For the last couple of decades, there has been rapid growth in the number of Americans who call themselves "spiritual but not religious."
In fact, this group has become so prominent that scholars who have begun to study them have reduced them to this moniker: SBNR. And although there has been lots of speculation about who these folks are and why they now include themselves among the SBNRs, there has been precious little serious effort to get a representative sample of them to explain themselves.
Linda A. Mercadante, a professor of theology at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, has spent the last several years wandering the country doing in-depth interviews with lots of SBNRs. The result is her insightful new book, Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious.
Some of the book is devoted to helping readers understand the country's changing religious landscape, which now prominently features at least 20 percent of the population that has no religious affiliation whatever. These so-called "nones" include but are not limited to the SBNRs.
Although the growth in the number of "nones" may "indicate we are becoming more secular in America," she writes, "something else may be happening instead. Outside organized religion there is an amazing profliferation of spiritual alternatives which both promote and cultivate the significant proportion of the 'nones' who are spiritual seekers (the SBNRs). . .So, although America is still considered to be more religious than many other European-based nations, the quality of this ethos may be changing. Given the decline of permanent religious affiliation among growing numbers of Americans, we seem to be moving to a 'religion of no religion.'"
In her interviews with SBNRs, Mercadante covered lots of subjects but eventually asked them some version of these four questions:
1. Is there anything larger than myself, any sacred or transcendent dimension, any Higher Power?
2. What does it mean to be human?
3. Is spiritual growth primarily a solitary process or is it done with others?
4. What will happen to me, if anything, after death?
Did she find lots of religious illiteracy in the country? Of course. It's so prevalent that it's impossible to miss. But she also found articulate individuals who care about the eternal questions, and the book lets the rest of us in on some of their thinking.
America is a country full of dynamic religious life, even though an increasing percentage of that life has nothing to do with traditional faith. Mercadante's book helps us humanize that percentage in useful ways.
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A SLIP OF THE PAPAL TONGUE
What happens when your every word is studied? Well, sometimes you mess up, as Pope Francis did the other day by mispronouncing a word so that it became a vulgarity. It's silly to be offended by such things. It reminds me of when my late nephew was a toddler and couldn't say T-words very clearly. They often came out like F-words. So he'd excitedly yell it out when he saw a truck.
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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online. To read it click here.