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‘When Spiritual But Not Religious is Not Enough’ by Lillian Daniel: Wendy Dackson reviews


When Spiritual But Not Religious is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church


A review of this book is really not a possibility, as it does not lend itself well to the standard of reviewing I have adhered to for the last 15 years.  But it deserves some engagement, as the topic of “Spiritual but Not Religious” (often abbreviated SBNR) is being discussed more frequently as more people either leave the churches, or embark on spiritual paths without ever having participated in institutional religious life.  So, I propose to respond to Lillian Daniel‘s book in stages.  First, I will attempt to review it in a standard way–descriptions of the main thesis, lines of argumentation, sources for claims made, principles of inclusion/exclusion, and a target readership who might find it valuable.  Next, I will try to engage some of the points she makes in the book by way of a quasi-conversation I would have with her if she were across a table from me.  Finally, I will offer some of my own reflection on my spiritual “desert time” of being a Christian who is loath to enter a church, not as SBNR, but as my own designation of “non-parochial laity“.




The category of “spiritual but not religious” has become mainstream in American culture, and possibly throughout the Western world.  In England, for example, although most people still claim the established Church as their religious affiliation on official forms (such as census, hospital admissions, and the like), most people do not attend services with any regularity.  They may consider themselves to be “spiritual but not religious”.  When I was growing up, it was fairly uncommon even to be the product of a religiously mixed marriage (I had a lapsed Roman Catholic father and a cultural but non-practicing Jewish mother), and SBNR was something almost nobody claimed.   Fifty years ago, it would have been shocking and countercultural.  Now, it is hardly worth mentioning.


It is, however, a rising challenge to the churches, especially to mainstream Christian denominations.  And so, Lillian Daneil’s book should be a welcome volume in dealing with the growing number of people on a spiritual path but outside the churches, with whom the churches should want to engage and forge positive relationships.  The title raises the expectation that there will be some effort to convince people who have taken individual spiritual paths that their aims would be better served by participating in congregational life, or some practical wisdom that clergy and members of churches could use to develop a dialogue with those who are perhaps not of their ranks, but seek harmonious ends with people in traditional communities of faith.  Unfortunately, the book lacks either.


There is no introduction to outline why she has written the book, what gives her the qualifications to make pronouncements on this topic (it appears to be some conversations with people on airplanes, and not much else), or what she intends to accomplish by circulating her words more widely than she can from her pulpit or blog. This is probably good for sales, as I continued reading the book hoping to find out these things, and was disappointed.  I can hardly imagine that I am alone in this (and I am befuddled by the praise that this book has generated).


When Spiritual but Not Religious is Not Enough has no central unifying thesis, except that the author is bored by those who consider themselves to be SBNR.  It also lacks a clear organizing principle, although there are groupings of essays under the headings”Searching and Praying”; “Confessing”, “Communing”, “Wandering”, “Wondering”, and finally “Remembering and Returning”.  Except for The first essay (rant, really) entitled ‘Spiritual but Not Religious?”, and two others (Chapter 11: ‘Things I am Tired Of’, and Chapter 19 ‘Please Stop Boring Me’), the book has nothing to do with the Spiritual but Not Religious people or why the path they have chosen is unsatisfactory, let alone convincing them (or helping other church leaders to do so) that they would be welcome in the church and find a fuller and more complex path to God.


Only three chapters–the first, eleventh, and nineteenth–of this 32-chapter volume actually have any mention of the SBNR issue.  There is one point of clarity–the author has lumped all SBNRs into a composite that bores her.  She admits of no individual nuances, no possibility that for either a season or a lifetime, institutional religious participation may be unhelpful for some people.  She wants the recognition of being a public and ordained Christian minister, but does not want to be the face of the church for those who have a negative view of it (and does nothing to counter that negative view except to whine).  The remaining 29 chapters have the feeling of recycled sermon material, journal entries, and blog posts–none of which has been reworked to fit the topic stated in the title.  Interestingly, although she frequently makes the claim that participation in a religious community takes the focus off the individual, all of these are Rev. Daniel’s personal showcase.  God is there, to be sure—but in a supporting role only.


