Being Spiritual but Not Religious

Past, Present, Future(s)

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William B. Parsons
  • New York, NY: 
    , June
     290 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


William Parsons’ Being Spiritual but Not Religious is an important collection of essays on a dynamic and fast-growing group: the “Spiritual But Not Religious” (SBNR). Surveys of the American population during the last thirty years show how powerful and widespread this SBNR cohort is, but we have few books that grapple with the demographics, internal diversity, and cultural impact of people who call themselves “spiritual.”

This volume does many things well. I will highlight three of them here.

First, the book adds significantly to what we know about the origins of this fast-growing tradition. Parsons provides an excellent introduction, orienting the reader not just to the volume but also to the many American impulses and strands that contribute to the movement. Other authors fill in interesting details. Parsons and Robert Fuller lay out a genealogy of key terms such as “spirituality” and “mysticism,” showing how these terms changed in Transcendentalist and liberal Protestant America and then informed unchurched and spiritual movements today.  Parsons and Sean Fitzpatrick examine the  harmonial, psychological, and therapeutic origins of SBNR, including how the practices of psychotherapy constituted a new ritual space that vied with churched spaces and practices. They also challenge the idea that this psychological tradition has generated spiritual narcissism—also an important argument (5). Leigh Schmidt adds to our understanding of this tradition’s genealogy in an insightful chapter that shows how the “death of God” theology of the 1960s made it possible for Americans to seek God outside of traditional church boundaries.  And Matthew Hedstrom, who has shown in other work that he is acutely aware of the therapeutic dimensions of the SBNR, has contributed a chapter focused on how this tradition appropriates (and misappropriates) Buddhism and mindfulness meditation. These chapters together shed light on the complicated origins and layers of the SBNR movement.

Second, the book is methodologically eclectic. The SBNR or “nones” are studied extensively today by sociologists, and that literature is certainly cited here in footnotes. But this volume is a bit different, as it gathers a range of scholars to understand a group that has an elusive history and many contemporary manifestations. Contributors using different methods show us different things. For example, Linda Mercandante, Elaine Howard Ecklund, and Di Di utilize surveys and interviews to understand better the range and key elements of spiritual belief.  Others such as Melissa Wilcox, use methods closer to ethnography to arrive at more qualitative analyses of SBNR practice and lifeways. Still other contributors take a prescriptive voice, something not always seen in academic settings. Jason Kelly argues that the mystical core of the spiritual tradition includes an unfolding idea of “cosmic consciousness” that could alter thinking about the environment and mobilize people to respond to climate change. Jorge Ferrer and William Vickery examine ways to realign the SBNR movement so that it steers clear of solipsism and sectarianism. Chad Pevateaux, for his part, notes the importance of the SBNR critique of oppressive religious doctrines and argues that another way of thinking about spiritual fellowship can be recovered from the Enlightenment onwards, one emphasizing inclusion and communal interconnection.

Lastly, Jeffrey Kripal provides an insightful personal reflection on the relationship between the academic study of religion and the growing SBNR movement. How does our field and its methods generate SBNR perspectives? All of these authors bring different theories and methods to the table; the result is a better understanding of this movement as complex, internally diverse, unstable and dynamic.

Third, I particularly like how this volume explores the mostly neglected internal diversity of the SBNR. It used to be that books on America’s spiritual marketplace focused on white, middle- and upper-middle class inner journeys. An earlier generation of scholars associated the SBNR with baby-boomer women in particular. Recent survey data from Pew and other organizations however show that the SBNR and related groups, such as those with “no religion,” are actually very diverse.

This volume begins examining this diversity with several excellent contributions from Joy Bostic, Andrea Jain, Matthew Hedstrom and Melissa Wilcox. Bostic examines the hybrid religious practices and sensibilities of the Baptist-Buddhist African-American Janice Dean Willis and the prophetic writer and activist James Baldwin. She shows how these two figures pursued spiritual quests that opened up novel forms of community and led to more complex kinds of religious subjectivity. Andrea Jain’s contribution examines how the practices of Bikram Yoga have been commodified, branded, and incorporated into the lives of SBNR Americans. Jain usefully describes these spiritual practices as both authentically spiritual and fully commercialized. This is not a “takeover or replacement of religion,” she writes, but simply a modern “manifestation of religion.”

Two additional authors help us understand the internal diversity of this movement.  Matthew Hedstrom identifies an equally powerful non-Western tradition that contributed to a very diverse SBNR America, mindfulness meditation. Hedstrom helpfully complicates our understanding of how westerners appropriated and redeployed Buddhist forms of meditation and devotion, mixing and combining these traditions with psychology and self-help. Finally, Melissa Wilcox develops an insightful examination of the inventive religious beliefs and practices of several queer nuns who are antiracist activists. These nuns borrow terms from different contexts such as hajj (from Islam) and darshan (from Indian traditions) to develop new spiritual practices and a new vocabulary to talk about justice and equality. All of these chapters help us understand things that mostly remain hidden from observers of the SBNR—power, cultural appropriation, the dynamics of colonialism and globalization.

Like all good books, this one raises new and exciting questions. What exactly contributed to the rise and ongoing power of this group? What is the relationship between this group and new communications media? What is this group’s impact on American politics and social movements, including the Democratic Party? How do different SBNR people mobilize power and embrace or resist consumer culture? How do they configure the intimate spaces of the home, organize themselves in networks of association, and raise children? One hopeful possibility is that this book and several others on SBNR in the last few years will galvanize interest and stimulate more scholarly conversations about SBNR and how this impulse is reshaping the landscape of American religious and social movements.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher G. White is Professor of Religion at Vassar College.

Date of Review: 
October 10, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William B. Parsons is Professor of Religion at Rice University. His publications include The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling (1999), Religion and Psychology: Mapping the Terrain (2001), Teaching Mysticism (2010), Mourning Religion (2008), Freud and Augustine in Dialogue: Psychoanalysis, Mysticism, and the Culture of Modern Spirituality (2013), and dozens of articles in multiple journals and edited books. He has served as Chair of the Department of Religion and Director of the Humanities Research Center at Rice University, Editor (the psychology of religion section) with Religious Studies Review, and has been a Fellow at the Martin Marty Center of the University of Chicago and at the Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS) at Hebrew University.



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