Spiritual But Not Religious: The Controversy Around Lillian Daniel’s Column

There have been a lot of plaudits as well as a lot of Bronx cheers going around in response to the Rev. Lillian Daniel’s (to me) wonderful column lambasting some “spiritual but not religious” Americans for their sentimentalized sense of religion and their self-and-child worship. The longer article is here, and I unabashedly love it.

I don’t want to debate at length with the many offended people who have complained that Daniel seems to be insulting them, I simply want to make public my support and appreciation for Lillian’s article. I love that she is direct. I love that she dares to express her frustration with people who buttonhole her as a clergywoman and proceed to unload their grievances against the church –and to declare their emancipation from it — as a bold and original move that they presume will rock her little Christian world. In this article, Daniel lives into my vision of contemporary religious leaders as people who are honest and authentic, who refuse to function as incarnate straw men-cum-punching bags that “spiritual but not religious” types so love to construct in the clerical image and then knock the stuffing out of.

I should state right up front that I do not understand the motivations of my clergy colleagues who welcome the kind of testimonial Daniel derides. I think many of her critics are conflating “spiritual but not religious” as an identity that refers to openness to eclectic spiritual influences and practices with what Daniel describes: self-made and self-referential religion.

The sort of “sharing” Daniel describes as boring in her article is not the heartfelt confidences of a person who needs to talk about the ways that a clergyperson, church community or doctrine hurt their soul so that they can reach some sort of resolution. That is a conversation that I  have had many times in which I have received such confidences with sadness and humility as a representative of the Church. What Daniel mocks is the cliched narrative of the person who has abandoned religious life for the life of easy, undisciplined, uncritical and unaccountable “spirituality,” defined as whatever fuzzy thoughts keep them happy, comfortable and self-assured. Central to that narrative is their spiritual superiority over the poor souls who still gather for public worship and the structure of traditional religion.

I am not at all offended by “spiritual but not religious” people. Neither does Daniel seem to be. What we both find objectionable is the (to use a favorite term of mine) sense of terminal uniqueness among the “SBNR” crowd who insist on enlightening clergy about their higher path.

Spare me.

I consider myself a teacher of church tradition and an upholder of it. I did not break my back for ten years of seminary education (I have earned both an M.Div and a D.Min), go $65,000 into debt at Harvard (and spend another $12,ooo or so later at Andover-Newton), leave a relationship and a beloved teaching career so that I could encourage people to invent their own personally pleasing religion. I am a trained theologian and expert in church practice, called by God and conferred the honorific “Reverend” by congregational ordination, and obligated by the Church to witness to its relevance and power.

Does a heart attack patient in the ICU, when the cardiologist comes to make her rounds, feel entitled to point out all the deficiencies in the medical sciences and then proceed to inform the doctor how he intends to treat himself? And does that patient expect the doctor to stand patiently in the door and nod in warm admiration and affirmation while he does so?

If you think you have everything you need to heal yourself, don’t go to the hospital. Don’t waste the doctor’s time. The doctor has other people to see.

Clergy have an obligation not to indulge those who have no use for tradition or for religious teaching. We should not be so proud that we have welcomed those who are spiritual but not religious and have allowed or even encouraged them to remain that way. It is our job to teach religion, not to merely listen supportively to the stories of what seekers have left behind. That’s why we call them “seekers:” they are seeking life more abundant than they can create by themselves. Presumably we have the tools to give them to construct that life, together in community.

Along with one of my closest spiritual friends in my congregation, I am quite fond of joking that I am religious but not spiritual. I am not sure what spirituality is except for fleeting moments of transcendence, granted by grace and recollected in tranquility and gratitude. Religion, on the other hand, is a set of commitments, faith claims and practices that I rely on to instruct and shape my character, mind and soul in accordance with my professed values. Spirituality is what I feel when I am fortunate enough to have eyes to see and ears to hear. Religion is what I do, whatever I feel and whatever I sense (or not) of the Holy Presence on that day.

I am not any more impressed by the designation “spiritual but not religious” than I am by the designation “Christian.” The “SBNR” person makes what I now assume are immature generalizations about religion and religious people (“What religion are you NOT,” I always want to ask), and the title “Christian” is equally as meaningless in the face of the multiplicities of Christianities in the world.  I am not interested in hearing about the religion that you rejected (that you presume resembles my own) unless this is an actual conversation and not a pep rally for the church defector or rejector’s ego.

What Daniel says, in essence, is that she is bored by people who proclaim their uniqueness for rejecting of conservative doctrine and for exiting churches and finding spirituality in nature alone. As Daniel observes, there’s nothing unique about that journey, nor is there the slightest bit of a problem with finding spirituality in nature. Good Lord, of course we do. Who doesn’t find spiritual inspiration in nature?

