Tracing the Roots and Common Beliefs of the Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR)

[Originally posted on the Religion in American History blog, June 30, 2014.]

“Americans want the fruit of religion, but not its obligations.”

– George Gallup, Jr.

It is hard to deny that one of the primary changes in American religiosity is the shift from institutional religion to one that is more personal, or “spiritual” as many of the participants describe it. This kind of religiosity is difficult to track because there is no organization keeping account of the numbers of members or the participation of individuals. That, in many ways, is the point. The spiritual but not religious (SBNR) are not interested in being counted. They don’t want to belong. They, instead, want to use their own personal preferences to construct their own spirituality, without the administrative or doctrinal constraints of organized religion, and self-define what it means to be spiritual, or even enlightened.

Two recent books take a look at this segment of society, one looking at its roots and the other its contemporary underlying set of beliefs. In American Gurus: from Transcendentalism to New Age Religion, Arthur Versluis suggests the term “immediatism” to describe the way many of the SBNR practitioners approach their spirituality. He writes, “Immediatism refers to a religious assertion of spontaneous, direct, unmediated spiritual insight into reality (typically with little or no prior training), which some term ‘enlightenment.’ Strictly speaking, immediatism refers to a claim of a ‘pathless path,’ to religious enlightenment—the immediatist says ‘away with all ritual and practices!’ and claims that direct spiritual awakening or enlightenment is possible all at once” (2).

I spoke to him this weekend about his book and the connection to the SBNR segment in America and he noted that while the trend is relatively recent, emerging in the in the latter part of the 20th century, it is not without its precedents, nor is it just an American phenomenon. Nevertheless, he sees there were a number of important persons establishing the foundation upon which the SBNR manifest their immediatism. His book traces these people who were precedents to the modern SBNR religious trend. He looks at Emerson and Whitman, William James, the Beats, Bernadette Roberts, Franklin Jones, Andrew Cohen, and many more. While he is cognizant that the trend crossed both the Atlantic and Pacific, the book still has a focus on the American aspect of this history, while acknowledging non-American’s participation; individuals such as Alan Watts.

Focusing more on organizing and analyzing the beliefs of the spiritual but not religious, Linda A. Mercadante’s Beliefs without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious attempts to find the underlying ethos which the SBNR hold in common. By conducting extensive interviews, going to the places the SBNR utilize and looking broadly on the internet, Mercadante tries to piece together a fuzzy but useful set of ideas which generally apply to the SBNR. While acknowledging the conclusion is partial and that the SBNR are hardly consistent or that their ideas are not without contradiction, she nevertheless assembles a set of common themes that allow scholars of religion at least a starting point to begin analyzing the beliefs of the SBNR. For instance, many of her respondents do think there is religious or spiritual change coming although they were reluctant to call it a “New Age.” Mercadante calls this “Post-Christian Spirituality.” At its root is a push towards individualization and a shift of locus of authority.

It is here where we can begin to see the overlap with what Mercadante documents and what Versluis examines the precedents of. Mercadante claims that this emerging ‘self spirituality’ results in “unmediated individualism” or the “sacralization of the self” where each person his “his or her own spiritual authority” (73). In essence, the new spirituality renders the individual supremely responsible for their own spiritual development, and therefore we can say their immediatist tendencies emerge, frequently defining their own criteria for enlightenment. If all other authorities are rejected, then it is only the individual who reigns supreme in declaring what is the final goal of spiritual practice and when one has reached it. Mercadante continues, “they virtually all rejected religious or salvationary exclusivism and championed an internal rather than transcendent ‘locus of authority’” (74). This is what is so useful by looking at this topic using both books. Versluis notes that the West has been hostile to “the idea that we can have direct access to nondual forms of consciousness” (13). Not surprisingly, Mercadante found that her participants generally rejected traditional western forms of religious practice in favor of hybridized versions, adopting different aspects of the east including eastern ideas, like reincarnation, and practices, such as meditation and yoga. Using Versluis’ terminology, we find that the SBNR are immediatists who are “describing a kind of ad hoc transcendence that, as a basic human capacity or possibility, might be glimpsed even without particular disciplines and traditions that point towards and encourage realization of it” (14).

The historian in me really appreciates the way Versluis brings together many of the stories and people who made the current SBNR situation possible. The sociologist in me loves the way Mercadante was able to sift through the myriad interviewee responses and find some patterns and common themes. Together both books point to a segment of American religiosity that we are all aware of, but struggle to grasp. Mercadante and Versluis give us two important and useful ways to approach this topic. I am excited with their attempts and hope their work encourages others.

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Freemasonry in American Religious History

[Originally posted on the Religion in American History blog, April 30, 2014.]

