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4 ways to embrace and understand your 'spiritual-but-not-religious' family members

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Across the country, parents and grandparents constantly ask me, “How do I deal with family members who don’t share my faith yet tell me that they’re spiritual (just not religious)?” I respond by telling them that holiday gatherings present an opportunity to engage and embrace them.

I often hear “My religious faith is so important to me that I don’t understand how people talk about being 'spiritual.'” Or else they dismiss their kids or grandkids with, “Spiritual-but-not-religious just sounds like a cop-out; it’s wishy-washy to me.” Beneath such responses lie a gulf of misunderstanding that can be bridged.

The Pew Research Organization reveals that the “Nones” – those who self-identify as having no religious affiliation – now represent twenty percent of the population. For those under 30, it is thirty percent. Pew data consistently shows an upward curve in the number of people in the United States who are None. It is time to engage with them.

Among these 46 million Americans, two-thirds believe in God or a Higher Power, and half report that their spirituality is affected by a connection to nature and the earth. The Nones are shaped by their rejection of organized religion’s focus on what they describe as money, power, rules, and an over abundance of politics.

Engage and embrace them with simple steps that require two things of you:  the capacity to listen attentively and remaining compassionate in your conversation. Rigid posturing or anything perceived as proselytizing will serve to only deepen the divide.  Your authentic curiosity offers the possibility of new connection between you. Here are four practical steps to engage and embrace your family members:

1. Ask about a spiritual experience that has shaped their life. You are likely to hear about the importance of yoga or meditation, the experience of awe revealed in nature, or the search for leading a life in which spirituality and authenticity co-exist. The responses will reveal a life that has been expanded and transformed by participating in something bigger than them. Be willing to reflect on an experience from your own life that speaks to similar truth or revelation about your experiences of awe or a surprising experience that placed your life in the context of the sacred.

2. Engage in conversation about the importance of love and compassion. Avoid the language of religious dogma or rules unless you wish to end the conversation.

Many of the Nones view religious organizations as sidelining the central importance of compassion and love, ceding it to doctrinal purity or judgment. They place great importance on aligning acts and words about love and compassion. Most None’ are not looking for institutional based experiences but those that reveal a capacity to be generous, forgiving and responsiveness. As you talk with one another, allow yourself to be present to the conversation; in your attentiveness be willing to share your own stories of experiencing love and compassion.

3. Express your own doubts or questions about religion. Not because you intend to abandon your religion or faith but because doubt is a common shared human experience. Talking about your doubt reveals your authenticity and invites conversation. As you describe the new insights and faith practices that doubt has led you to a new landscape of connection becomes possible. Be prepared for your spiritual—but not religious — family member to draw on spiritual wisdom and practices from a variety of traditions. Be aware of how they might connect with a practice from your own religious faith.

4. Invite a conversation about how spiritual values shape your respective lives. Defensive rigidity will not enhance the conversation! The spiritual-but-not-religious, and particularly those under 35, tend to have close non-sexual friendships with persons of the opposite gender, friends from diverse religious, racial and cultural heritages and those of sexual orientations that differ from theirs. 

Their spiritual values are typically inclusive and expansive. It is an enlivening way of being human to them. While they don’t necessarily expect you to fully embrace their spiritual values they will be drawn to your authentic stories of how you integrate your spiritual values with the choices you make.

In each of these four steps, be willing to engage in stories that have shaped or changed you; those that have presented an invitation to see beyond an assumed belief or view. In your stories and those of your family member a shared connecting ground will be discovered. Approach each conversation with curiosity and a willing to engage.

These four steps are usually not reserved for just one conversation, but are an opening to understanding and embracing one another. Beyond dismissing, judging or writing off the spiritual-but-not-religious each conversation will reveal a new appreciation for the depth and joy of your respective experiences of spirituality and religious faith.

In the spirit of the four steps a new tenderness, compassion and love will be discovered in your embrace of one another.

Robert V. Taylor is president of the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation in New York City which works to democratize peacemaking for a new generation of young leaders.  He is the author of A New Way to Be Human: 7 Spiritual Pathways to Becoming Fully Alive (New Page Books 2012). He lives in Seattle and on a farm in rural Eastern Washington.