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Marcus '13: Rethinking individualism and religion


As a Brown student abroad, I don't often hear about opinions columns in The Herald. So when a piece by Cara Dorris '15 ("Is religion the scariest word?" April 10) blew up my inbox and Facebook feed, I took notice. Friends seemed outraged about the characterization of spirituality as a manifestation of individualism, and they took personal affront to Dorris' connection between spirituality, depression and hookup culture. My co-coordinators in Multi-Faith Council were concerned about the portrayal of our organization.

Having read the article for myself, I feel compelled to respond, not just to Dorris but also to those responses I've seen posted by my peers regarding her arguments. In truth, Dorris and her detractors have some valid points, though they draw fallacious conclusions.

Dorris argues that our generation increasingly identifies as SBNR - "spiritual but not religious." This is true. She also connects this trend with society's emphasis on the individual and personalization. Many notable scholars would agree. In their book, "Habits of the Heart," religious studies scholars Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen, among others, popularized the term "Sheilaism" to describe individualist, syncretic belief systems. One of the subjects of their book, Sheila Larson, characterizes her faith as "Sheilaism ... her own little voice." According to Bellah and Madsen, Sheilaism is "a perfectly natural expression of current American religious life."

So, Dorris' argument has a kernel of truth. Our society does privilege the individual and private experience, and this does have an incontrovertible effect on faith and religious institutions. However, Dorris' assertion that the SBNR trend leads to depression and hookup culture is dangerous.

To begin, Dorris makes specious and disrespectful claims that those who would identify as spiritual are most likely to be the ones under the influence at Josiah's or in the beds of strangers. Those who would identify as SBNR represent a wide swath of society who hold a range of beliefs regarding drugs, alcohol and hooking up. Besides the obvious judgment claim by Dorris regarding the aforementioned activities - which would be interesting and useful to parse, though there isn't enough room here - she is wrong in assuming the drunk kid in Jo's is more likely to be spiritual rather than religious. As countless studies have shown, self-identifying as religious - as Dorris would define it - does not necessarily correlate with more puritanical lifestyle choices.

Furthermore, Dorris implies that those who would identify as SBNR are unfaithful and shallow, and she denigrates spiritual moments experienced in any setting except a church pew. In the early 20th century, psychologist and philosopher William James wrote "The Varieties of Religious Experience," which examined and reaffirmed the value of a variety of spiritual experiences. Countless articles and books published since have shown that spiritual experiences outside the "church" or any normative religious space can have a positive, enduring impact. That certain people who identify as SBNR do not adhere to a moral system does not make SBNR as a faith identity any less valid. Few people would discount religion entirely just because some self-identified religious people commit atrocities in the name of religion.

Dorris also seems to say that a Christian who, for example, practices yoga or attends Passover Seders is somehow less Christian. This may be her most dangerous, intolerant and religiously illiterate point. Someone's faith commitment to a particular tradition does not and should not prohibit them from learning about other religious traditions or working with other religious communities. While Dorris seems to believe that interfaith engagement seeks to relativize all faiths and world views or divorce people from their closest convictions, in fact it oftentimes more firmly grounds people in their own faiths or systems of belief.

Some people do create syncretic belief systems that draw on various religious traditions, and while those in religious institutions may not like it, I find it hard to say that those systems of belief, consciously chosen and arrived at through experience, exploration and reflection, are any less valid than more dogmatic or institutional forms of religion.

Towards the end of her argument, Dorris draws a connection between depression and a lack of religious commitment. This is ridiculous. America is very strongly religious, especially for a "modern" country, and especially in comparison to other "modern" countries - I would refer Dorris to "Religious America, Secular Europe?" by Berger, Davie and Fokas. Whether or not Americans are religious enough is the wrong question. I would point Dorris toward a societal obsession with materialism or the current egregious economic disparity as much better starting points.

Finally, I would like to draw attention to a factual error. The Multi-Faith Council does not try to box people into a religious commitment. I, as a co-facilitator of MFC, do not have a specific faith commitment. My mother is Catholic and my father is Jewish, and I love working with religious communities to promote religious literacy and interfaith dialogue. I invite Dorris, and all my fellow students, to visit MFC or sign up for the Religious Literacy Project. We could all benefit from some more religious understanding.


Ben Marcus '13 is a religious studies concentrator at Cambridge University fo
r the semester. He can be reached at



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