Daniel’s critique, if I follow her correctly, is that (1) there’s nothing original about jettisoning church for homemade, vague “spirituality,” and she’s tired of people’s broad naivetee on this point and (2) the homespun theologies of reverence created by such folks is thin gruel, theologically speaking, and does not result in a sustaining faith that helps create deep meaning for life’s deeper and more painful truths. She reserves special ire for the ways that this childlike (and often child-generated) spirituality may spiritually starve children of well-meaning parents.

Having been one of those children, I deeply appreciate Daniel’s willingness to make this accusation. And I think it is this accusation that really rattles Unitarian Universalists. Do our children really need another exercise in self-referential wonder? Do they need another meditation on the beauty of the growing flowers? Along with Daniel, I answer “no,” or “probably not.” Cancer is also natural, Daniel argues. Yes, and bacteria and fungus and frontal lobe brain damage that apparently causes some human beings to commit the most heinous and sadistic of crimes. “Good luck with your homemade spirituality,” she is saying, “when those realities hit.”

I agree with Daniel that it is not the sharing of a person’s journey away from church that ever offends me in the telling of it, it is the narcissistic assumptions in the way that journey is communicated: as though it is amazingly original, an act of courage that will astound and perhaps convert me, the presumably sheeplike follower of established truths, to a new way of thinking.  It is a conversation that doesn’t go anywhere because it doesn’t want to go anywhere. I have had dozens of such conversations and have found that those who initiate them in the way Daniel describes are quite committed to their rejection. They are not interested in my commitments to church, but are committed to reporting their exodus to me: the authority figure and (they presume) moralist who is still in thrall to the church’s lies and hypocrisies. The only pastoral response is to sigh inwardly and have this exit interview inflicted on me.  I cheer Lillian Daniel for daring to say what this really feels like to one who loves and serves the church. It feels obnoxious.

To create another analogy, it would as if I entered into conversation with a civil engineer and described my own rejection of engineering after an experience walking across a bridge that crumbled. “I don’t like bridges as a result,” I might say. “I have never trusted them, and I don’t trust those who build them. I don’t think you all know what you’re doing.”

Can you imagine? “But I built a bridge in my backyard with my children and it’s AMAZING. It’s just our bridge, and it doesn’t go anywhere, but we made it and we love it although it doesn’t do what bridges are meant to do — which is to connect two places that would otherwise be inaccessible to each other — we prefer our bridge. Let me tell you how amazing our bridge is. How much time have you got?”


Here is the text of the shorter version of Daniel’s article that has caused such a contretemps in the religious blogosphere. What an exciting opportunity for dialogue her article has provided.

Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.

August 31, 2011

Matthew 16:18

“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

Reflection by Lillian Daniel

On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual but not religious.” Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.

Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community?  Because when this flight gets choppy, that’s who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.


Dear God, thank you for creating us in your image and not the other way around. Amen.


18 Replies to “Spiritual But Not Religious: The Controversy Around Lillian Daniel’s Column”

  1. I couldn’t agree more; my D.Min. cohort, a varied collection of Methodists, Baptists, a Luheran, a Disciple of Christ, and this continuing Congregationalist have been commenting on Daniels’ article, and I’m going to send around this blog post, articulating many of our same thoughts. I’d add that in my experience of SBNR sharing, none of them ever, ever pick the critique that exists in every authentic religious tradition; no Jeremiah, no Paul, and none of Jesus’ challenging sayings and stories. And those omissions amount to misuse of sacred stories, not just “finding my own way.”

    also: “Religious but not spiritual” …Love it! So true.

    Hope all your fall startup stuff goes well…

  2. Thank you, thank you for putting into words how I felt about this piece, and the reactions to it. I think that the loving arrogance of those who write about being “welcoming” to the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd is a by-product of our wrestling with what it means to be welcoming. Can we welcome others who are searching while affirming that we believe that struggling with theological concerns, together in community, is what God has called us to do? How do we listen to the honest struggles of those who seek God, and at the same time, name our disagreement with those who believe they have found God, and that God is made in their image?

  3. This is a fantastic and much needed expansion and explanation of how I, and I think many others feel about the Daniel’s column and the Spiritual but not Religious discussion, especially from the point of view of being a liberal clergy person. I’ve been trying to compose this for a couple of days. Thanks for beating me to it. Beautiful.

