consult clergy for help when dealing with a problem. As a writer of a spiritual Q&A column for Spirituality & Health magazine I am dependent upon those who ask me for advice, so this number has got to increase or I will be out of a job. Who do they consult? Friends and family! Can you imagine? What does your married friend know about marriage that your celibate priest hasn’t read in a book? To be honest, anything you need to know about male-female relationships you can find in the Bible. Which is why priests are celibate. Who wants to live the biblical family ideal? My favorite book on relationships is “Men are from Mars, Women are from Penis.” Or something like that.
So if people don’t turn to clergy for advice, and they don’t think that any clergyperson has the pick that will unlock the gates of heaven, why bother with clergy at all? Man, this is depressing.
Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe clergy, too, know the old ways are no longer speaking to most Americans. Maybe a growing number of clergy are admitting to themselves that they too are spiritual but not religious. Certainly that speaks to my situation.
So what should we SBNR clergy do? Given the way Americans are moving, there may be a real need for post-religious spiritual mentors to help people navigate the intricacies of SBNR. SBNR “clergy” would be trained in spiritual practices and post-modern theologies. They wouldn’t care about brand labels and denominations. They would care about you waking up to your innate divinity. They wouldn’t be limited to one way, but grounded in the full spectrum of the wisdom of the world’s religions, mythologies, transpersonal psychologies, etc., and capable of helping those who wish to deepen their spiritual nature without having to align themselves with one brand of faith or another.
Those SBNR clergy interested in exploring the evolution of classically trained clergy in a SBNR world should contact my friends Rev. Ian Lawton and Steve Frazee at www.sbnr.org. Let them know that you are interested in attending a gathering of SBNR clergy to explore our role in the emerging SBNR world. If enough of us are out there, I bet we can do a lot of good, and SBNR.org can help us do it.
If you aren’t part of the clergy and yet still find yourself in the SBNR camp, check out www.sbnr.org for yourself. There is a lot of exciting things happening there.