Monday, October 05, 2009

Religion on Parade or Parade on Religion

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 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 can help us do it.

If you aren’t part of the clergy and yet still find yourself in the SBNR camp, check out for yourself. There is a lot of exciting things happening there.


Eruesso said...

I'm curious, do SBNR clergy carry Orange Catholic bibles? Frank Herbert would be proud.

lmercadante said...

I'm working both sides of that street and neither one follows the stereotypes. I train future clergy and I'm going across the U.S. and Canada interviewing SBNR people. Common assumptions are being challenged on both sides. You can read the comments and reflections of both groups on my blog and see other information about the project by clicking the "spiritual but not religious" tab. Share your thoughts.

Rabbi Rami said...

Hi, Linda. I checked out and found it very interesting. It seems that you don't promote your own theology, just help people create a healthy one for themselves. How do you define a healthy theology?

I take Micah 6:8- "walk humbly with your God"- to mean that we should not take any theology too seriously. While I certainly write a lot about God, I know that I don't really know.

Your work with addiction and recovery also sounds interesting. I just published a book on 12 Step as a spiritual practice (Recovery, the sacred art, from Skylight Paths), and I would love to hear your take on it.

Jim Wells said...

I find myself with many mixed thoughts about this post of yours. On the one hand I can do without much that seems to me outdated and simply silly when it comes to religious liturgy and practice, and on the other hand I wonder about the whole "fabric of society" issue. No matter how flawed, is there something about religious practice that has positive effects? Another thought is that SBNR attitudes of the sort you suggest and clergy might be similar to those found at a Unitarian Universalist Church. I have taken a position I think is much like yours for many years, and yet converted to Judaism in 2005 and am a member of a Conservative synagogue. I think there is something about immersion in a specific ancient tradition which can offer a depth of perspective less likely found in many modern ecumenical experiences. Having said that, I still describe myself as a Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jew who is much more interested in learning to live and love in the most harmonious ways possible than to get distressed too much about how to know the Unknowable.

On page 136 of "True Success: Ideas About Living And Loving In An Unbalanced World" I wrote in 1991 "Any religious practice which demeans us or causes us all too often "to sweat the small stuff" is likely to do more harm than good. We especially want to guard against rituals becoming the ends in themselves rather than a means toward achieving greater personal and corporate spiritual maturity (which implies loving attitudes and actions) and toward expressing our joyful gratitude to God." I would add now, as we understand God.

As you know, I continue to explore these ideas and sometimes write about them at Thank you for sharing your always thought-provoking ideas in the various places you do.