Slideshow image

This is the second in a three part series on the rise of Spiritual but Not Religious or SBNR.


I spent some time describing the work of Linda Mercadante in her book Belief Without Borders. She provided a model for her study groups based on age groupings and personality types.

I want to talk in general terms why people either have left the church or those who have never been in church have joined the ranks of SBNRs.

Theology is ‘faith seeking understanding’. Mercadante’s research found that her subjects were engaged in this process as they found themselves engaged in asking where they stood in relation to the Ultimate. As we will see in a moment they have challenged much of the orthodoxy of organized religion. Perhaps there theology is not as consistent and comprehensive as Christian doctrines and creeds. However, in a post-modern society SBNR thinking is closer to mainstream society.

What are some of the key reasons people may reject organized religion:

  • An exclusivism that rejects all religions but one’s own;
  • A paternalistic, wrathful, or interventionist God
  • A static understanding of heaven and hell
  • Oppressive and authoritative approaches within the tradition
  • A non-experiential sense of spirituality
  • A repressive religious tradition, and
  • A view of humans as ‘born bad’

Interestingly, most SBNRs will lump many religious traditions into the same mix. There is no discerning if a denomination differentiates on any of these factors. Most SBNRs have an ill-informed understanding of the doctrines and beliefs of denominations.

We could simply say that they are ignorant of who we are as Anglicans so why should we bother? As former Archbishop Rowan Williams stated:

“… one of the most significant lessons to be learned from the great shift towards post-religious sensibility is how deeply the coercive and impersonal ethos of a good deal of traditional religion has alienated the culture at large.”

Criticism of Religious Institutions:

  1. Transcendence: Mercadante’s found that there was no universal idea of God amongst SBNRs. While they believed in something it was not the Trinitarian God that we purportedly understand. An understanding of God did not line up on the basis of age but rather core themes. SBNRs reject the idea of masculine imagery to describe God. This is because such a God is seen as being demanding, authoritarian, or punitive. Such a God may be associated with an abusive father figure. Jesus was not seen as a saviour but as human beings who were ‘realized masters’, role model, a spiritual teacher and mediator but not a supernatural being. Many SBNRs see God as the Universe. They will say that the universe is telling you something or a higher power.
  2. Human Nature: As expected most SBNRs reject the traditional understanding of human nature. That is, God’s creation is good. God created us to have value, dignity, integrity, and to be good. God wants us to be in relationship with God. However, we as humans are distinct from God and have the freedom to choose and this causes us to sin.

Mercadante’s study found that most defined one’s nature as being the development of personal well-being, to improve one’s life, and promote wellness. The standards by which they measure personal well-being are things like happiness, well-being, or comfort. At the core of any assessment is that human nature is inherently good.

SBNRs struggled with defining good and evil largely because they have no standard by which to judge it (which a religion gives you). Some would avoid making any reference to their having to be a standard.

  1. Community: SBNRs are highly critical of the religious community. They acknowledge that humans are social animals and that we need each other. Communities are healthier and happier in community as it provides common values, roots, connectedness, and stability. Churches are a community with a common orientation to the sacred; we have common understanding of certain truth claims; we share in certain values; and we provide a certain amount of social capital upon which society depends. What we have found with SBNRs is that while they reject religious communities because of reasons of authority etc. they still draw upon traditional ideas of spiritual community. Mercadante’s study found that very few left a spiritual community because of abuse. Rather it is a case that people have high expectations of religious communities to be authentic. SBNRs that left a community did so because they were disappointed. This largely was the result of a lack of spirituality.