A sea change in the religious landscape of Canada is underway. Led by millennials, Canada is increasingly moving towards a secular culture. “Spiritual but not religious” has become our new normal.
A 2015 Angus Reid poll found 39 per cent of Canadians identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Another 27 per cent identify as “neither religious nor spiritual;” 24 per cent as “religious and spiritual;” and 10 per cent as “religious but not spiritual.”
What sparked this dramatic change in beliefs and self-identification? And what does it mean for the future of Canadian society?
The rise of “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) is bound up with the civil rights revolutions of the 20th century. The movement away from religion towards “spirituality” reflects a desire to leave behind hierarchical understandings of religion towards a more socially liberal one. This idea has attracted critics: Conservative commentators have generally denounced SBNRs, seeing them as narcissistic, lazy and without a clear sense of morality.
Yet, this characterization is distorted and leaves out many attributes of SBNRs who display a robust sense of ethics: Mutual respect and acceptance of difference. In fact, I believe the ethical core of SBNR spirituality holds human rights as sacred.
In 2015 I began conducting qualitative research with Canadian millennials (born between 1980-2000) who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious.” I have interviewed more than 40 millennials about their spiritual lives in order to better understand their beliefs, practices and values.
Follow your heart
SBNRs look to the self for guidance, above all. When my interviewees make decisions about what to do, they do not appeal to a sacred text, but rather look within for guidance. What their gut tells them, or what their intuition reveals, is what orients them. For this reason, a number of scholars have deemed it “self-spirituality.”
In his book Varieties of Religion Today, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor writes, “…the Western march toward secularity…has been interwoven from the start with this drive toward personal religion.” According to Taylor we in the North Atlantic countries are living in a “culture of authenticity.”
SBNRs generally believe individuals have a self that is authentic to them (their “true self”), and, consequently, believe we ought to allow individuals to express themselves; that it would be wrong to force them to repress or hide their true self.
It has become commonplace in Canadian society to be told to follow your heart, be true to yourself or stand out from the crowd; and conversely, both rare and undesirable to be told to stick to your role, abide by tradition or work hard to fit in.
For example, one interviewee said: “That isn’t what I would want, but if that’s who they are, I’m not going to judge.” This attitude towards difference highlights how important freedom of choice is among SBNRs.
Self-spirituality prizes individual rights. Moreover, acceptance is considered an ultimate virtue among Canadian millennial SBNRs; given their vulnerability, marginalized identities — be they ethnic, sexual, or otherwise — are considered especially in need of protection.
Burger King spirituality?
My interviewees’ rejection of religion often derived from their assumption that religious people are not respectful of others’ rights to exist as they are.
Few of my interviewees had any interest in joining a religious institution — they are often deeply suspicious of them and see them as ultimately hotbeds of corruption, greed and fear-mongering — entirely at odds with and corrupting of an authentic spirituality.
It is perhaps for this reason conservative commentators have generally denounced self-spirituality, arguing that its rejection of religious institutions is antithetical to a moral life. Self-spirituality, they argue, leads to either narcissism or hedonism, or both.
For example, author and Reverend Lillian Daniel argues that self-spirituality sits “comfortably in the norm for self-centred American culture,” while Jesuit priest James Martin calls it proof of “plain old laziness.” Others have disparaged SBNRs for their “promiscuity of belief,” condescendingly representing the way in which they approach religion as a “Burger King Spirituality.”
Their criticisms are less directly targeted at a specific religious form — self-spirituality — and more generally at social liberalism itself. It has been a longstanding conservative critique of social liberalism that it weakens the binds of tradition and community, placing too much authority on the individual.
Yet these criticisms crucially miss a distinct ethical imaginary at work; one finds affirmed by SBNRs not only an ethic of authenticity, but also an ethic of freedom, and an ethic of mutual respect.
The rise of mutual respect
The rise of self-spirituality is bound up with the 1960s counterculture and the rights revolution: the civil rights, second-wave feminist and gay liberation movements have significantly shaped contemporary Canadian culture. Many social and economic factors led us there — the post Second World War affluence boom, the rise of consumer culture, increased urbanization and the spread of expressive individualism.
Allowing individuals to be their authentic selves has become a moral imperative. As Charles Taylor has written: “Indeed, precisely the soft relativism that seems to accompany the ethic of authenticity: let each person do his or her own thing, and we shouldn’t criticize each other’s ‘values’; this is predicated on a firm ethical base, indeed, demanded by it. One shouldn’t criticize others’ values, because they have a right to live their own life as you do.”
Human rights as sacred
Self-spirituality sacralizes human rights. Sociologist Emile Durkheim argues religion is a fundamental and permanent aspect of humanity, to be found in every society. Religion represents the collective conscience of the community, and arises out of the fundamentally social nature of human life. What goes by “religion” in any given society, according to Durkheim, ultimately reflects that which is held to be sacred to a moral community.
For Durkheim, liberalism was a religion insofar as it sacralized individual rights. Writing in France in the 19th century, he viewed the Declaration of the Rights of Man as a religious document, as it sacralized the individual. Philosopher Luc Ferry puts it this way: What we find is a humanization of the divine, and a divinization of the human.
Self-spirituality is the religion of social liberalism, sacralizing those values and ideals — authenticity, mutual respect, acceptance of difference, individual freedom — which are most sacred to our society.
While conservatives denounce what they view as a lacklustre and ultimately individualistic stance towards religion, many liberals celebrate the triumph of individual autonomy in the face of outdated traditions.
Although there is some credibility to conservative fears that self-spirituality may inhibit the kinds of commitment and community that are necessary to sustain both individual and societal well-being, we ought not fall into their trap of thinking it is entirely without moral merit.
Self-spirituality is a form of religiosity very much at home in the socially liberal (not simply self-centred) culture of Canada, and bound up with the rights revolution, which has arguably done more than anything else to define our national identity in the 21st century.