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Mark Buchanan

We're All Syncretists Now

Not religious, just spiritual.

Allan Petersen, in The Myth of the Greener Grass, tells the story of a group of a dozen married women having lunch together. One woman asked, "How many of you have been faithful to your husbands throughout your marriage?" Only one woman out of the twelve raised her hand. At home that evening, one of the women who didn't raise her hand told her husband about the lunch, the question, her reaction. "But," she quickly added, "I have been faithful."

"Then why didn't you raise your hand?"

"I was ashamed."

I was reminded of that while reading Wade Clark Roof's new book, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Only, the question around the table isn't, "How many of you have been faithful to your husbands?" The question is, "How many of you would call yourselves religious?" According to Roof's research, a very small percentage of Americans would raise their hands—not because many don't attend religious services and engage in religious practices on a regular basis, but because they're ashamed. Very few Americans consider themselves "religious" anymore. No, as everyone from New Age aficionados to born-again charismatics to mainstream, middle-American believers are quick to point out, "I'm not religious—I'm spiritual." This is the new watchword, the shibboleth at the river-crossing between generations, that marks baby boomers from their forebears.

But what does it mean, spiritual? That's what Roof has set out to ask and to answer: to track, capture, and name the current varieties of religious— or spiritual—experience in America. What he's come up with is a kind of metaphysical seed-catalog, a bewildering array of groups and sub-groups, beliefs and opinions, views and world-views, much of it mixed and matched. At the same time his book is a kind of sociological taxonomy, an attempt to sift, sort, and narrow down the field of spiritual types into a few basic species. Roof comes up with five: Secularists, those who forswear religion ...

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