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Spiritual but Not Religious?

May 13, 2009

I’m not sure there is a point to this post; I’m just thinking out loud here …

Christian_Smith_Soul_Searching_smChristian Smith’s interesting book, Soul Searching (Oxford University Press, 2005), resulted from nationwide surveys and interviews with American teenagers. The researchers found, surprisingly, that most American teenagers had never heard the phrase “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” and that “the vast majority, even if they had heard this phrase, said that they had no clue what it meant” (78).

I find this extremely intriguing, because I think the ideology behind this phrase is still pervasive in America. What ideology is that? I think it goes back to the enlightenment’s anti-clerical tradition, like the one we find in Jean-Jacques Rousseau—specifically traditions that oppose true religion to church or institutional religion. The “spiritual not religious” discourse seems to me to be just an update of this ideology, but with new terms:

true religion / institutional religion

spiritual / religious

(For the record, I think either of these are pretty superficial, for reasons I can’t go into here.)

But Smith’s book shows that American teenagers are somewhat religious, and admit as much—the self identify as “religious.” However, Smith notes later on in the book that they often explicitly identify themselves from those nutters that are “too religious” (141ff). A part of me wants to suggest that maybe this is the new ideological binary:

religious / too religious

But I doubt this is simply the old updated with new terms, and for the following reason. The old tradition opposes individual to communal religious traditions, whereas this latest one seems to demarcate those who don’t take their religious identity very seriously from those who do. This is a different sort of binary.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. John permalink
    May 14, 2009 7:20 am

    I’m a “non-traditional” college student, so I’m taking classes with people much younger than I am. I see this in the way young people identify their political positions, too: “I’m liberal, but not *too* liberal” (or conservative/too conservative). Many of them (in my observation, not according to any research) see politics as a continuum that starts from a rational “center” and stretches out to either side as liberal or conservative and continues in either direction as “too liberal” or “too conservative”. They don’t know what to do with someone like me, a socialist; they can only think of me as being “too liberal” and don’t get it when I say that socialism is a political current altogether different from liberalism (and that “conservatism” is a strain of liberalism).

    Everything I’m saying might be completely unfounded, of course, but it looks like the same thing is going on here that is going on in the “religious/too religious” binary: a sort of false “open mindedness” in that “my politics are in the middle; I’ll vote for the Republican or the Democrat depending on who has the better ideas/can do a better job.” Maybe these “not too liberal/conservative, not too religious” people don’t take their own political or religious beliefs seriously, or maybe there are no real ideas or principles to take seriously.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 14, 2009 12:10 pm

    Hi John: I don’t think what you’re saying is unfounded at all. It sounds like your experiences of these younger students is very similar to mine. The center/periphery thing is right on, in my opinion. Two problems, of course, is that they’re unable to see political views as different, as you point out, and, second, that they’re unable to see the extent to which what they take for granted as the “center” is COMPLETELY relative.

    Wow, that last was a tortured sentence; sorry!

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