  4. I have mixed feelings about this. Yes, I applaud honesty. I’d certainly rather that the person sitting next to me on a plane gave an honest account of their position than sit and secretly sneer at me.

    But if we are going to hold ourselves up as representatives of the church, doesn’t being a lightening rod come with the territory? If we are much more educated in matters of theology than the person next to us, doesn’t it behoove us to teach? If the person sitting next to us clearly doesn’t know that their spirituality is self-referential and that “true spirituality” (sic) looks to connection with God and with others, do we really represent our position well by calling them a fool and refusing to relate to them?

    I’ve had a number of extremely interesting conversations with individuals who described themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. I’ve been a lightening rod for those who were hurt by the church and sometimes exploring that hurt has even been interesting. And if the person sitting next to me is a genuine boor and a real pain in the ass, then just as with every other conversational subject, I can choose to opt out.

  5. [Wow I didn’t realize it was this long. I feel bad. But it’s just so relevant… forgive my extremely overlong reply!]

    SBNR is a huge and rapidly growing category that honestly I haven’t seen any religion really taking too seriously. On the mainline/liberal side the message to the disaffected hasn’t been as much of a profession of religion as much as an apology for it. As someone who left border-line fundamentalism, drifted into a default agnosticism, embraced a fiery irreligious atheism (why didn’t I publish, I could have scooped the New Atheists and made a small fortune), then opened into a spiritual but not religious seeker (an actual SEEKER) who adopted Buddhism and then added (back) Christianity, I wasn’t drawn back to the Church by people falling all over themselves to let me know how embarrassed they were and how sorry they were for following Christ. I can’t imagine I would have embraced Buddhism if my teachers had felt the need to put down their sacred traditions either.

    While there are reasons I didn’t join the Roman Catholic Church, it was largely Vatican II inspired Religious from the RCC, with their emphasis on the beauty, tragedy and transformative capacity of the Church, that got my attention. Willing to think for themselves but also willing to talk about the need for humility and displacing our the notion of serving our own will as the highest good, they took seriously the idea of balancing received wisdom with ongoing revelations. They admitted religious authorities have made mistakes, and that people have been wounded, and that for some God must be known as “no God”. But they also talked so lovingly about God so mystically about the sacraments.

    There must be a way to acknowledge the probems of religion and to open up to the rapidly growing SBNR population without becoming wishy washy on the one hand or aloofly defensive on the other. The tendency to run either towards denying tradition or totally rewriting it and refusing the challenge of stability or embracing old patterns as tradition and refusing the challenge of growth needs to be examined.
    I will submit that part of the problem is as folks such as Richard Rohr suggest a failure by many in church leadership to achieve spiritual maturity, hence they cannot model it for others. The liturgy, the creeds, etc, take on different meanings depending on where people are in this process of maturation, so that things which appear as contradictions at one level make sense at another. For example, a virgin and a mother, a teacher who is both God and human, a dead yet alive rabbi, a trinity that is really one God.

    At one level, people tend to give lip service to one part of the paradox and really believe the other, leading to arguments, accusations of heresy, etc. We want to see everything in a reductionist way, with one clear and fixed meaning that is readily grasped, a kind of simplication and constriction of what is and what could be. At another level, one opens up to embrace uncertainty, to a more complex and expansive sense of possibility, wherein the paradox isn’t resolved by some reductionist solution but instead you are transformed by it so that your heart/mind grows large enough to embace it and to therefore experience the world in a fuller, richer way. Or so I hope. :o)

    I have heard it suggested that this is the real benefit of religious language and ritual, especially metaphor, which forces people to jump the gap between how they saw what is being compared and the implications of the comparison, much like a perceptual/semantic spark plug. Bzzt!, and now you can see both items in the metaphor in news ways that were not possible before. New ways to understand our confusion, certainty, joy, grief, etc. New ways to seek and realize meaningful relationships. New ways to appreciate just being. You don’t get it by throwing out tradition (which isn’t just a hand-me-down set of propositions to which one must give intellectual assent!) or skipping everything that we initially find challenging or that we might presume reflects silly superstitions on the part of those in the past (although granted that at times can be the case).

    So it seems like that is the challenge (or a major part of it) for the Church: to make people who are wary of religion feel welcome when they are ready by having activities/materials that are “spiritual but not religious” (in the better sense of spiritual, i.e. seeking greater purpose and meaning) for those who need time and support to heal; to structure things so that they can ease their way into religious practice (that is, seeking that greater meaning in a community supported by tradition) and get a good religious education; and to make sure that for those considering formally taking up the religious life that there is a transition period in which this is seen as a challenging yet rewarding committment not just to your own personal desires or needs but as a communal service and responsibility, a sacred trust.

