One of the most common answers to the “So what do you believe?” question is “I’m spiritual, but not religious”. More and more people are identifying as spiritually inclined without the attachments to any formal religion or philosophy. Plenty of self-identified religious folk tend to consider this “just plain old laziness”, but I think there’s something more to it. What’s making being spiritual but not religious so popular, and a successful storytelling tool?
It’s difficult to compare the spiritual but not religious (SBNR) to people who adhere to a particular religion simply because there’s so much variety in the SBNR crowd. They’re often stereotyped as shallow, lazy, and uninterested in pondering the big mysteries of the universe. In reality, SBNRs are quite the opposite. The spiritual lack the formal structure that characterizes the religious and their proscribed beliefs, practices, and community. They consider profound questions regarding death, and many believe in some form of afterlife. They look to a wide variety of religious and philosophical traditions to glean spiritual wisdom. They participate in communities, but in a much looser way than the religious might. These groups range from book clubs to arts enthusiasts. The spiritual and religious do have some fundamental similarities. Both believe in some kind of greater “power,” both emphasize the relationship between the self and that greater “power”, and that relationship brings the individual some kind of positive feeling, usually of peace.
People, namely content creators, might be drawn to the SBNR route because it gives a greater sense of meaning and purpose to one’s life without the extra baggage any real world religion brings. Incorporating a religious message into your story, especially one tied to a particular religion, can alienate large swaths of your audience. J.K. Rowling specifically avoided talking about her religion in interviews before the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, because she was worried that it would spoil the story too much. Does that mean Harry Potter is a Christian allegory? Maybe. But if we look at the text, Harry’s closest brush with anything truly spiritual happens during a scene where Harry visits King’s Cross in his mind. In it, Dumbledore serves as a spiritual guide, and Harry must decide whether to come back to life or go “on”. There’s no talk of God or Heaven, but it’s clearly a spiritual experience for Harry.
On the other hand, Supernatural consistently goes the “religious” route, with mixed results. The writers draw from real religious traditions to create their mythology; it saves them some worldbuilding time. However, especially in early seasons, the frenetic mix of real religious symbols and objects with obviously contrived practices makes it much harder for a religious audience member to suspend her or his disbelief. The Winchesters had Satanic Pentagrams taped up on the wall next to Stars of David and rosaries. They use Latin to exorcise demons, including references to the Church, but aren’t practicing Christians. While there are plenty of fan theories about God in the Supernatural universe, God is absent from the story. Angels and demons are supernatural creatures not unlike the monsters that go bump in the night. So far, the Supernatural universe is a very physical one, with very limited spiritual meaning.
The Firefly and Serenity universe is very friendly to the spiritual but not religious crowd. We have a few religious characters: Shepherd Book is a Christian minister who turns to his Bible when things get tough, and Inara Serra is a Buddhist, but it has little to no impact on her character. When her home is infiltrated by an assassin, she lights some incense before a statue… though the incense turns out to be an explosive, meant to distract the assassin, so we never really see her engaging in any authentic religious practice. Even as Book lies dying, he implores Malcolm Reynolds to believe in something, anything. The overall message is that belief and spirituality are positive things, more than any specific religion, and that finding what you believe is what’s important.
This, I think, might be the reason why the number of people who identify as spiritual but not religious is increasing. People are looking for something to believe in, something to connect them to a greater purpose. Religion entails making a commitment to a particular way of believing, acting, and seeing the world. Being spiritual but not religious lets you stay open to any and all new possibilities or insights. There’s a certain openness to the unknown that comes with it. This openness may be what makes it so appealing to science fiction writers. Science fiction pushes the frontiers of reality, “to boldly go where no one has gone before”. Most religions have a pretty clear idea of how the world works, with a strong moral code that can be applied to nearly all possible moral situations. In this way, when it comes to storytelling, religion is limited in a way that being spiritual is not. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the religious can be confident in knowing what they believe and how it works for them. But such confidence and certainty isn’t for everybody. The spiritual but not religious show us that it’s possible to seek a connection to a higher purpose without all of the trappings of religion.