In our increasingly noisy world, a shift is taking place. It's a shift that is changing the way we perceive and interact with the divine. This shift is embodied by one simple phrase that is becoming increasingly common in our conversations about faith and spirituality: "I'm spiritual, but not religious."
People speak of deep experiences with meditation, exploration of ancient wisdom traditions and searching for a deep sense of connection with the universe. But when asked about religious affiliations, they shakes their heads and say, "I'm not religious."
This narrative is not an isolated one. It echoes in the stories of countless individuals across the globe who are seeking a personal connection with the divine but do not want to be "confined" by the traditional boundaries of organized religion. They are part of a growing demographic that identifies as "spiritual but not religious" (SBNR).
This divergence from organized religion is not a rejection of the divine, but a response to the societal and cultural shifts that have shaped our modern world. The rise of individualism, the quest for personal authenticity and the disillusionment with institutional failures have all contributed to this spiritual sea change.
The phenomenon can be traced back to the Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century, which emphasized personal intuition and spiritual experience over religious doctrine. This trend continued into the 20th century with the rise of New Age spirituality, which drew from a variety of religious and philosophical traditions to create a highly individualized spiritual practice.
But the fact is that this shift towards individualized spirituality is not without challenges. It leads to a lack of community or shared rituals, which are key components of practice. This gives way to feelings of isolation and a lack of spiritual accountability.
Is the "Spiritual But Not Religious" Movement Just A Way For Us To Lose Depth and Community?
"Spiritual but not religious" seems so paradoxical, but perfectly encapsulates a growing sentiment in our modern society, especially among the younger generations who have a hard time committing.
Those who identify as SBNR express a deep sense of spirituality, a connection to something greater than themselves, but reject the structures of traditional religions. They seek a more personal, direct experience of the divine, incorporating elements from various religious traditions, philosophical systems and even scientific theories.
The problem with this approach is that it leads to a form of "pick and mix" spirituality, lacking in depth, commitment and community. Without a structured framework to guide their spiritual journey, SBNR individuals find themselves adrift in a sea of conflicting ideas and practices, unable to fully engage with or understand the spiritual traditions they've drawn from.
The SBNR identity also buds into a form of spiritual narcissism, focused more on personal fulfillment than on ethical obligations to others. Without the moral and ethical guidelines provided by organized religions, there is a risk of developing a self-centered spirituality that neglects our responsibilities towards our fellow human beings.
We can understand that individual spiritual exploration is undoubtedly valuable, but the communal aspect of religion, with its shared rituals, values and sense of belonging, plays a crucial role in human well-being and societal cohesion.
The loss of these communal aspects in the SBNR movement is a cause for concern.
Are We Losing Our Way in the Search for Spirituality?
The shift away from organized religion is rooted in a complex interplay of societal, cultural and personal factors. One of the most significant factors is the belief that religious institutions have failed to live up to their spiritual and moral mandates.
Scandals involving religious leaders, instances of hypocrisy and the misuse of power and resources have led many to question the integrity of these institutions. From a pragmatic perspective, these failures are not indicative of the inherent flaws in religion itself, but the fallibility of human beings who steward these institutions.
Another reason is the rise of individualism, particularly in Western societies. The emphasis on personal freedom, autonomy and self-expression constantly clashes with the communal and hierarchical nature of traditional religions.
Without the structure and guidance provided by organized religion, individuals also find themselves adrift in a sea of spiritual options, confused on how to navigate their spiritual journey. This leads to a superficial engagement with spiritual practices, where individuals dabble in various traditions without fully understanding or committing to them.
Even the emphasis on "personal experience" and intuition leads to a dismissal of critical thinking and a susceptibility to pseudoscience and spiritual manipulation. This is a significant concern in the "spiritual but not religious" community, where individuals end up drawn to charismatic leaders or appealing spiritual "quick fixes" without the discernment provided by a grounded religious tradition.
