Nearly 40% of all Americans have no connection with organized religion. Yet many of these people, even though they might never step inside a house of worship, live profoundly spiritual lives. But what is the nature and value of unchurched spirituality in America? Is it a recent phenomenon, a New Age fad that will soon fade, or a long-standing and essential aspect of the American experience?
In Spiritual But Not Religious, Robert Fuller offers fascinating answers to these questions. He shows that alternative spiritual practices have a long and rich history in America, dating back to the colonial period, when church membership rarely exceeded 17% and interest in astrology, numerology, magic, and witchcraft ran high. Fuller traces such unchurched traditions into the mid-nineteenth century, when Americans responded enthusiastically to new philosophies such as Swedenborgianism, Transcendentalism, and mesmerism, right up to the current interest in meditation, channeling, divination, and a host of other unconventional spiritual practices. Throughout, Fuller argues that far from the flighty and narcissistic dilettantes they are often made out to be, unchurched spiritual seekers embrace a mature and dynamic set of basic beliefs. They focus on inner sources of spirituality and on this world rather than the afterlife; they believe in the accessibility of God and in the mind's untapped powers; they see a fundamental unity between science and religion and an equality between genders and races; and they are more willing to test their beliefs and change them when they prove untenable.
Timely, sweeping in its scope, and informed by a clear historical understanding, Spiritual But Not Religious offers fresh perspective on the growing numbers of Americans who find their spirituality outside the church.
Over the past 30 years, sociologists of religion have coined the phrase "spiritual seeker" to describe those who are unaffiliated with organized religion but who are nonetheless looking for ways to enhance their understanding of religious questions. Fuller (Alternative Medicine in American Religious Life) observes that these seekers differentiate between spirituality and religion, connecting the former with a privately expressed faith and the latter with the creeds and rituals publicly expressed in religious institutions. These "spiritual but not religious" individuals, Fuller writes, pick and choose elements from a variety of beliefs and practices as they construct an individualized spirituality. While many scholars regard this as a recent phenomenon, Fuller provides a historical survey of America's "nonecclesial religious history" to demonstrate that the impulse toward creating a uniquely personal spirituality has pervaded American religion since colonial times. He ranges over divination, astrology, witchcraft, angelology, Swedenborgianism, Emersonian transcendentalism, mesmerism, Elizabeth Clare Prophet's I AM movement, New Thought and New Age in order to show the historical roots of the fascination with the spiritual apart from the religious. Finally, he contends that the spirituality of the "unchurched" is slowly reshaping the faith of many members of mainstream religious organizations. While there are interesting moments here, notably his lively historical overviews, Fuller's thesis is old news, and he fails to address the growing number of seekers who are returning to religious organizations in search of tradition-oriented faith. Since Fuller's book describes an outdated religious scene, his main point is almost obsolete.