Are the Spiritual but Not Religious Turning East?

This blog was originally posted on the Huffington Post blog. Linda Mercadante is our Monday evening keynote speaker at the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering. She is professor of theology at The Methodist Theological School in Ohio. She was once a “spiritual but not religious” person, but through an intensive spiritual journey has become a seminary professor, theologian, and ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Here’s a sneak peek of what Linda will bring to the National Gathering.

by Linda Mercadante

Are we all Hindu now? That’s what a Newsweek magazine claimed in 2009 when it observed the burgeoning world of the “nones.” “Nones” are those not affiliated with any part of the American religious heritage. Surveys seem to indicate they prefer not to identify with any religion at all. But the Newsweek article suggested instead that we are not seeing so much a lack of religious affiliation as conversion to some other world of beliefs, in particular Eastern.

Are we seeing a “turn to the East” among those people unaffiliated with any particular organized religion, especially those who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious?” I don’t think so. Of course, the influence of America’s increasing religious diversity is evident in the burgeoning world of alternative spiritualities. And there is, in fact, a particular attraction to certain ideas borrowed from such Eastern religions as Buddhism and Hinduism, such as “monism.”

But after spending the last five years speaking with hundreds of SBNRs, attending their diverse gatherings and learning as much as I could about and from them, I don’t think we are truly seeing a conversion to Eastern religions or religious ideas. Instead, I contend that many SBNRs are creating a particularly American spiritual mix, borrowing, adapting and adjusting from many sources. The key ingredients of this mix, however, are distinctly American. Here are some of them.

First, it is individualistic. Americans have always valued freedom of religion, but until recently were still fairly committed “joiners.” Now, joining with like-minded religious others does not seem to be as compelling for many. While most religions promote some form of community to a greater or lesser degree, this new spirituality does not give this top priority.

Second, it is “detraditioning.” Given that most of our ancestors came here from somewhere else, America has always held tradition a bit more lightly than other places. And much of American Protestantism did stress “the priesthood of all believers.” But this new American spirituality takes that impulse further. Now, the source of spiritual authority” has shifted from “out there” to “in here.” In other words, many feel they must rely primarily on their own spiritual judgment rather than looking to an authoritative figure or tradition as many religions advocate.

Third, it is therapeutic. Many Americans are focused on becoming whole and healthy, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. Whereas many religions see greater goals beyond personal well-being, this new American spirituality often promotes this as primary.

And, fourth, this American mixture takes the freedom to pick and choose ideas, adapting them to the American context. There seems little felt obligation to take the whole religious package of any particular tradition. As a case in point, many of my interviewees believe in reincarnation. However, their version is often unlike an Eastern form, which allows that one might regress, rather than inevitably progress, in the next life. My interviewees Americanized this. Our belief in “second chances,” late-bloomers, and the rewards of perseverance, made them insist that endless lives of self-improvement were the trajectory of the afterlife.

There are many implications, both positive and negative, of this new American spirituality. But whether we applaud or lament it, it is impressive to see American resourcefulness at work. In the end, I don’t see a literal “turn to the East,” much less a rush to convert to Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. In fact, among my hundreds of conversation partners, all SBNRs, I saw very few who actually “converted” to a different religion. Instead, they borrowed, adapted, and adjusted what they found attractive or compelling in the culturally and religiously diverse world increasingly around us. My interviewees often believe that, rather than joining any particular religious group, they must keep their options open on the journey of spiritual growth.