As people move away from organized religion, they find themselves seeking a sense of community and spiritual guidance. Unfortunately, this search can sometimes lead them into the arms of cults and false ideologies. The desire for spiritual growth, coupled with a lack of discernment, can make individuals susceptible to charismatic leaders who promise enlightenment and a sense of belonging.
Historically, cults have exploited this vulnerability, drawing in individuals with the promise of spiritual fulfillment. The Jonestown Massacre, the Heaven's Gate suicides and the manipulative practices of Scientology are stark reminders of the dangers of unchecked spiritual leaders and ideologies. These groups, while offering a sense of community and purpose, often employ manipulative tactics, demand unquestioning obedience, and isolate members from their families and society.
The rise of the internet and social media has only exacerbated this issue, providing a platform for these groups to reach a global audience. The proliferation of conspiracy theories, pseudoscience and spiritual misinformation online is a testament to this problem.
A case in point is the "12 Tribes" cult, operating under the guise of a chain of restaurants called "The Yellow Deli." With over 3000 members worldwide, the cult has been in the headlines for allegations of child abuse and bizarre rituals. The cult's belief in "Yahshua," their anticipation of a new age when the Earth will be made new and their communal lifestyle where all assets are shared, are all indicative of the dangers of unchecked spiritual leaders and ideologies.
The video above is from a youtuber and his friends that snuck into the cult and observed some of their practices.
Why Is There a Paradox of Accountability in Hollywood?
The allure of cults is not limited to the average individual. A-list celebrities such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta are famously associated with Scientology, a controversial cult with a secretive nature, aggressive tactics against critics and the alleged abuse of its members.
Joaquin Phoenix and his family were involved with the Children of God, a group notorious for its alleged sexual exploitation of women and children. Michelle Pfeiffer was briefly involved with a group called Breatharianism.
The involvement of celebrities in cults underscores the power and danger of these groups. Their ability to attract individuals from all walks of life, regardless of their status or wealth, highlights the manipulative tactics they employ and the vulnerability of those seeking spiritual fulfillment or a sense of belonging.
In the current age of social media and internet culture, these cult-like groups have found new platforms to spread their ideologies and attract followers. Celebrities, with their large followings, can inadvertently contribute to the spread of these harmful ideologies if they themselves are ensnared.
It doesn't just stop there. The system permits these groups to exist and almost never hold them accountable.
Why do we say that? In the era of cancel culture, where public figures are held accountable for their actions and words, it's interesting to observe how certain celebrities seem to evade this scrutiny. Despite their affiliations with controversial cults, A-list celebrities like Jared Leto, Ezra Miller, and Tom Cruise continue to enjoy successful careers in Hollywood.
Jared Leto, for instance, has been accused of running a cult-like retreat called Mars Island for fans of his band, Thirty Seconds to Mars. Attendees are encouraged to dress in white and partake in activities that some have likened to cult practices. Yet, Leto continues to land major roles in Hollywood, including his recent portrayal of the Joker in "The Suicide Squad" and "Morbius" in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Ezra Miller, co-founder of a 'hippie commune', continues to star in major franchises like "Fantastic Beasts" and "Justice League". Tom Cruise, perhaps the most famous face of Scientology, remains one of Hollywood's top actors, with the "Mission: Impossible" franchise still going strong.
This raises questions about the selective nature of cancel culture and the standards by which we hold celebrities accountable. While some celebrities have seen their careers derailed due to controversial tweets or past indiscretions, others continue to thrive despite their affiliations with groups accused of harmful practices.
Do cult affiliations not seem troublesome to the general public in the same way that racist remarks or sexual misconduct do? Odd. But says a lot about the current society that is taking form.
The "spiritual but not religious" are torn, with a majority convinced that all religions basically teach the same thing. This reflects a broader cultural resistance to institutions.
As the philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich once said, "Religion is the substance of culture, culture is the form of religion."