    If you took some of what the UUs do and tacked it on to what some of the UCCs/Episcopalians do… hmmmmm.

  6. Nuts. Not only was that reply obscenely and needlessly long, formatting errors crept in when I pasted it into the comment box. To summarize and clarify: 1) the ideas I mentioned about paradox and uncertainty are currently very popular 2) trying to divorce them from the context of community and tradition is like butchering the goose to get the golden eggs 3) SBNR is largely possible because of past/current people committed to religious living and knowing 4) a lot of these ideas are consumed like candy or fast food and hence may taste good but are not nourishing because they are second hand 5) like any all-candy/fast food diet, this spiritual regimen may seem appealing but ultimately isn’t healthy, so folks need to learn to eat their peas and carrots.

    Oh, and I think Christian (or Buddhist or other terms) are more meaningful because of a multiplicity of perspectives, not less.

  7. Peacebang–you cannot BELIEVE the amount of flack I took on Facebook for linking that article and commenting on it in a positive way. I got one of the ugliest e-mails I’ve ever received from a friend who was incensed by my attitude toward the SBNR. She could not even hear my explanation that I was responding to a certain type of smug person–almost always male–who wanted to let me know how I, too, could reach “enlightenment,” if only I would throw off the primitive shackles of organized religion….

    I do wonder if there is a gendered component here. As I noted, the SBNR people who have ambushed me in this way have almost always been male. I noted that Daniel used a masculine pronoun to describe her interlocutor. I do not think this is a coincidence.

    I suspect that Lillian Daniel is being criticized by many because she is female. She is supposed to be “nice” because she is a woman AND a clergy person. As a garden-variety pew-sitter, I don’t have the extra albatross of a clerical collar around my neck–but, boy-howdy do I know the “You are not being NICE!” meme. Any time the “tone” argument raises its head, I know to look for the misogyny beneath the surface.

    Bravo for your spirited defense of both the Rev. Daniel and the real theological issues her column raises. I wish more clergy were as honest and passionate in their defense of the benefits of religion and life in a community of faith.

    [Thanks, Doxy, and a VERY astute observation about the gender expectations and dynamics playing out here. I hadn’t thought of that. – PB]

  8. Bravo. I think it is fine for Daniel to tell it like it is. I think it is fine for people outside the church to read her article and feel a wee bit offended. I do not get the self-righteous smugness some mainline/liberal clergy have directed at her because of this piece. I had to forcibly remove myself from an online situation because a number of folks were unwilling to hear another point of view; namely, that I saw value in Daniel’s argument.

    I want to coin a term to describe the “theology” of the SBNR folks – twee-ology.

  9. If Lillian Daniel told those two men who she encountered that “spiritual but not religious” was something she heard all the time, that it was no great personal revelation that they had and that she was sick to her eye-teeth of hearing about it and didn’t wish to discuss it, then she was not being passive-aggressive. If she did not tell them that to their faces, then I think that the blog-post is in fact passive-aggressive. And I don’t see any reason to applaud it.

    That said, I do agree with much of this post that clergy should stop pussyfooting and learn to speak their honest truth with integrity. For one thing, the cognitive dissonance between what a person says and what a person does is always picked up by the community and passive-aggression just fouls up group dynamics. I’m not so certain about the need to be “aggressive-aggressive,” however. Sometimes, maybe. In my opinion, straightforward honesty usually suffices.

    I still don’t like Daniel’s blog post, which strikes me as being dismissive and superior. I could not help but relate to the ex-Catholic who had been hurt by the church. I’m glad that, during the SBNR period in my life when I was trying to heal from all the crap I’d been taught by my denomination of origin, that I didn’t meet someone who told me how stupid and useless my then-current spiritual journey was. I almost certainly would never have made it back to the church; but then again, maybe I would not have cared.

