Experts Agree—”Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Extremely Important—Too Bad They Can’t Define It

Since I spend my summers near Minneapolis, I’m part of a working group at my alma mater, the University of Minnesota, called the Religion and the Public University Collaborative (RPUC). Tomorrow we will discuss research by sociologist Nancy Ammerman that led to her important book, Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes. Although I’m often delinquent at RPUC, I am not entirely expelled. And it turns out that I reviewed this book when it came out, so that sharing the review with my compatriots is logical. Also, this relates to what I wrote about “agnostics in 700 words or less” earlier on MBE.

Unfortunately all this is less straightforward than it may seem, in a way that may be passably interesting to the kind of academic geek that that I am.

To begin there was my “first thought, best thought” formulation, to which we will return.  But sadly that draft was far longer than my word limits—the story of my life—such that an extremely compressed version was published as follows:

This is an important critique of common wisdom about supposed polar differences between the “spiritual” and “religious,” and thus by extension about the upsurge of “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR.) The base of evidence—95 fairly representative although disproportionately suburbanite people from Atlanta and Boston—sometimes feels narrow, but is deeper than average since Templeton Foundation funded extensive interviews plus exercises like journaling and photographing meaningful places in people’s lives. Importantly, Ammerman is extending her previous research on Golden Rule Christianity.

Ammerman’s method is using vernacular narratives and descriptions of practices across various domains of life to document lived spirituality. Although the theoretical intervention sometimes gets lost in meandering and repetitive middle chapters, the conclusion pointedly rejects rational choice theories, sweeping secularization models, and the narrowness of certain Weberians. She retools Durkheim’s sacred/profane distinction, now conceived as a continuum and attuned less to consensus than to small groups in everyday life.

In line with common sense, Ammerman documents the multivocal practical meanings of “spirituality”: (1) theistic language plus associated practices like praying or participation in churches; (2) discourses about the sacred immanent in nature, the arts, families, or neopagan practice; and (3) assumptions about spirituality correlating with morality. More importantly, she emphasizes something that should become common sense: being spiritual is not an alternative to being religious—rather the two typically coincide. The few people who fit a SBNR profile are mainly pious evangelicals who use Protestant rhetoric against empty ritualism or people who in practice are neither religious nor spiritual.   

Is that suitable for a blog? Blogs prioritize concision— but in this case concision presupposes a lot.  For starters it expects readers to know Ammerman’s concept of “Golden Rule Christianity.”  That is her umbrella term for liberal Protestants, liberal Catholics, and a center-left fraction of evangelicals whom I call “stealth liberal Protestants,” but whom conservative evangelicals call “Moralistic Therapeutic Deists.”

Likewise it presupposes familiarity with (1) a free-market approach to religion called rational choice theory, (2) the use and misuse of sociologist Emile Durkheim in the academic study of religion, (3)  “sweeping secularization models,” and more. Perhaps that’s for a longer essay to unpack.

“Spirituality” in Action: the Case of Popular Music

Later I wrote the following words, citing Ammerman, for an essay in this book.  It will feed into a book of my own called Listening for More: Spirituality and Cultural Critique in American Popular Music. 

For anyone writing such a book, there is a prior problem of settling on an operational definition for what “religion” we are “listening for more” of.

This is an acute problem when so many musicians want to be considered (the cool kind of) “spiritual” while desperately hoping not to be lumped in with “Christian rock,” even if they actually are Christian. Amid this very wide range of artists, how should we approach musicians who insist they are spiritual but not religious”?  Are they relevant to my data set or not?

Here is how I attacked this problem. First I argued that scholars who cannot distinguish between forms of music that are “more religious” as opposed to “less religious”—because they posit that whatever we like is “our religion” by definition—are using a definition too broad to help us much.  They are also fairly disconnected from vernacular usage. But vernacular understandings only shift our problems:

Our vernacular gives mixed messages about spirituality. People contrast “religion”—referencing institutions and external authorities like the Roman Catholic hierarchy with its dogmas, canon lawyers, and lobbyists—with “spiritualities” that are centered on internalized values and moods (typically cultivated individually) and which treat submission to external authority as something strictly optional and probably undesirable.Such an approach can seriously distort lived experience, since real-life religion typically includes, and can even emphasize, the supposedly “merely spiritual” aspects of cultivating personal values and questioning illegitimate authority. Certainly “religion” should not refer solely to whatever is left over after spirituality (as defined above) is filtered out.

Meanwhile, importantly, our vernacular is not fully consistent. There is also a vernacular category for the spiritual/religious, in which these two terms blend on a shared continuum. Thus, someone whose life is entwined with Catholic institutions (religion) would naturally have values and emotions (spirituality) informed by Catholicism (as a mode of religion/spirituality.)

So we come to the problem:

Given that many musicians and their fans say they are spiritual but not religious, and given our plan to focus on religion (guided by vernacular concepts) a question arises whether to include this blurred continuum under our rubric of religion interacting with popular music.

I think the answer is clearly yes—and not solely because many self-styled spiritual people do not force a zero-sum choice.

Also relevant is that many people underestimate how things that feel to them like mere individual taste or common sense may be covertly informed by larger traditions.For example, Madonna and Oprah Winfrey are role models for spiritualities that were shaped by Italian popular Catholicism and African American Protestantism—whether or not their fans are conscious of this. More abstractly, if we overlay core distinctions from Protestant theology (external law, work-righteousness, and ritualism versus internalized grace and the priesthood of all believers) onto a religious vs. spiritual distinction, the match is too close for coincidence.

