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Finding their religion

(Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / June 3, 2011

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Q. Who are the SBNRs?

A. They’re people who say they are not affiliated with any religious denomination but insist they are not atheist or agnostic. I don’t think there’s particularly any demographic. This is a kind of expression of discontent by people who still have this spiritual inclination.

Q. You refer to them as being in a “search mode.’’ What do you mean?

A. They haven’t found what they’re looking for. People change religious affiliation frequently. They shop around. It’s a mobile society. The brand loyalty to a particular denomination is seriously weakening. They’re very selective. I should say there is an overlap between spiritual and religious. They’re not necessarily completely divided.

Q. So they represent a big change in this country?

A. Yes. It was very rare a couple of generations ago to change religions. If you were raised a Presbyterian, you probably stayed a Presbyterian. SBNRs are also suspicious. Part of it is the lack of trust or diminished trust in almost every institution — government, educational institutions, corporations, the press. Authorities are not viewed with as much deference. Part of it is that people want to experience or find out by themselves rather than being told. This is particularly true among younger people.

But there’s also a specific distrust of religion. As people become aware of the fact there are various religious world views out there, far more than had been aware of a generation ago or more, they become suspicious of the pretentiousness and exclusive truth that some religions have — our way or the highway. The Vatican is a good example.

Q. Is this selectivity good?

A. In large measure it’s good. A woman who goes to church on Sunday morning, does yoga on Tuesday, hears the Dalai Lama, has a Hindu mediation book somewhere on her shelf, and likes to sing baptist hymns — there’s a lot of that going around. People are finding things they can put together in their own lives that give them some sense of meaning. They’re testing the product in their own experience. One of the key elements in the teachings of the Buddha related to this. He said, “Don’t believe anything anyone tells you, including me.’’

Some call this “collage building.’’ It can be pretty cheap and trivial, but mystical dimensions are what people are looking for — the sense of awe and wonder. The churches haven’t provided very much when it comes to the experience of the mystery.

Martin Luther started out as something of a mystic. He thought one saint was speaking directly to him. The Catholic Church got suspicious of all forms of mysticism. Protestants were on a parallel track. The middle men don’t like mysticism because you don’t need a middle man. Using meditation techniques, or picking up from Asian religious tradition, you have a sense you don’t need that whole layer of hierarchy. What people are not pleased with are the hierarchical structure and creeds. Some kind of divine sanctions are not credible to people. You don’t take a creed because someone tells you to.

Q. So what’s the future for churches?

A. SBNRs put together whatever practices and symbols are meaningful to them. It’s very hard to do on an individual basis. If you mix the American obsessive individualism with this inclination of collage building, it can get really superficial and trivial. That’s why SBNRs will need some kind of institutional connection. The institutional expressions need to be more open and allow more give and take. The grand symbols and narratives are there. You can draw on them, but with a group of people. The AA model — helping each other by sharing your own story, telling how you put it together — that’s the direction churches have to be heading. More of them are. What it calls for is a whole new vision of what professional leadership has to be.

Interview has been condensed and edited. Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com. Alex Beam is not writing today.

WHO
Harvey Cox
WHAT
Cox, Harvard’s emeritus professor of religion, taught at the Harvard Divinity School for 44 years before retiring in 2009. At 82, he is still writing and speaking around the world as the Hollis Research Professor of Divinity. One of his particular interests is a growing group he calls Spiritual But Not Religious, known as SBNRs.