  10. Someone up there got it right, “superior and dismissive” and I will add lacking compassion for the hard and hurtful road that leads those to seek something more spiritual and less dogmatic. The wonderful marvels of the natural world by which religion itself was born are as easy a target as they were for the birthplace of her religion, so why is that not fair game (you know, like when lightening struck and that sounded like someone was angry, next thing you know, we have a god?? How soon we forget…). If she is going to openly identify herself as clergy of a highly liberal church, she ought to present with a softer heart than that. As for who wrote this current blog, you followed suit perfectly so did you think we would all be surprised by your glowing review? With a single two word paragraph that callously reads “spare me.”, you will always lose them with that attitude, so much for your witness. My heartfelt thanks to those above who have not lost their souls so much they can express yet some understanding for those of us out here proudly now SPIRITUAL, and maybe so dogmatic and RELIGIOUS. [Julie, given that both Lillian Daniel and I minister to people every day who are on the “hard and hurtful road” from abusive religion to free, non-dogmatic faith, your assumption that “you will always lose them” is wrong. Her point, and mine, and a point that you have missed, is that there is nothing to say to people who initiate a conversation from a point of haughty rejection and superiority, who simply want to lord it over clergy that they have become so much more enlightened than we. Most Unitarian Universalist congregations are made up of people who reject dogmatic religion (only a tiny percentage of us are born into the tradition). Your assumption that ALL religious people are dogmatic is part of what makes this conversation so difficult to have, if not impossible: you’ve made up your mind that all religions are the same, and we minister to hundreds of people who know otherwise, and whose hearts and souls have been healed by staying ON the religious path until they arrive somewhere they can love, IN COMMUNITY. A community of formation, a community of accountability. The kind of person who makes Rev. Daniel and me angry is the person who just wants to dump on religion through us, assuming that they know what kind of religion we teach and practice. They’re wrong, they’re lazy, and they’re obnoxious. And we reserve the right to say so. – PB]

  11. You are right, if they assume ANYthing about what you teach or practice they are wrong, lazy and obnoxious, unless they actually know. And so is she, if she thinks she knows based on a brief conversation on an airplane what the hell they’re really talking about. That’s not the kind of person I heard her talking about, I heard her talking about me, a person who does find spirtuality in the clouds, my head in the clouds, whatver you want to say, but is no less obnoxious of an assumption or assertion. Just as you here have wrongly assumed that because I raised a defense for the people she is bored by, and you want to be spared from, that I do not seek spiritual community through my own UU church. [Okay, right here I have to just say that Daniel is not talking about you. The fact that you are a church-attender makes you part of a religion. Do you see what I mean? Daniel’s critique is against people who refuse to affiliate with religious communities because they’re “above all that,” and they think they’re awesome at making up their own spiritual system and expect clergy to be inspired by them. I think you’ve just heard the term “spiritual but not religious” and felt wounded by that because you identify with that phrase. But you’re a Unitarian Universalist, part of a community, and therefore religious. One of the roots of the word religion are religare, to bind together. Those of us bound in community are religious, though perhaps not traditionally so. I hope that helps us find some resolution. – PB] There were more compassionate ways to address this issue than with the kind of characterizations and vocabulary choices that were made here, particularly in light of what you claim to know as a minister to these very kind of people. But ultimately it isn’t far from what I read on the far right, just another religion claiming that its way is better, right, and the SBNR are wrong. If they went so far as to tell her she was wrong, and that is her complaint, then THEY are wrong. No one is wrong except the closed-minded and those who call others wrong in spiritual matters, and she and you only lower yourself to that level when you shout it back. Take the high road.

  12. I loved the article for many of the reasons you stated, but I also get the criticism. LD responds to a caricature of our life’s work with a caricature of the SBNR crowd. Neither is fair, and both deserve critique. But lo, do I get where she’s coming from. I don’t think I would have ever chosen to say such things publicly, and I do fear that her doing so might actually have a negative effect on those who might otherwise seek us out (who do not see themselves in her caricature, but nonetheless find themselves called out by it).

  13. PB, I also love your identification of yourself as “religious but not spiritual.” [Sometimes! Just sometimes! 🙂 – PB] I think this helps explain why some us lifelong Christians don’t have earthshaking revelations or “spiritual experiences” very frequently. Compared to the SBNR person we may seem to lead tame lives, but maybe that’s because we don’t need an out of the ordinary profound experience in nature to feel connected to our faith. We have community for that.

  14. I must confess that I laughed — loudly — at the Comedy Central broadcast of Christopher Tosh’s standup when he took on the SBNR in *his* context (Los Angeles!). And I think we can all probably acknowledge that he says what Daniels means, but with no compassion whatsoever.

    “I love girls in Los Angeles. You know what I’m talking about? The girls in L.A. who make sure they tell you ‘I’m not religious. I’m SPIRITUAL!’ Yeah, Yeah, when girls in L.A. say that to me, I have this one answer: ‘Oh yeah? I’m not honest, but you’re interesting.'”

  15. I would just like to ask which religion did not start out “homemade” and then gain followers. Didn’t all religion start out in somebodies mind? [No. They started as a shocking, disturbing and demanding theophany to a usually unwilling prophet who was then called to sacrifice everything he previously understood or intuited as good, not as a comfortable feeling in some privileged person’s tummy that kept them comfy. – PB]

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