As the semester is over and I, like so many of my colleagues are busy grading, I will keep this short. Recently David G. Hackett of the University of Florida has published his examination of Freemasonry in America. Entitled That Religion in Which All Men Agree: Freemasonry in American Culture (California UP 2014), the book surveys important aspects of Freemasonry spanning 1730s through the 1920s. He looks at the shifting roles of masons in American society in the first part, and then gives focused examinations of topics, such as Prince Hall Freemasonry, Native Americans, and Freemasonry in relationship to Catholics and Jews in the second part.

Importantly, he engages why scholars of religion look at Freemasonry, even though masons themselves do not see it as a religion. He explains, “by expanding and complicating the terrain of American religious history to include a group not usually seen as a carrier of religious beliefs and practices, this book intends to show how Freemasonry’s American history contributes  to a broader understanding of the multiple influences that have shaped religion in American culture” (4). By “weaving Freemasonry into American history,” Hackett demonstrates that this so-called “Handmaiden to Religion” was much more active in disseminating religious values and mediating religious conflict. Lastly, his book continually addresses issues of gender, the tensions between public and private, and how masonry mediated these space, often creating a private male sphere, at least semi-autonomous from the private domestic sphere.

Since there are still too few studies of the role of Freemasonry in American religious history, Hackett’s volume is very welcome. Perhaps his work will inspire more scholars of American religion to include freemasonry in their studies. So far, it has been an understudied influence.

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Invented Religions

[Originally posted on US Religion in American History blog.]

A couple of months ago I wrote about the recent creation of Yeezianity, the so-called religion of Kanye West. I was dubious about it, and its status as a religion. Not long after, however, I read a book that has made me reconsider my position. The book is Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith by Carole M. Cusack (Ashgate 2010). Building on the themes of this book, she has recently guest edited an issue of the journal Culture and Religion (14.4 2013). In each instance Cusack argues that not only are these invented religions real religion, but they also reveal something important about how we define religion and how religion is utilized. What is different, she points out, is that these tradition do not attempt to legitimize themselves through claims of lineage, historical continuity, or revelation. Instead these tradition are self-consciously created out of popular contexts and the creators and followers do not care about the religion’s origin.

This conscious acceptance of the invented nature of the religion is what makes this category of religion so fascinating. While acknowledging that in some form or fashion all religions are invented, Cusack claims that since the 1950s, a new forms of religiosity has emerged, ones that are “advertised as fictional from the start.” “The model of ‘invented religion’ that I have advanced emphasises the self-conscious attention to the invented – i.e. not revealed or otherwise validated – status avowed within these religions.” Cusack looks at a variety of traditions including Discorianism, the Church of All Worlds—an eco-pagan group founded on Robert Heinlein’s A Stranger in a Strange Land, The Church of the SubGenius, and more recent traditions based on movies, Jediism and Matrixism, and finally the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. In each of these traditions, the founders were well aware of the fictitious circumstances in which the traditions were founded, and the followers were too.

Taking Cusack’s explanation into account, we can see that Yeezianity squarely falls into the category of invented religion. Cusack also states that invented religions emphasize narrative and creativity. This certainly describes the approach taken by Brian Liebman, the founder of Yeezianity. Invented religions also open up a lens into how religion is conceptualized by society in general, and scholars of religion, in particular. In January, Candace Chellew-Hodge complained in a blog post on Religion Dispatches that Millennials are inventing religions that are shallow and incomplete, primarily because they ignore human conditions such as suffering . “By ignoring the question of suffering of humanity, and role of religion in addressing that suffering, I am afraid that this new generation is denying itself the opportunity to truly connect not just with the divine, if that’s their thing, but with each other.” This claim, however, judges these invented religion by the standards of older, established faiths. If Cusack is correct, though, this is an invalid comparison. She notes that Christianity is the starting point for most in the west to conceptualize a real religion and invented religions, however, rejects these contentions for the basis of religion and substitutes their own. The problem, she notes, is that invented religions “cannot escape from the shadow of Christianity.”

Cusack concludes by contextualizing invented religions within notions of secularization. Scholars have been long concerned about the diminishing role of religion in western society. But is it diminishing or is it changing to something that is very different from preconceived notions of what is real religion? Cusack notes that invented religions indicate that religious impulse is still there, just manifesting differently. For the religions she focuses, she claims, are “new religious forms, and the science fiction narratives they draw upon are one of the new sites of the sacred in the contemporary West.” Perhaps contemporary pop-culture is also one of those sites leading to the semi-deification of Kanye West. After reading Cusack’s volume I am certainly willing to reconsider the position stated in my previous post. Yeezianity is certainly not like most traditional religious traditions. But perhaps, that’s the point.

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