My friend Michael Ellick, the founder of Occupy Faith, told me recently that he believes people are beginning to weary of the “spiritual-not-religious” position that has become almost reflexive for many Americans on the question of religious affiliation. The trend has peaked, Michael said, and people are looking for something more. They don’t want to go back to the religion of their parents or grandparents, but they’ve wised up to the fact that they need something real to replace it, whether you call it a religion or not. “Spiritual, but not religions…but not shallow,” was how Michael put it. “That’s what people are looking for now.”
The wave of secularization that swept the globe after World War II might have taken longer to reach the shores of God-fearing Christian America, but when it broke, it broke hard, leaving millions bereft of their former religious homes. There was something liberating about that in the beginning, of course—until you realized that the market, which loves a vacuum as much as Nature abhors it, would instantly fill the gap.
Predictably, what the market supplied to fill that gap was mostly the usual plastic crap. The glut of spiritual how-to books published in the nineties and early noughts often wasn’t rooted in much else but the market—the fact that the Nones (as in “none of the above”) were America’s fastest-growing religious “group.” Just because people had drifted apart from their religion didn’t mean they had no spiritual questions or spiritual needs. With 30+ million customers and growing, it was a publishing free-for-all. Religion had been deregulated by the culture, and newer, more generically spiritual models were rolling off the assembly line without being inspected by anyone but a marketing team.
It’s hard to say when the disillusionment began to set in—only that it did. The bottom fell out of the spiritual book and retreat market not because people got less spiritual-but-not-religious. (If anything, according to the polls, they were more so.) It fell out because, whatever the old model of religion got wrong—and it got a lot wrong…about history, about women, about sex, to name only a few of its greater foibles—there were a couple of things it got right.
What were they? I asked my friend Bill Aiken, a member of the Buddhist lay group Soka Gakkai International, and he gave what at first seemed like an innocuous, if not shallow response. “The casserole ladies,” he told me, although he conceded that these days they could just as easily be “casserole men.”
These are the proverbial church ladies who show up at your door uninvited when someone gets sick or loses their job. Mostly they show up because they want to, Bill told me, but they also do it because that’s what you do when someone is in trouble. They don’t give you a chance to say, “No. Thanks. Really. We’ll be just fine.” They know you’re not fine. They’ve seen you at your best and at your worst because they’ve been with you week-in, week-out for years as part of the same spiritual community. Bill winked and noted that, in his totally unbiased opinion, the Soka Gakkai had the best casserole ladies (and men) in American Buddhism. It wasn’t the kind of bragging I was used to hearing from American Buddhist converts, but the more I thought about it the more impressive it seemed.
The person with whom you attend a yoga class and share an affinity for books by a particular Indian guru is a lot less likely to respond to distress in that homey casserole-cooking kind of way. Theoretically, of course, they could. But realistically they’re not organized to do it. It’s not automatic. You can’t count on it when times are tough. It’s the same people really, the ones who show up and the ones who don’t. But their spiritual communities are not the same.
To give them their due, most yoga teachers or vibrational healing experts are great for restoring balance and getting those stress-related kinks out of your neck. All the same, they’re likely to draw a blank when asked to perform a marriage or a funeral ceremony. It’s not that they can’t or won’t do it—just that they usually don’t know how.
The spiritual-but-not-religious are often out of their depth when it comes the weightier moments of life. There’s no time-tested ritual, no ceremony everybody knows that allows their spiritual charges to just sink down into the experience and let the wisdom of the ages carry them body-and-soul to the other side of bliss or loss or whatever. Your average mindfulness instructor might figure it out with enough practice (after all, they’re usually smart people with one or two advanced degrees). But what about in the meantime? Well, let’s be charitable and say they’re most likely making it up as they go along.
That’s not always such a bad thing. Creating your own funeral might be the better choice if you’re the surviving partner in a gay civil union who wants to feel treated like the husband or wife you know yourself to be. A Catholic priest isn’t going to be able to do that for you, even if in some cases he might secretly want to. It’s just nowhere in his allowable bag of tricks.
None of this was an issue for those of us who came of age spiritually in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. We loved going at life without a religious script—or, in some cases, with a new one we loved for its philosophy, its aesthetic, or its exoticism. But whatever we told our parents or skeptical friends, most of us never got completely used to that newer script. In our heads we did, maybe. But not in our bodies. How many long-term Buddhists have I seen buried by a rabbi in the past twenty years? Honestly, I’ve lost count.
The bottom line is, if we’re looking for spiritual community and the grounding such communities give to our lives, we won’t find it in a weekly class or workshop. And it won’t come delivered in a book from Amazon with the smiling face of a Tibetan lama on the front. Those of us who’ve been redefining the American religious landscape for the past half-century are finally beginning to wake up a little and get…well, if not religious-not-spiritual, then at least real-not-flaky.
At our most honest, we Nones will admit that we want that “waking” to happen before it’s too late and we end up on our deathbeds wondering what mindfulness-based-stress reduction or a pile of crystals has to say about life, death, love, forgiveness, friendship, family, and the mysteries of the world beyond.