When Spiritual But Not Religious is Not Enough would have benefited greatly by a much firmer editorial hand than it got, and by some real theological guidance.  The lack of insight does not go far to correct her lament that she feels like she lives in “a society where stupid and simple spirituality always trumps the depth of a complex faith”, but rather contributes to the problem.  The claim that “I can hope and believe in what is not before my eyes.  I don’t have to be logical, and most of all, I don’t have to prove it.  Not to you, not to anyone”, indicates that the book really is Lillian Daniel’s private hissy-fit, and does not have a lot of use to anyone who might really want to engage those who are not inside their churches.


The book is lacking in any kind of scholarship or research, and does not add to the serious literature in the subject of reaching those who are at the fringe of institutional religion.  Without either introduction or conclusion, it is hard to know what she intended by making these musings public, or what she believes (other than venting) will be accomplished by reaching a wider audience.


When Spiritual But Not Religious is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church, by Lillian Daniel (New York:  Jericho Books, 2013).  Amazon Kindle Edition, $8.99 USD.


Courtesy Lillian Daniel’s website


7 comments on this post:

Lindy said...

Thanks so much for posting this, Laura. I have clicked around a little bit on the internets tonight and I am just astounded at the swooning going on over this woman.

As a SBNRer — according to Daniel’s definition, NOT my own — I am not the least bit interested in that sort of church. I can’t imagine what planet she did her research on, but it wasn’t mine.

The other thing I was wondering is, if SBNR people are so boring, why can’t Lillian Daniel stop talking about them? That may contain the kernel of some actual truth, like the fact that she is the superior, self-referential one and she is actually so narcissistic that she can’t stop talking about herself. Its just a theory.

I look forward to hearing more from Wendy Dackson.

25 August 2013 14:08
Wendy Dackson said...

Hi, Lindy!

The book has no real research, which is probably why her assertions don’t ring true to you. If it did anything positive for me, it made me want to spend more time on airplanes listening to SBNR people’s complex and interesting stories, with as much empathy and respect as I could muster.

It’s not a well-written book at all, and it adds nothing to serious thinking about the phenomenon of SBNR or how the churches might go about some fruitful engagement with them.

Lindy said...

I clicked around the internet and read a few things she has written… in Crayola, from the looks of it. But, you know what? She has a Ph.D from Yale, but her writing is not that good. That surprised me. I do not disagree with everything she says, btw. In fact, we probably agree more than we disagree. My real objection is the way she says it, and her willingness to disregard the work of God anywhere outside her comfort zone. AND the way she makes up definitions, AND the assumptions, AND the general meanness, AND…

Wendy Dackson said...

Unfortunately, a doctorate from a respected institution does not necessarily translate into being a thoughtful analyst, a good writer, or (in the case of a minister) a mature and insightful spiritual leader.

I gave the book one star on the Amazon reviews, because you cannot give a zero-star review.

26 August 2013 12:40
26 August 2013 07:38
25 August 2013 16:22
George Waite said...

A degree from Yale-if it were in Medicine or Law or Mathematics: Wow!
“Divinity”? Yawn. Way too many people admitted to “Divinity” schools. Nearly one-fourth, which for Yale is grotesquely generous and non-selective.

Wendy Dackson said...

To be just the tiniest bit generous to divinity schools, George: they have a higher applicant-to-admissions rate than most other postgrad programs because so much of the screening process has happened prior to application (through their denomination’s discernment process). Very few people wish to study theology at post-bachelor’s levels unless they are going to be ordained ministers, and they don’t apply at all until they are reasonably sure that will happen (and that some financial support from their denomination is going to be forthcoming). So, the applicant pool is already substantially smaller than that for medicine, law, or the hard sciences.

That said, I do know two non-ordained graduates from Yale Div (who I met during my own PhD program at Marquette University), and they are head and shoulders above and beyond what I see in Lillian Daniel. I can’t really say who is the outlier–they, or she.

04 September 2013 16:16
04 September 2013 13:16

[…] Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough. You can read my responses to her book here.  And here.  And […]

12 November 2015 12:32

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