Sunday, June 6, 2010

SBNR After a Trauma has an article today about people who consider themselves "Spiritual But Not Religious,"  also known as SBNR.  According to this piece, over 70% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 consider themselves to be more spiritual than religious.  This has various organized religious institutions worried for reasons ranging from the practical -- people who are SBNR don't join organized religious institutions -- to the moral -- some are concerned that if all that matters is your personal relationship with God, you have no reason to be altruistic. 

I have a different concern, or at least a question:  What happens to people who are SBNR when they are exposed to traumatic incidents?  Make no mistake about it -- early crisis response has everything to do with religion.  While we definitely don't push any particular religion in CISM practice, religion can be an important topic.  One of the common reactions people have to traumatic stress is to experience a crisis of faith.  When something awful happens, they wonder how God could let it happen.  On the other hand, some people find the opposite -- that their faith helps them through a difficult time.

So what happens if somebody doesn't have religious beliefs at all?  On the one hand, they don't experience a crisis of faith, so they get to avoid that sense of disequilibrium.  They had no expectations that God would prevent bad things from happening in the first place, so it doesn't throw them off, at least in that way, when something happens.  At the same time, they don't have the comfort of being able to turn to their faith in a crisis, believing (or knowing) that God will take care of them.

There is another important role that religion plays in recovering from a traumatic event, however.  People who have experienced a critical incident need a lot of support.  Isolation is a serious risk factor for mental health problems and for suicide.  People need to be part of a community.  Religious congregations, for many people, provide that community.  In fact, when we train CISM responders to know the difference between typical reactions to serious events and those that are possible warning signs of significant problems, cessation of religious activity is on the latter list, because it represents people withdrawing from their support system.

So what about these SBNR folks?  What happens to them following a traumatic incident?  Obviously, there's no one answer to that.  What I will say, though, is that religion is not actually the key issue here, nor is spirituality.  What is key is community.  So, if people who consider themselves SBNR are part of a community -- whether it is other SBNR people, or a softball team or a community center, they get many of the same benefits that someone who is active in their church gets after an incident.  If, on the other hand, being SBNR means that they are spending less time with and have less connection to other people, they will have one less resource to help them when something bad happens.

I don't think you need religion, necessarily, to recover from trauma.  I also don't think you need religion to be altruistic.  It just so happens that organized religion comes with a sense of community, which promotes both healing and altruism.  As long as you can get that community some other way, whether you are part of an organized religious group or not is truly a matter of personal faith, not a practical necessity.


Steve Frazee said...

You make an excellent point about community!

People do need people!

As a facilitator for the SBNR community I’m asking some of the very same question you are. We host a Facebook page for SBNR people at that creates a virtual community, but our Facebook page, and soon to be launched website ( only partially meets the need for spiritual community. How then do SBNR people meet their need for in person community? The answer is that they do it in many ways….through family, friends, shared interests and community service.

I think it is becoming more and more obvious that the ultimate community is the community of humanity. While I’m SBNR, I make my self available to my religions neighbors in their times of need. I do my best to fill the physical or psychological needs they have, knowing that I may not be able to connect with their devout religious perspective. That’s OK, other people local and virtually can do that for them. There’s no need to segregate ourselves by spiritually. Let’s live compassionately in our families, local communities, countries and as a species.

You say in reference to SBNR people, “they don’t have the comfort of being able to turn their faith in a crisis, believing (or knowing) that God will take care of them. I think you are missing the mark here. While SBNR people have vastly different beliefs, many believe there is an order to the Universe and that God is compassionate and loving. In times of crisis the SBNR worldview can be very comforting. My wife works people dealing with various traumatic events. She's a fan of Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques (MBSR) which are used clinically to help people recover from trauma.

Steve Frazee
Executive Director

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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