In other words, to be self-consciously anti-religious may be the same as being formed by Protestant traditions.Perhaps we could debate whether to call this a vernacular understanding, but for many Protestants it at least comes close.  In any case it suggests how spirituality and religion are entangled.If we treat the self-professed “spiritual but not religious” as religious, we do foist a label on them that they may not desire—not an ideal situation. But still it is more illuminating, for understanding more people, to use an umbrella category that conflates the spiritual and religious on the same continuum, as opposed to using spirituality as a zero-sum distinction to split off and marginalize religion.

First Thoughts/Best Thoughts? My “Unfinished Editors Cut” and the First Draft

Maybe that could be a wrap.  Yet there remain two other versions of my writing on Ammerman. One, saved on my hard drive, is a sort of imagined “editor’s cut”—but sadly one that was never fleshed out before “the studio” started cutting back into a far less ambitious version. It reinstates the last few dozen words I cut to smash down the booknote, while also broaching several ideas that I never bothered trying to stuff in.

Maybe this would have been the best one for MBE—if I had spent my time fleshing out my first draft, doubling it in size instead of cutting it half.

So we come around to my first draft.  My son always told me I revise too much: “first thought, best thought.”  So here’s a test.  I have marked in brackets two stretches that made it all the way to my final review, the one above.  I also filled out a couple of sentences that I first left half-complete, jumping to the next idea and intending to finish later. Otherwise this is the “first thought” version.

Ammerman makes an important intervention against sociological and pundit-based common wisdoms about the supposed polar differences between “spiritual” and “religious.”

[Short stretch similar to the published first paragraph, on the strengths and limits of her data set.]

Importantly she builds on the wide base of her longstanding and important work on “Golden Rule Christianity”—giving additional depth and texture to this work—and especially how the ideas of “spiritual” or the (increasingly important) category of “spiritual but not religious” function for such people.  Her end game is to capture this in narratives that accurately reflect her informants’ vernacular understandings. 

Many of her findings simply reinforce common sense. Unsurprisingly she finds the idea of “spiritual” to be fluid and multi-voiced. 

[Another stretch similar to the final version:  her three-way typology for how “spiritual” can refer to “theistic,” “extra-theistic,” and “moral” understandings.]

Importantly, Ammerman underlines something that in my view should be common sense but is not: that being spiritual is not an alternative to being religious—rather they typically coincide. Most of the people she interviewed who use the idea of “spiritual but not religious” are either pious evangelicals using a typical Protestant rhetoric against “empty ritualism” (classically Catholic, or closer to home) or people for whom religion is, in fact, not salient, just as they report—but who are not much engaged with spirituality either

The theoretical intervention of all this is understated—especially in the middle sections of the book that are meandering and repetitive—yet still forceful, thoughtful, and important.

Ammerman is especially disgusted with rational choice theories popularized by scholars like Rodney Stark, and she underlines how her data make Stark seem notably non-illuminating. She argues that Martin Reisebrodt’s important reworking of Weber’s theory of religion is too narrowly focused to fully account for her sample, since Reisebrodt focuses on ritual actions directed toward benefits from “supernatural powers.”  She takes for granted that strong forms of secularization theory are out of touch with the ongoing salience of spiritual/religious practices, and she proposes to build on, while reworking, a Durkheimian distinction between the sacred and profane that is too often deployed in clumsy and cliched ways. For her, this should not exclude the possibility of a sacred/profane continuum nor fixate on cultural consensus.  

That’s three steps forward, to create an argument that needs to be widely digested and discussed. Sadly the descriptive chapters in the middle sections of the book are one step backward—far too repetitive and at times surprisingly lame and delimited in scope.  

Stick with the first couple of chapters or the article version of her report—that’s five stars.  The conclusion is worth five stars for the content and four for presentation.  The rest of the book is a let-down—I recommend skimming a little and letting a lot go—but, emphatically, I do not want this to deter too many people from the two steps forward.   

Anyone still with me? Anyone think that, even after a massive amount of time I spent revising, this “first thought/best thought” version remains the best— well, except for disrespecting my word limits, not reining in my voice as “scholarly” conventions may have preferred, and not yet being entirely polished?  Maybe that’s just me, but to me it’s interesting to think about.

Anyway, perhaps some of my RPUC compatriots will find this useful, and perhaps someone else who has come this far will, too.  Or I may tear it down after the meeting tomorrow.   

MBE standard notice: The time I spend on this blog is not in addition to a Twitter and FaceBook presence, but an alternative to it.  If you think anything here merits wider circulation, this will probably only happen if you circulate it.

2 thoughts on “Experts Agree—”Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Extremely Important—Too Bad They Can’t Define It

  1. First, a tip of the hat to you for reaching beyond the religious/academic sphere to share your thoughts with the wider world. That is a bold move.

    I confess to having only a passing acquaintance with some of the writers to whom you refer, and a complete non-acquaintance with some others. Even so, I have had a lifetime of interactions with various religious and academic groups and I have some empathy with your dilemma.

    As naive as this may appear, I suspect that none of us has a clear definition of spirituality. It seems to me that we are jumping the gun to analyze what is meant by “spiritual but not religious” if we do not define the terms. My hunch is that many people who use this phrase simply mean that they have feelings and they interpret those feelings as being somehow “spiritual.” If so, then we need to dig down on the perception of the spirit and all that that entails or includes.

    Your discussion of musicians and popular culture icons hints at this, but I would like to see a more thorough consideration. And, don’t let them off the hook. If they are neither spiritual nor religious, say so.

    Your son has good advice. I would add that if you take out the first section of everything you write, then reduce what you write by at least 10%, you will be on the right track. And that’s not just advice for you. That’s for me and every other writer out there.


  2. Pingback: 12 Songs for Christmas: I Got So High That I Saw Jesus | MBE: Mark's blogging experiment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s