Do SBNR Navel Gazers Irritate You?

Many  people have a clear distaste for spirituality practiced outside brick and mortar institutions. It is quite common to hear SBNR (spiritual but not religious) referred to as “spirituality lite,” and those who are SBNR as  “flaky,” “woo woo,“navel gazers.”

In fact, antagonism towards SBNR is so pronounced I decided to investigate why this is happening.

Why do navel gazers irritate people so much? Here is a quick summary of what I found:

First, many religious communities are hemorrhaging members. I think that the sadness these communities feel turns into anger, which sometimes gets projected onto SBNRs. Many religious groups see SBNR as the main reason for their dwindling fortunes, and to some extent they are right.

In response, religious groups point to a major difference between SBNRs and their longstanding groups—community.  Their lack of clearly identifiable religious communities is thought to mean that SBNRs are self-absorbed navel gazers who don’t care about others. There are a lot of critical problems with this line of thinking as you can imagine. My research with Canadian SBNRs does not support this.

Second, Christianity in particular is written into many of our social and political institutions. It played a key role in nation building and contributed to the establishment of schools, hospitals, universities and social welfare agencies across North America. The fear, then, is that if SBNR narcissists are replacing religiously committed individuals, society is going to suffer. The loss of organized religion will weaken our institutions and lead to social chaos.

Third,  SBNRs can seem to be like parasites who suck the lifeblood from traditions that appeal to them. Many Westerners are certainly infatuated with Buddhism and First Nations cosmologies, but they practice “spirituality lite” when they won’t take the whole package, only the things they like. SBNRs are cast as religious scavengers who float around consuming whatever they find appealing. They are said to “pick and mix” according to personal whim. The implication is that they lack theological grounding, and that their efforts are naive and misguided. Without the help of the tradition, critics say, these people are bound to lose their way and fall into the arms of false prophets.

These are just a few of the reasons navel gazers get bad press. In short, they threaten our institutions and ways of life. In some cases they assault our sense of reason and even decency. But are these views accurate?

I realize that all religions get their fair share of ridicule–even contempt. But the big difference with SBNR is that there is very little accurate information to counter it. As such, these negative labels are used freely by journalists. Worse, such derogatory views are written into many “official” academic accounts.

Simply perpetuating these views will not make SBNR go away. So if your work includes a spiritual care component, uncritically accepting these views will make it harder for you to connect with SBNRs. Oh, and it also makes it harder for them to connect with you.

When you see the big picture of SBNR so you can respond thoughtfully to both its strengths and limitations.