Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but Not Religious
Mercadante is the B. Robert Straker Professor of Historical Theology at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). As she describes in an opening “Personal Prelude,” this book is rooted in her experiences. She grew up in a home with a Jewish mother and a Roman Catholic father in a majority Protestant neighborhood. Her parents were only nominal practitioners of their religions. As an eight year old, she chose to be baptized Catholic, a decision that displeased both of her parents. In high school and college she stopped practicing her faith, becoming a seeker of religious experiences in a variety of ways. Although, she explains, the language is anachronistic, she was “spiritual but not religious” (p. xii).
While on a backpacking trip in Europe, she met a group of evangelical Christians who helped her see “that spirituality and religion were not opposites but integral to each other” (ibid.). She returned to the practice of Christianity, eventually becoming part of “mainline Protestantism” (p. xiii). She explains, “Given all this background, it was understandable that I would be intrigued by the burgeoning ‘spiritual but not religious’ movement which burst upon public consciousness in the 1990s” (ibid.). “But,” she continues, “as I began reading articles on these unaffiliated seekers, something just did not fit with what I knew from experience as a seeker and with other seekers” (p. xiv). So she put together an extensive research project that focused not simply on reading about those who check “no religion” on the surveys but conducting interviews with them: “Being an academic, I conceived of a study where I would conduct lengthy face-to-face interviews, inviting SBNRs to speak for themselves” (ibid.).
The book’s chapters introduce the methodology, tell the stories of some of the interviewees, and give an overview of issues and concerns. In the conclusion she draws out some implications of her research.
In this study of the “spiritual but not religious,” “spirituality” refers “to the interior life of faith, . . . to the area of belief or faith that actually energizes or motivates our ethical and public living” (p. 5). “Religion” means “the necessary communal and/or organizational component, . . . the concrete and tangible actions and resources that faith groups contribute to civil society” (ibid.). How large is this group of people? The author explains, “The growth in the religiously unaffiliated can be charted and it is dramatic. By the start of the 1990s those overtly claiming to be ‘none’ had reached at least 11% and toward the end it was at least 14%. By 2008, the surveyed number of ‘nones’ had reached at least 16%. By 2012 the actual number of persons unaffiliated with any organized religion was at least 20% and growing. In actuality, these estimates might be low. When polled, many people identify with something, even if they no longer show up, contribute, or practice” (p. 28).
The stories of the people interviewed for this book are fascinating and diverse. They come from all ages, although only about 10% each from “The Greatest Generation (born 1901–1924)” or from “Milllennials (born after 1981)” (pp. 36, 46, 266–67). The largest group of interviews, about one third, come from “Gen X (born 1965–1981)” (266–67). The main criteria for participation were that the interviewee had to volunteer and “to self-identify as a ‘spiritual but not religious’ person” (p. 265). The majority of interviewees lived throughout the United States, but particularly in the Midwest and Western states (pp. 266–67). Although there were some interviews with Canadians and Mexicans, this is primarily a sociological study of American religious culture.
The significance of understanding this growing category can hardly be overstated. This book is a valuable tool and is highly recommended. The author’s experiences and her expertise make this an enjoyable yet challenging reading experience. She allows the interviewees to tell their stories. They are fascinating and frustrating, but never boring. The author avoids overgeneralizing from the stories, although she does identify trends and commonalities growing out of her research.
A fitting conclusion to this review is found in Mercadante’s opening words: “ ‘Nones’—Those who do not claim any particular communal faith identity—are on the rise. Although the term ‘none’ may sound pejorative, it is simply a shorthand used by sociologists to designate those who might check ‘none’ on a survey when asked to what particular faith group they belong. This phenomenon is increasing so rapidly that worldwide ‘unbelief’ now represents the world’s third largest ‘religion.’ Even the United States, historically considered a religious nation, has a significant and growing share of these religious unaffiliated. . . . During the 1990s, the number of ‘nones’ began to rise exponentially until now it is considered the fastest growing ‘religious group’ in the nation” (p. 1). Then she writes, “Depending on where you stand, this profound shift in the American religious landscape can look like a severe crisis or a burgeoning spiritual revolution” (p. 2). Evangelicals should choose to see this shift as a burgeoning opportunity for ministry. Effective ministry requires an understanding of the culture. To that end, this book is an excellent resource for those who desire to minister in this rapidly changing religious world.
About the Contributors
Glenn R. Kreider
Prior to teaching at DTS, Dr. Kreider served as Director of Christian Education and then as Senior Pastor in Cedar Hill, TX. His research and writing interests include Jonathan Edwards, theological method, theology and popular culture, and our eschatological hope. Dr. Kreider believes that grace really is amazing; it is a thought that will change the world. He is married to his best friend, Janice, and they have two grown children and one granddaughter, Marlo Grace. He and Janice enjoy live music, good stories, bold coffee, and spending time together and with their rescue dogs—a terrier/greyhound mix named Chloe and a black lab named Carlile.