Tracing the Roots and Common Beliefs of the Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR)



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John L. Crow

“Americans want the fruit of religion, but not its obligations.”
 – George Gallup, Jr.

It is hard to deny that one of the primary changes in American religiosity is the shift from institutional religion to one that is more personal, or “spiritual” as many of the participants describe it. This kind of religiosity is difficult to track because there is no organization keeping account of the numbers of members or the participation of individuals. That, in many ways, is the point. The spiritual but not religious (SBNR) are not interested in being counted. They don’t want to belong. They, instead, want to use their own personal preferences to construct their own spirituality, without the administrative or doctrinal constraints of organized religion, and self-define what it means to be spiritual, or even enlightened.

Two recent books take a look at this segment of society, one looking at its roots and the other its contemporary underlying set of beliefs. In American Gurus: from Transcendentalism to New Age Religion, Arthur Versluis suggests the term “immediatism” to describe the way many of the SBNR practitioners approach their spirituality. He writes, “Immediatism refers to a religious assertion of spontaneous, direct, unmediated spiritual insight into reality (typically with little or no prior training), which some term ‘enlightenment.’ Strictly speaking, immediatism refers to a claim of a ‘pathless path,’ to religious enlightenment—the immediatist says ‘away with all ritual and practices!’ and claims that direct spiritual awakening or enlightenment is possible all at once” (2). 

I spoke to him this weekend about his book and the connection to the SBNR segment in America and he noted that while the trend is relatively recent, emerging in the in the latter part of the 20th century, it is not without its precedents, nor is it just an American phenomenon. Nevertheless, he sees there were a number of important persons establishing the foundation upon which the SBNR manifest their immediatism. His book traces these people who were precedents to the modern SBNR religious trend. He looks at Emerson and Whitman, William James, the Beats, Bernadette Roberts, Franklin Jones, Andrew Cohen, and many more. While he is cognizant that the trend crossed both the Atlantic and Pacific, the book still has a focus on the American aspect of this history, while acknowledging non-American’s participation; individuals such as Alan Watts.


Focusing more on organizing and analyzing the beliefs of the spiritual but not religious, Linda A. Mercadante’s Beliefs without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious attempts to find the underlying ethos which the SBNR hold in common. By conducting extensive interviews, going to the places the SBNR utilize and looking broadly on the internet, Mercadante tries to piece together a fuzzy but useful set of ideas which generally apply to the SBNR. While acknowledging the conclusion is partial and that the SBNR are hardly consistent or that their ideas are not without contradiction, she nevertheless assembles a set of common themes that allow scholars of religion at least a starting point to begin analyzing the beliefs of the SBNR. For instance, many of her respondents do think there is religious or spiritual change coming although they were reluctant to call it a “New Age.” Mercadante calls this “Post-Christian Spirituality.” At its root is a push towards individualization and a shift of locus of authority.

It is here where we can begin to see the overlap with what Mercadante documents and what Versluis examines the precedents of. Mercadante claims that this emerging ‘self spirituality’ results in “unmediated individualism” or the “sacralization of the self” where each person his “his or her own spiritual authority” (73). In essence, the new spirituality renders the individual supremely responsible for their own spiritual development, and therefore we can say their immediatist tendencies emerge, frequently defining their own criteria for enlightenment. If all other authorities are rejected, then it is only the individual who reigns supreme in declaring what is the final goal of spiritual practice and when one has reached it. Mercadante continues, “they virtually all rejected religious or salvationary exclusivism and championed an internal rather than transcendent ‘locus of authority’” (74). This is what is so useful by looking at this topic using both books. Versluis notes that the West has been hostile to “the idea that we can have direct access to nondual forms of consciousness” (13). Not surprisingly, Mercadante found that her participants generally rejected traditional western forms of religious practice in favor of hybridized versions, adopting different aspects of the east including eastern ideas, like reincarnation, and practices, such as meditation and yoga. Using Versluis’ terminology, we find that the SBNR are immediatists who are “describing a kind of ad hoc transcendence that, as a basic human capacity or possibility, might be glimpsed even without particular disciplines and traditions that point towards and encourage realization of it” (14).

The historian in me really appreciates the way Versluis brings together many of the stories and people who made the current SBNR situation possible. The sociologist in me loves the way Mercadante was able to sift through the myriad interviewee responses and find some patterns and common themes. Together both books point to a segment of American religiosity that we are all aware of, but struggle to grasp. Mercadante and Versluis give us two important and useful ways to approach this topic. I am excited with their attempts and hope their work encourages others.

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