The Nones, the Unaffiliated, the SBNR, and Those Who Serve Them

It is time to stop referring to the collective numbers that Pew Research is so famous for when we talk about the “nones.”   Yes, on January 9th, USAToday did run a graphic on the front page of its national edition that showed that the “religiously unaffiliated” were now the third largest spiritual group in the world at 16 percent.  So the unaffiliated, as a group, now surpass the Hindus and Buddhists and Jews and every other spiritual community except for Christians and Muslims.  Yes, that is a significant number, but what does the number mean?  Like every other spiritual community identified by the Pew numbers, there is such a wide variety of spiritual practices and expressions within the cohort that it is time to look at the individuals that make up that group, and then, as clergy (or aspiring clergy), find ways to support their individual needs.

For over a year now, I’ve been the principal content provider for the virtual community.   “SBNR” stands for the “spiritual-but-not-religious.”  We’ve used Facebook as the medium to connect to these widely scattered and varied individual souls.  They come from over 20 countries around the world and they self-identify on all continents.  I’ve had the privilege to get to know many of these participants on an individual level.  It is now time to tell their story—one at a time.

Meeting One SBNR Couple

Let me introduce to you one SBNR couple today.  That couple is Ezekiel and Vanessa and they allowed me to talk about them.  They met while in college at the University of Virginia.  I met them along the shores of the James River at an ashram called “Yogaville.”  He is 28 years old and has a Master’s degree in chemical engineering.  She is 32 years old.  Both are currently teachers, and they rent a large plot of land where they raise a few farm animals.  They have just made a down payment on a farm of their own near the rural area on the Virginia and Tennessee border.   While they will keep their hands in teaching part-time, they plan to be farmers.  Before I met them, they had never heard of the names of “SBNR,” or “Nones” or any other label we have been using.  They are just being true to themselves.

Unlike most of the participants on the SBNR virtual community, neither come from a “religious background.”  He grew up in the rural Virginia area where they are moving and which is steeped in Protestant Christianity.  His family did not own a farm.  They did, however, allow him to be a spiritual seeker from his youth and to explore his own calling without pressure to conform to one faith or another.  He uses the term “seeker” to describe his path.  Her family, more urban than his, never talked about religion at all that she can remember.  They were at the ashram together for a yoga retreat.  It was obvious during the sessions that they have done yoga together for a number of years.  They chose to meditate with the rest of the ashram’s visitors and staff in the temple during formal meditations.  Their postures were flawless and if you looked at them during meditation you could see the quiet devotion in their spirituality.  During the meals I had time to ask them about their backgrounds and their spiritual path.  He knew little about Hinduism and never read any of the classic writings associated with that path.  He knew more about Buddhism than any other religion, except for some background in Christianity from his youth.  They were content on their path of quiet spiritual reflections together, being tied to the animals they nurtured, and commited to the land they have a calling to work.

What most caught my attention about this couple, and why they are important for you to meet, is that Vanessa is now pregnant with their first child.  At the time of the retreat, she had just finished her first rough trimester of pregnancy.  During the yoga classes her poses were appropriate for a mother-to-be. As I explored their spirituality during our mealtime conversations, I couldn’t help but ask them how they planned to teach spirituality to their child.  At that point, they hadn’t even considered the question.   They didn’t know if they would look for a local “spiritual community” that would support them and their child with traditional teachings.  They didn’t know if they were going to just let the child become a seeker if the calling was there.  This question, of how to raise the next generation, puts Ezekiel and Vanessa at an important place for all of us who are interested in the future of human spirituality.  They will let me share with you their entire journey together over the next year.   They, and all their fellow seekers, have a decision to make that could potentially shape the future of human spirituality.

Those Who Serve the SBNR and Seeking

It is significant that I met this couple at Yogaville—a place that honors all the world’s religions.  The ashram was the product of the late Swami Satchidananda in the 1970’s.  He was the guru at the Woodstock Music Festival in the 1960’s and he attracted a wide following of music stars that provided the material resources to allow his teachings to flourish.  His most important teaching was simply that “Truth is One, Paths are Many.”  Ezekiel and Vanessa meditated in the LOTUS which is a giant lotus-shaped temple with alters dedicated to all the world’s religions including “those that haven’t been revealed yet.”    Swami Satchidananda also helped Rabbi Joseph Gelberman create the first interfaith seminary, The New Seminary, in New York City in the early 1980’s. From that seminary and all the ones that have been created from its graduates, over 4500 “Interfaith Ministers” have emerged to support seekers of all faiths, traditions and practices, and the SBNR community.

Interfaith Ministers represent the commitment from an evolving clergy that it is possible to spiritually serve all people of all faiths, and those with no faith path at all.  For example, we have reached a point in the United States where over one-third of all weddings are performed between people of different faith paths.  These ceremonies can be a synthesis of different rituals from the traditions, or they can be something unique depending on the desires of the couple.  This is a clergy that believes that interfaith is no longer just a dialogue between the religions, but also an actual attempt to meet the needs of every unique spiritual being that walks the planet.  The goal is to be a living example of “walking the talk of interfaith.”

This is not a new religion.  However, there are structures that support this calling.  There is a single religious order where it is possible to hold everyone and every practice, called the Order of Universal Interfaith.  Besides Interfaith Ministers, the order accepts former clergy who have felt restricted by the limited scope of the spiritual service that the traditional paths allow.  There are evolving inclusive spiritual communities around the world which are led by these clergy under an umbrella called the Council of Interfaith Communities.  There is an annual conference of the best practices and examples of interfaith which serve as an apologetic for the movement.  This conference is called the BIG I Conference for Inclusive Theology, Spirituality and Consciousness.  This is only a movement since there is nothing “new” created by any of this.  It is, however, a worldview that accepts diversity in spirituality as a given for all of humanity.

Many of those who have come together have started to name the mystic place between the formal religions as “interspirituality.” This term was coined by the late Brother Dr. Wayne Teasdale.  Right now, one of the top 10 books on is “The Coming Interspiritual Age” which was co-authored by Dr. Kurt Johnson (an OUnI board member) and David Ord.  The book is a broad historic overview of the evolution of humans and their spirituality, which leads the reader to look at interspirituality as a next step.

Ezekiel, Vanessa and all Interfaith Ministers represent a growing body of spiritual people that casts aside labels and seeks to see the wide variety of spiritual paths and practices as part of a continuum of human spirituality.  Their story continues to evolve and unfold before our eyes.

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2 thoughts on “The Nones, the Unaffiliated, the SBNR, and Those Who Serve Them

  1. Tim,
    Thanks for an insightful post. I think you raise some important questions about what it means to claim a spiritual identity and the great diversity within a category such as “spiritual but not religious” or “none.”
    Looking forward to reading more of your writing.

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