Odds and Ends
We truly are talking about a worldwide phenomenon here. Transcendental Meditation was brought to South Korea by American soldiers stationed there — it joined the already extant local qigongs. Academics have suggested that Israeli New Age practices are sufficiently local to merit the term “Jew Age”. The former President of the Republic of Slovenia, Dr Janez Drnovšek, became a well-known SBNR author.
Knowing this, it’s interesting to consider these two anecdotes from a doyen of religious studies:
A few years ago I was having breakfast in a hotel in Austin, Texas. At the next table sat two middle-aged men in business suits, both reading newspapers. One looked up and said: “The situation is really heating up in the Middle East.” He paused, then continued: “Just as the Bible said it would.” The other man said: “Hmm” and went on reading his newspaper. The statement about the Middle East was delivered in the same matter-of-fact tone that someone in, say, Boston might say: “Just as Thomas Friedman predicted.”
Not long after this I was in a London hotel on a Sunday morning. I thought that it would be nice to attend an Anglican matins service. I went to the concierge, a young man whose name tag said “Warren” and who spoke with an unmistakable English working-class accent — clearly not an intern from Pakistan.
I asked him where the nearest Anglican Church was, and for some reason added “Church of England parish.” He looked at me with a blank look, then said: “Is this, sort of, like Catholic?” I said: “Well, not quite”. He said that he did not know, but would look it up. The information that he subsequently gave me turned out to be wrong.
What impressed me, while he was rummaging in his computer, was not that this young Englishman evidently did not go to church. That is now commonplace in English society. What was more impressive was that he genuinely did not know what the Church of England was.
— Peter Berger in Religious America, Secular Europe? (2008)
It’s a great vision of the divergence of the two continents… but it implies this very false simplicity: secular or religious. The fact that both the continents in question are seeing a roughly equal increase in SBNR ought to register but doesn’t. Obviously that’s the nature of a book with such a title, but I can tell you that Peter Berger, whilst he totally understands modern societies are inherently pluralist, thinks that SBNR is just a fairly fluffy and insignificant bricolage of inner children seeking a toy harmony with the cosmos. Yes, even though SBNR is in fact the natural spiritual expression of that democratic pluralism, as we’ve seen. That seems confounding to you and I but it’s quite normal in some areas of academia. (But not all!)
The latest UK census data arrived whilst I wrote this series, and 14.1 million people (around 23%) chose to state they had no religion. The number of atheists, at a minuscule 29,267, is far, far less than 0.01% even of this number. Academics like Heelas and Woodhead (1994) have been saying for years that the slack of religionlessness has not been taken up by atheism and they are definitely right. The number of pagans is barely double the atheist figure (56,620), a very tiny presence, itself easily outnumbered by adherents of Jediism in fact (176,632), whose force is however fading now. (Will Disney revive it?)
Heelas/Woodhead estimated the number of people regularly (weekly) attending SBNR classes, healings, workshops etc. at 900,000. My bet is, this figure has increased to hit the 1.5 million mark by now at the very least. But it doesn’t include people like me, who only attend such things occasionally, mostly meditating alone or in private groups. It might not even be counting the same people each week. The actual numbers are probably far higher.
SBNR is real, and it’s here. But as I mentioned before, it remains invisible to many academics, because of their prior engagement with worldviews that cannot acknowledge its existence.