According to the Dec. 22 edition of the National Post, two-thirds of Canadians consider themselves spiritual, but only half say they are religious. Increasingly, the article suggests, “[the modern world] is turning away from organized religion, shunning dogma and church attendance for a vaguer notion of spirituality” (Carlson, A6). The “spiritual but not religious” moniker now has its own acronym, SBNR, gaining mainstream usage on dating sites and other social media personality profiles. (For those, however, who are religious, the SBNR handle can offend as it seems to infer that those who are religious are not, or cannot, be spiritual as well.) This article and subsequent articles in the Saturday paper hinge on the idea that religion, having built Western society, is now in decline in that same society. What this will mean for abortion laws, the definition of marriage, gun control, and other religiously inspired socio-political issues as our culture secularizes remains to be seen.
But what really struck me as I read the paper was that although our society is shifting away from religion, what keeps two-thirds of Canadians checking the “spiritual” box, is mortality, says Michael Wilkinson, director of the Religion in Canada Institute. “People today don’t see institutionalized religion as having the ability to answer those big questions anymore” but the questions still remain.
Mortality for the human being, especially those humans who consider themselves spiritual or religious, can be the hinge point. For some religious folks, ideas about the afterlife keep those religious commitments alive. Whether it is fear of hell or the excitement of eternal reward in some fashion, those hopes can be powerful instigators for belief. And for “spiritual but not religious” folks, death with or without an afterlife is still an unknown. Let’s face it: with or without religion or spirituality, most of us are uncertain when it comes to death. Many of us know what death looks like: we’ve been bedside for some of the most painful moments of our loved one’s lives, but few of us have “tasted death” or have had near-death experiences. This uncertainty leads people to contemplate and ask questions. Additionally, one’s stance on mortality takes on a lived-in dimension when considering “how now shall one live” in light of what one believes about death or an afterlife. What does this life mean? What is happiness and how do we obtain it? How can a better life be lived? Religion and/or spirituality can provide a framework to live out such questions, but there are still many Canadians turning away from religion and spirituality wholly. Two-thirds of Canadians check the “spiritual” box, but that still leaves 33 percent that checked “none” or abstained from voting. Also, half of Canadians may consider themselves religious, but that means that half do not. What do those people believe? Where do they go to ask and answer questions?
Our society is moving away from religion to answer these questions about death and the meaning of life, but where are we moving to, and why? In Part 2, I’ll flesh out some responses to these questions, in the spirit of what Rainer Maria Rilke has written, “Live the questions” (Letters to a Young Poet).